Commentary

Capps, Kalitta hope to build on hot starts

Updated: February 20, 2009, 5:55 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

For two drivers in different classes of NHRA Drag Racing, Ron Capps and Doug Kalitta have a lot in common. They were born exactly nine months apart, and both have enjoyed sparkling careers lasting more than a decade.

Neither has won a championship, but they've been on the doorstep with three runner-up finishes each. With 55 race wins between them, Capps and Kalitta have had plenty of successful weekends and are on most drivers' short lists of foes they would rather not see in the other lane.

Arizona Nationals

On ESPN2: Qualifying, midnight ET Saturday; Eliminations, 7 p.m. ET Sunday.

On ESPN360.com: Eliminations, 2-8:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Defending champions: Larry Dixon (TF), Jack Beckman (FC), V Gaines (PS).

Of note: Ahhh, clear skies are forecast all weekend for Firebird International Raceway, meaning teams won't suffer through abbreviated qualifying and three-day eliminations like the season opener at Pomona, Calif. … The opener went off without Dixon, but don't expect another DNQ from ballyhooed Al-Anabi Racing's Top Fuel team. … Last year's top two in Funny Car, Cruz Pedregon and Tim Wilkerson, were nonfactors at Pomona with a first-round loss and a DNQ, respectively. … Talk about an early show of strength from Pro Stock's Summit Racing Equipment duo: Jason Line won last week while Greg Anderson laid down a national-record ET of 6.528 seconds in eliminations. … Pro Stock Motorcycle's season begins next month at Gainesville, Fla.

-- John Schwarb

Yet both didn't have anything to celebrate during their frustratingly winless 2008 campaigns, which made it all the more sweeter for both to triumph two weeks ago in the '09 season-opening Winternationals, the NHRA's first event under the Full Throttle banner.

It was an unusual Tuesday finish for the series, but it shouldn't have been too strange to see Capps and Kalitta holding Wallys. Neither forgot how to win, they just went on a hiatus, if you will.

"We really never went to a race thinking that we couldn't win, it just didn't seem to work out," said Kalitta, who pilots a Top Fuel dragster for his legendary uncle, Connie Kalitta. "You go to the next race, you shake it off and say, 'We're going to win,' then you get to the end of the year and say, '[Shoot], we didn't get a win.'

"You just have to be appreciative of when you've really got a team that's clicking, sometimes good things will happen."

Capps had the team, but it took nearly a whole season for anything good to come out of 2008. He and Hall of Fame tuner Ed "Ace" McCulloch never want for anything in terms of resources at Don Schumacher Racing, but last year they struggled mightily with the new extra weight requirements in the Funny Car class. The team failed to win a round in the season's first four races, and though the NAPA car qualified for the Countdown to 1, Capps never threatened to run down a fourth consecutive top-5 points finish and ended up eighth in the standings.

After every race he would return to his Carlsbad, Calif., home, watch the race replays and wonder where the problems were, or if he was the problem.

"It may not have looked that way on the outside, but I struggled bad as a driver," Capps said. "I'm going up to the Christmas Tree and looking at it differently than the previous nine years. The car was struggling a little bit, trying to find stable ground, and I'm trying to make up for it as a driver and you can't make up for it at the tree."

McCulloch went back to the drawing board at season's end and found a tune that finally launched their Dodge Charger, and at the Auto Club Finals last November, Capps ran a 4.087-second elapsed time, the lowest of eliminations, in losing the final round to class champion Cruz Pedregon. It was a positive sign that eventually carried over to the Winternationals, but at the time Capps was mentally exhausted.

"I was so ready for it to be over. Getting to the final was exciting, but that [season] ruined me for quite a while," said Capps, 43, who was last winless in 2004. "When you're fighting for eighth and ninth in points, and you're fighting for seventh, it's a ridiculous feeling. And you only want one more spot so you can tell your sponsor you were seventh instead of eighth. That will wear on you much more than all that pressure, you would think, of being a guy that's second fighting for first."

But, Capps said, it's also a supreme motivator for a new season, and at Pomona the NAPA team repeatedly dropped the hammer on the field, posting the low ET in each round en route to Capps' 26th career win.

[+] EnlargeConnie Kalitta/Doug Kalitta
Courtesy NHRAIt was an emotional victory at Pomona for owner Connie Kalitta, left, and Doug Kalitta.

The only time Capps needed refocusing was before the final pair, as he was momentarily distracted with emotion at watching Kalitta's team celebrate its victory (Top Fuel ran its final before Funny Car, a rare occurrence). Team Kalitta raced with heavy hearts over the second half of last season following the death of Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta, Connie's son and Doug's cousin, in June at Englishtown, N.J.

Doug Kalitta, 44, also qualified for the championship chase in the Mac Tools dragster, but his only final-round appearance of the year was at the U.S. Nationals, where he lost to rival Tony Schumacher. It was his first winless season in his 11-year career.

"It was a year that I hope we don't have to duplicate anytime soon, just going out first-round a lot, not qualifying too good," Kalitta said. "But we were all out there, through thick and thin."

At the Winternationals, Kalitta arrived with much of Hillary Will's team from last year and crew chief Jim Oberhofer.

They were all familiar faces and there wasn't any feeling-out time on the track, as Kalitta sprinted away with his 31st national win.

The buildup to the opener in Top Fuel surrounded Schumacher and Larry Dixon, expected to embark on a new rivalry with former Schumacher tuner Alan Johnson taking over a new team and hiring Dixon. But for one week it was instead Kalitta as the headliner, a role he wouldn't mind reprising a few more times this season.

"Obviously, Tony and Larry are going to be strong all year, but I'm confident we can run with them," Kalitta said. "We can try to make their lives miserable."

The only area where the similarities between Capps and Kalitta end so far this season is in sponsorship. Capps has one of the best in the series in NAPA, whose activation includes frequent commercials with Capps and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Michael Waltrip.

Kalitta, on the other hand, has a less secure future with a dragster that is shopping for primary sponsorship. Connie Kalitta's 50th season in the sport will be commemorated on the car with special decaling, but what the team really wants is a sponsor name blanketed around the frame.

"I have a feeling we'll probably make it to all [the races], but it's hard to say for sure," Kalitta said. "We don't need a lot of extra support depending on what we're doing."

If the Winternationals served as a preview of what they're doing, Kalitta's not going anywhere. And maybe he and Capps aren't done celebrating together.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

ALSO SEE