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Doug Kalitta Opens Top Fuel Title Defense         

Doug Kalitta, defending champion. That has a nice ring to it. The veteran racer, for the first time in his career, enters the season with the No. 1 on his car as the defending NHRA Top Fuel champion. The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing season opens this weekend at the Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals set for March 8-10, 2024.

Kalitta won the 2024 title when he won the In ‘n Out Burger NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., last November. It was his third win of the six-race Countdown to the Championship NHRA Playoffs, and the entire season came down to the final round of the final race. When it was all over, Kalitta was the champion.

“It’s kinda nice,” the three-time Gatornationals winner said. “Obviously, a lot of people are proud we pulled this (championship) off, and it’ll be fun to see the fans at all the places we go and have some fun being the champ coming in. After our (pre-season) testing, I think our Mac Tools car is running well so we’re feeling confident coming into the season.

“We’re hoping to pick up where we left off (last season). That’s what I’m thinking. Fortunately, with all the changes we made on both our dragsters, Alan (crew chief Alan Johnson) is definitely the right guy for the job in tuning these things so we’re fortunate to have him so we can keep our momentum going. The main thing is to have fun and take care of business.”

In the off season, Brian Husen, the Mac Tools team assistant crew chief, was promoted to crew chief of Shawn Langdon’s Kalitta Air Careers Toyota team. Longtime Team Kalitta crew member, Mac Savage, who left the team after the 2015 season, is back as Johnson’s assistant crew chief.  

“We hated to lose Brian on the Mac Tools team, but he’s very deserving of the opportunity to run his own car,” Kalitta added. “His relationship with Alan really makes him the perfect guy to run that car and be able to pick Alan’s brain and work together. We want to get both these cars running towards the front and staying there. We’re putting a big focus on making sure we can learn from one another having two cars similar enough to take advantage of having two cars.

“I’m super excited to have Mac Savage back; he was on my car for a number of years, and he’s a elluva mechanic. I’m sure he and Alan will work together really well so I don’t think we’ll miss a lick with Brian moving over to run the Kalitta Air Careers car. I’m super excited to have the opportunity to work with Shawn again, too.”

While the ultimate goal is to repeat as champion this season, in-season goals are attainable more quickly starting with this weekend’s $130,000 Pep Boys All-Star Callout specialty race for which Kalitta is seeded second among the eight eligible drivers. Kallita’s average qualifying position last season was second best in Top Fuel, and that distinction earned his place in the field.

During the event news conference on Saturday, March 9, opening pairings will be determined when the four higher-seeded drivers “call out” their opponents. As the second seed, Kalitta will be the second to call out his opponent. After the first round during Saturday’s first qualifying round, the driver with the lowest elapsed time of the four remaining drivers will “call out” his or her semifinal opponent with the semifinals contested during Saturday’s final qualifying round. The two remaining drivers will race for the title and its $80,000 prize in a special pairing late Saturday afternoon. The question for the 52-time race winner is which driver to call out as his opponent.

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 “They’re all tough,” Kalitta said. “I think the biggest thing will be to see how everybody’s running up until you have to make that decision. No matter who we pick, it’s gonna be a tough opponent. It’ll be interesting with the eight-car format and a lot of money up for grabs, that’s for sure. Thanks to Pep Boys for putting this thing on for us again this year.

“I’m super excited to get this thing going again, and all my guys are super excited. We’ve already tested and plan to test again this week if the conditions are what we need. Starting at the Gators in Florida is a fan favorite. It’s always good to race in Florida down in Don Garlits country – he’s pretty much the man for Florida drag racing.”

But before qualifying opens Friday, the sport will pause for inductions into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame Thursday night. Kalitta’s late cousin, two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Scott Kalitta who died in a 2008 racing accident, will be inducted.

“We’re really looking forward to that,” Kalitta said. “I think we have three tables so 30 of us will be there to honor Scott and have some fun with it. It’ll be interesting to see the whole thing; I’ve heard a lot about what they do with the inductions. Some very deserving people are being inducted so it’ll be fun to sit there and kind of hang out. Scott has a lot of history with Don Garlits growing up with Connie and Don racing together when Scott was kicking around. It should be pretty special for Don as well. Scott would definitely be proud to be in there so I’m glad, however the voting happened, that he ended up with this opportunity.”

This story was originally published on March 7, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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