Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – CHANDLER, AZ – Doug Kalitta matched last year’s quick start by winning the first race of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season for a second straight year, this one coming with a final-round win against defending Top Fuel world champ Steve Torrence.
But unlike what transpired last year when the opening-season win at Pomona marked Kalitta’s only win of 2018, the Top Fuel veteran hopes this early triumph translates into plenty of long-term success.
Kalitta will get that chance at this weekend’s 35th annual Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where the 45-time event winner hopes to build on his Pomona victory in his 10,000-horsepower Mac Tools dragster. A strong off-season has Kalitta excited for 2019, something that was already evident in Pomona and could continue this weekend in Phoenix, where Kalitta looked impressive during preseason testing earlier this month.
“Our guys have been very meticulous during the off-season,” Kalitta said. “Everyone has been very positive and have been working together really well. Everyone on the team wants to win and we were really hungry for (Pomona). It was definitely great to be back behind the wheel in testing (in Phoenix). I’m looking for big things this year for our Mac Tools team. The guys have worked hard.”
Torrence (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Chris McGaha (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will once again be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including live finals coverage starting at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 24. It is the second of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA season and Kalitta, who finished eighth in points a year ago, wants to build on the Pomona success as the longtime standout continues to seek his first career world championship.
Kalitta reached five final rounds a year ago, but only had the ultimate success at the opener in Pomona, a trend he hopes to change in 2019. After posting holeshot victories over the final three rounds this year, Kalitta, who has always been highly-regarded for his driving skills, appears to be in top form. It included handing Steve Torrence his first loss since last September, snapping his 27-round win streak, which should also build the confidence of the Kalitta Motorsports team.
“Steve and that group, they’re bad to the bone,” Kalitta said. “We were real fortunate to get by them. Hopefully we’ll keep at it. My guys are working hard on this thing. We’re real hungry. We’ve got (crew chiefs) Rob (Flynn) and Troy (Fasching), and they’re just doing an awesome job. I’m real proud of them. It was really nice just to go rounds. In the Countdown to end last year, all we were getting is one or two rounds, so to start going rounds today really helped the team’s morale.”
To keep those positive vibes going in Phoenix, Kalitta will again have to contend with the likes of Torrence, who is the defending event winner, three-time world champ Antron Brown, Clay Millican, Leah Pritchett, Terry McMillen and 2017 world champ Brittany Force. But coming off of teammate J.R. Todd’s championship run in Funny Car a year ago, Kalitta, who has one career win in Phoenix, feels like the entire organization is in a good place to open the 2019 campaign.
“Obviously anytime you win a championship with any of your teams, it’s an incredible end of the year and there was a lot of camaraderie and everybody pulling together,” Kalitta said. “Everything has been real positive and everyone has been working together well. I’m real proud of the guys and everyone is working well together.”
In Funny Car, 2017 world champ Robert Hight got off to a hot start with his victory at Pomona and he’ll look to keep that momentum going against defending world champ Todd, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, John Force, Jack Beckman and Shawn Langdon.
Pro Stock’s Chris McGaha earned his first Phoenix win a year ago, knocking off Jason Line in the final round. McGaha will look to continue that success against Pomona winner Bo Butner, two-time world champ Erica Enders, Alex Laughlin, Greg Anderson and Jeg Coughlin Jr.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills.
Those in attendance will also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with some of the biggest names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This includes meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 23, also at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24.