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With the Kalittas, It's All in the Family

SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

January 30, 1998|SHAV GLICK

For as long as there has been drag racing on the old Fairgrounds track at Pomona, there has been a Kalitta there.

Connie Kalitta, racing's original "Bounty Hunter," chased Don "Big Daddy" Garlits across the finish line in the 1963 Winternationals when races were won in 8.26 seconds at 186.32 mph. Four years later, his one good eye focused on the blinking lights of the Christmas tree they used back then to start races, Kalitta drove his Ford dragster to victory in 7.17 seconds at 218.43 mph.

For years, he kept coming back, sometimes as a driver and for five years as crew chief for three-time world champion Shirley Muldowney. After he and Muldowney split up, Kalitta returned to the cockpit and at the 1989 Winternationals became the first driver to exceed 290 mph with a pass of 291.54.

Before Kalitta was through, along came his son, Scott, who wasted no time in making his mark. Although he never won at Pomona, Scott Kalitta won two world championships in top fuel, in 1994 and 1995. He did reach the finals at Pomona twice, losing to Eddie Hill in the 1995 Winternationals and to Joe Amato in the 1996 Winston Finals.

Last year, after Scott announced his retirement and Connie said he was going to sit out the 1998 season to concentrate on the merger of his American International Airways and Kitty Hawk, the torch was handed to Doug Kalitta, Scott's cousin and Connie's nephew.

Doug, 33, has never been in a drag race. He has been an oval track driver, winning the U.S. Auto Club sprint car championship in 1994 and racing last year in sprint cars and midgets. In 1991, when he was USAC rookie of the year in midgets, he drove in the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Saugus Speedway.

During his USAC career, Doug won 14 midget and seven sprint car races.

"Getting the opportunity to drive the family car when Scott retired was something I couldn't pass up," Doug said as he prepared to qualify Thursday in the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals at the Pomona Raceway. "I worked on my Uncle Connie's crew for seven years [1982-1989] and got a taste for drag racing, but then I went off and raced on ovals. Even then, I always hoped the day would come when I could get into a dragster.

"I'm really lucky to take over Scott's car and pretty much his whole crew, even [crew chief] Ed McCulloch. They know how to win, and Connie's helping me too, so I don't know why we shouldn't be going for the championship."

After taking the course at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School last December, Doug was impressive in getting his license, running 315 mph in 4.69 seconds at Firebird Raceway two weekends ago.

Like Connie and Scott, Doug Kalitta earns his living in the air cargo business. He is vice president of AIA's Central and South American operations. Connie is president. Scott is president and owner of Trans Continental Airlines.

RICKY GRAHAM, 1958-1998

If ever an athlete's career was star-crossed, it was Ricky Graham's.

One of the finest dirt-track riders to twist the throttle of a high-spirited, 750cc motorcycle, the three-time AMA Grand National champion was found dead after a fire had swept his home on Jan. 22. He was 39.

A career marked by promise, success, alcoholic despair and then success again ended in the living room of his rural home in the village of Spreckles, south of Salinas. Investigators from the Salinas Rural Fire Department estimated the fire started at 10 p.m., possibly from a pot left on a stove. Graham died of burns and smoke inhalation.

He burst onto the motorcycle scene in 1978 as a rookie from Salinas riding in a half-mile national at Ascot Park. He won his first race in 1980, the Indy mile, and then won the national championship on a Harley-Davidson after a tense battle with veteran Jay Springsteen in 1982.

He moved to Honda for a factory ride and won a second championship in 1984 by a single point over Bubba Shobert. That was followed by five years of failure, caused in part by arrests for drinking. Honda also dropped him.

"I lost more than my ride, I lost my zest for racing," he said at the time. "I partied a lot and I gained a lot of weight. I was fat, so fat that when I tried on a pair of my No. 1 leathers I couldn't zip them up."

In 1993, free of the alcohol problem and reunited with tuner Johnny Goad, Graham made one of racing's most remarkable comebacks. He won a third championship and set records for most Grand National wins in a single season, 12; most consecutive wins, six; most single-season half-mile wins, seven; and the longest time span between championships, nine years.

Then came another disaster. On Feb. 21, 1995, he was riding his cycle on a road near his home when he slid on some gravel, fell and cracked his skull. Doctors said he would never ride again.

They didn't know what a fighter Graham was. After sitting out the 1995 season, he was back in 1996, strong enough to finish third in the Pomona half-mile, and he raced a full season last year.

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