Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – POMONA, CA – If there’s been a constant in recent NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series history, it’s veteran Doug Kalitta performing well at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona to open the year. The longtime Top Fuel standout has advanced to four straight finals at the NHRA opener and won the past two, and Kalitta is eager to keep that streak going.
He’ll look to make it three straight wins at the annual iconic opener, as Kalitta and the rest of the NHRA stars open the 2020 season with this weekend’s 60th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com. It’s a race – as well as a track – that has been good to Kalitta and his 11,000-horsepower Mac Tools Toyota dragster lately, as he swept both Pomona races a year ago. That included the finale to close out 2019 strong, and Kalitta hopes to maintain that momentum while seeking a fifth straight final at the season-opening event.
“The big wins from the end of last year, the U.S. Nationals and the Auto Club Finals, made the off-season easier,” Kalitta said. “We are really focused on winning the championship and that is where we put a lot of attention. I know the team worked hard and we are excited to get back to the track. My confidence level is very high. This Mac Tools team is on a streak at Pomona and we want to keep winning there. We focus on the little things all the time and I think that shows at the start of the season. We really work on staying sharp over the off-season and getting the most out of pre-season testing. I love racing in Pomona and the fans are always awesome.”
Kalitta (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage beginning at 5 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 9. It is the first of 24 events during the 2020 NHRA season and Kalitta is fueled by last year’s strong performance that included three wins and a runner-up finish in points.
He finished a mere three points behind back-to-back Top Fuel world champ Steve Torrence in a battle that went down to the wire, leaving a world title as the main goal for 2020. Kalitta’s 47 career wins are the most in NHRA history for a driver without a championship, a narrative the ultra-successful driver would like to put to rest in 2020.
“For me I just focus on doing my job and blocking out the distractions,” Kalitta said. “The season is a marathon and I just really take it one race at a time. We’re just hoping to be running up front the whole season. We need to start off strong, and we’ll try to go back to Pomona and pick up where we left off. Qualifying is one of the things that we’re going to be focusing on this year. Usually on race day, we’re consistently good, so qualifying a little bit better will help us be there at the end again this year. The points you gain in qualifying can make a big difference in the point standings.”
Every point is needed in the loaded Top Fuel class, and Kalitta will have to get by the likes of Torrence, Brittany Force, Leah Pruett, Terry McMillen, Clay Millican and Antron Brown in Pomona. It’s a tall task, but he has the benefit of a standout Kalitta Motorsports team. Former Top Fuel world champ Shawn Langdon is back in the class after a brief time in Funny Car, while J.R. Todd has a championship under his belt in Funny Car. Combined, it has Kalitta, who is led by crew chiefs Troy Fasching and Rob Flynn, optimistic for 2020.
“This Kalitta team is very strong,” Kalitta said. “I am looking forward to seeing Shawn back in a Top Fuel dragster for sure. He has had a lot of success and matching him up with (team owner) Connie (Kalitta) and (assistant crew chief) Kurt (Elliot) will be exciting. J.R. will be great in the DHL Toyota Funny Car. These guys are great teammates and we do a lot of talking in the pits. We are going to come out of the box strong in Pomona.”
Defending Funny Car world champ Robert Hight has enjoyed tremendous success at his home track, as the Southern California native won for the fifth time at Pomona at the season-opener a year ago. His year ended with a third world title and will look to open 2020 with a win facing off with the likes of Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, John Force, 2018 world champ J.R. Todd and Jack Beckman.
The 60th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com marks the kickoff of the 50th anniversary celebration of Pro Stock, and class legends, as well as special nostalgia Pro Stock cars, will be on hand for the marquee event. Bo Butner will try to make it three straight event wins against the likes of defending world champ Erica Enders, Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Alex Laughlin, Deric Kramer and Jeg Coughlin Jr.
To celebrate the 60th annual Winternationals event, NHRA Heritage Series Top Fuel and Funny Car machines will be on site and making exhibition runs throughout the weekend. Additionally, the Little Red Fire Truck Wheelstander will be performing with special passes during the event. Fans at the Winternationals will get to launch the yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of Pro Stock, highlighting Pro Stock milestones and seeing special nostalgia Pro Stock cars hit tThe event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Auto Club Raceway at Pomona will also host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their victories.
Along with the exciting on-track action, the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com will honor first responders with NHRA’s “Salute to First Responders” celebration.
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 12:1500 p.m. and 2:4530 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 7, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 12:001 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9.