Commentary

Drag racing mourns death of Funny Car driver for second straight season

Scott Kalitta didn't race Funny Cars as a hobby. It was what drove him. And it ended up costing him his life, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: June 22, 2008, 1:38 AM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. -- He was strong and determined, wearing a name that exemplified the tough and unforgiving attitude drag racing demands from its winners.

Scott Kalitta lost his life in a top-end accident at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park while driving his DHL-sponsored nitro Funny Car on Saturday. The violence of the crash and the stultifying devastation that ended his life at 46 years of age was a sobering shock to the drag-racing world at a time when much is being made about the safety advances that have recently enhanced the level of protection Funny Car drivers can count on.

But beneath the painful realities of the catastrophic accident that claimed Kalitta's life, the sport mourns a racer, a father, a son and a two-time champion who took great pride and satisfaction in the tradition and historical significance the name Kalitta brought to drag racing.

Kalitta's father, Connie Kalitta, was one of the sport's founding fathers in the 1950s and '60s, building and driving an infamous string of front-engined Top Fuel dragsters bearing the name "Bounty Hunter." Connie Kalitta was a no-compromise, no-excuses, no-retreat, hard-nosed competitor who raced to win and did whatever was necessary to accomplish that.

Scott was the mirror of his dad, and there was no better example of his unbreakable will to win than his exceptional performances during his back-to-back Top Fuel title years in 1994 and 1995. With legendary tuner Dick LaHaie guiding his team, Scott was the most feared and respected driver in the class, and veteran NHRA drag racing announcer Bob Frey frequently expressed this opinion to the listening public:

"If I'm in Top Fuel, the one thing I don't want to see is that Kalitta car pulling up in that other lane."

Kalitta took brief sabbaticals from the quarter-mile twice during his racing career when his ownership of a cargo airline and boat marina in Florida demanded his attention. But when he was ready to return to drag racing, he did so with the same energy and fervor that had always marked his competitive urges. Not one to do things half-heartedly, Kalitta didn't pursue drag racing as a frivolous hobby. It was what drove him.

His death took on an even greater tragic dimension because of his father's near-invincible track record in primitive, unsophisticated race cars -- machines that were truly low-tech in their design and safety accommodations. To be sure, the elder Kalitta had more than his share of bumps, bruises and broken bones throughout his five decades behind the wheel, but somehow avoided that one, horrific incident that might have ended his long career.

Yet, it was his son -- aboard what may be one of the safest and technologically advanced racing machines in professional motorsports -- who suffered a fatal mishap without warning, and at least at this point, a logical explanation. And in the end, has anyone ever been able to attach any semblance of rhyme or reason to the mysterious circumstances or convoluted chain of fateful serendipities that frequently accompany the sudden loss of a racing star?

And so we find ourselves for the second consecutive NHRA POWERade season mourning the death of a beloved Funny Car driver. In 2007, it was another second-generation personality, Eric Medlen. Now we must come to grips with the all-too-abrupt passing of Scott Kalitta. But if it were possible to hear from either of these young, courageous racers as we reflect on their losses, their message would be clear and concise and would help to remind us how much they loved the sport and how much it enriched their lives.

"We have no regrets," they would say. "If we had it to do all over again, we would race our cars and we would race to win. Anything less isn't living."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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