"Read the book," Connie Kalitta had always said. "It will tell you what to do." But now the pages were turning too fast, and the Top Fuel dragster was jerking to the right, heading into the concrete wall, driven by explosive nitromethane and physics gone amok. Kalitta stared at the wall right up to impact. No sense in turning away.
Scott Kalitta was back at the trailer when someone ran up to tell him what had happened to his father. By the time Scott got to the track, paramedics were trying to pull Connie from the cramped cockpit of his crumpled dragster, which was upside down on the guardrail at Houston's Raceway Park. In the stands 25,000 people were on their feet, lead in their stomachs.
Amid the frantic choreography of the paramedics, Scott saw his father upside down. The bluster, bark and fiery independence of a man once described as the last American cowboy were reduced to a whimper. Get-me-out-get-me-out-get-me-out. It's not often that a son sees into a father's heart, and Scott Kalitta gets fewer glimpses than most. "He was almost crying," Scott says of that moment five years ago. "It wasn't him in there."
An ambulance sped Connie to the hospital. His injuries were minor (a broken leg, four broken ribs, a punctured lung and a few dislodged teeth), but Scott, sitting beside him in the ambulance, didn't know that then. "The fact that he is so ornery and could move everything should have told me he was going to pull through," says Scott. "But you don't think rationally when everything's happening. I was scared."
Connie's recollections are succinct. "I went into that wall thinking, '—, this is going to hurt,' " he says with a laugh. "Which it did."
These are happy days in the house of Kalitta. Last year, between father and son, team Kalitta reached the final round in 13 of the 18 National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel events. Scott, now 33, won five of those finals, including a record four straight, and earned Top Fuel's overall title. Connie, now 57, had his best year ever. He beat his son in the final at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.; won again at the Fram Nationals in Atlanta; and then notched the biggest victory of his 38-year career, roaring away from Eddie Hill in the U.S. Nationals final in Indianapolis for his first win in that event. In the semifinals of the Slick 50 Nationals, at the same track where Connie had slammed into the wall, father and son recorded the quickest side-by-side run in NHRA history, Scott nipping Connie at the finish.
Riding back to the pits after that race, Connie jumped up and down inside the van, pumping a fist and waving to the crowd. The father is the son's biggest fan, but the father will never own up to it. Easier to face an onrushing slab of concrete.
Everyone in drag racing knows Connie Kalitta. That is partly a matter of time: Connie has been in the sport since 1957, and as a former competitor says, "I raced Connie in 1968, and he was old then." But it is mostly a matter of charisma. Raconteur, fighter, charmer, self-made man, Connie Kalitta is legend come to life.
The owner of the global-transport company American International Airways, Connie foiled a hijacking attempt by an impeccably dressed knife-wielding nut who demanded a plane at AIA's Ypsilanti, Mich., airstrip in 1989. Connie led him to the craft, and in the cockpit the hijacker grabbed for the throttle. Connie went berserk. His hands were slashed in the ensuing scuffle, but he quickly delivered his bruised assailant to police on the tarmac below.
Connie Kalitta is stubborn and blunt. He is deaf in his left ear after spending so many years around cars and airplanes, and he has been blind in his right eye since it was struck by a piece of metal that had chipped off a chisel he was using when he was 18. With his good eye he assesses his colleagues. The few who measure up to his high standards gain his friendship and respect. The rest are kept at a distance.