Commentary

Arend 'honored' to drive Scott Kalitta's Funny Car at Indy

Kalitta Motorsports will honor the memory of Scott Kalitta by reactivating the DHL Funny Car for the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indy. Driver Jeff Arend just hopes to do the Kalitta family proud, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: August 6, 2008, 7:16 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Scott KalittaCourtesy of NHRAJeff Arend on replacing Scott Kalitta (above): "The DHL Toyota Solara will always be Scott's car."

Gary Scelzi has had to do it. Morgan Lucas has found himself in the same position. Mike Neff knows what it's like to deal with such a situation, as did Bruce Allen. What do those four NHRA POWERade drivers all have in common?

They have each been asked to fill the seat of another drag racer who tragically lost his life on the quarter-mile. And now, Jeff Arend's name has been added to that list.

Jeff Arend

Arend

This past week, Kalitta Motorsports announced that Arend will be joining their team at the 53rd Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend to drive the DHL-sponsored Funny Car of Scott Kalitta, who was killed on June 21 in a top-end accident in Englishtown, N.J. It's just the latest in a familiar series of job opportunities that have been presented to the 45-year-old native of Toronto, Canada, since his NHRA debut in Gainesville, Fla., in 1995.

"Scott's death hit all of us very hard," Arend said. "Scott's loss was even more difficult for me since we were close to each other in age and we both have families. I've gone through all kinds of emotions since being offered the chance to drive his race car, and I'm still sorting them out. You obviously feel honored to be asked, but you can't describe your feelings as happiness in this situation."

Scelzi, Lucas, Neff and Allen at one time or another have confronted the matrix of emotions a driver experiences when replacing a lost racing peer. Scelzi was named as the driver to replace Top Fuel's Blaine Johnson, who was killed at the U.S. Nationals in 1996. Lucas briefly manned the cockpit of the Joe Amato-owned Top Fuel car that had been driven by Darrell Russell, who lost his life in St. Louis in 2004. Neff now drives for John Force Racing in the nitro Mustang that had been piloted by Eric Medlen until his fatal testing mishap in Gainesville last year. And Allen -- now inactive -- was the driver hired by the legendary Reher-Morrison Pro Stock team in 1985 to carry on in place of four-time champion Lee Shepherd, also killed in Gainesville while testing in early '85.

This will always be Scott's car no matter who happens to be driving it, and we're determined to continue racing in Scott's memory. He wanted very much to have a successful and winning Funny Car program, and Jeff is a driver who can help us get there

-- Connie Kalitta

Arend understands the delicate nature of his new challenge.

"The DHL Toyota Solara will always be Scott's car. I just consider myself a new member of the DHL Funny Car team. Right now, my goals are the same as everyone else's, and they are to have a competitive and safe race car that's capable of going rounds and winning races."

Arend has a single NHRA POWERade national event win, which he scored while subbing for the late Al Hofmann in Reading, Pa., in 1996. Arend occasionally picked up one-race driving gigs over the next several seasons before heading the short-lived CMKX-sponsored outfit in 2004. When that team folded, he replaced Frank Pedregon at Del Worsham's Checker Schuck's Kragen operation through the end of 2006, at which time Worsham switched to a single-car roster and Arend once again became a bench player.

The decision to reactivate the DHL Funny Car comes as no real surprise to anyone who knows and appreciates the Kalitta family's passionate dedication to the sport. Scott's father, Connie Kalitta, is one of drag racing's most fabled personalities. He says putting Arend in his son's car made a lot of sense.

"Jeff was someone we felt brought the combination of experience and attitude we thought would be best for the team," Kalitta said. "This will always be Scott's car no matter who happens to be driving it, and we're determined to continue racing in Scott's memory. He wanted very much to have a successful and winning Funny Car program, and Jeff is a driver who can help us get there."

Connie Kalitta's name has long been synonymous with the All-American, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-go-after-it attitude upon which the NHRA was built. Arend feels that his approach and devotion to that ethic makes him a good fit -- along with another character similarity he has in common with the talented racer he will be replacing.

"Scott was a racer who would race you hard but one who always enjoyed life, too," Arend maintained. "He was a great husband and father to his children. For those who know me, I try to emulate those same basic traits. I will do my best to carry on what Scott was best known for -- family."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.