5 Minutes with Connie Kalitta
With a racing career spanning more than 60 years and a business empire that’s literally soaring, Connie Kalitta is the epitome of American determination and success. The Michigan-based racer and businessman has an undeniable track record and continues to push forward with drive and determination.
Kalitta came to prominence during drag racing’s Golden Age in the 1960s and ’70s, capturing victories and winning fans as “The Bounty Hunter.” He won 10 NHRA National events from the ’60s through the ’90s, cementing himself as a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame and one of the most recognized and renowned racers to ever run down the strip. Kalitta’s son, the late Scott Kalitta, and nephew Doug Kalitta followed his lead and became racers, too. Kalitta currently owns Kalitta Motorsports and, at age 82, can still be seen helping tune cars in the pits.
Along the way, Kalitta established Kalitta Air, a successful cargo airline with worldwide reach. The company operates dozens of aircraft and made headlines earlier this year when a Kalitta Air 747 was used to fly Canadian citizens back to their home country after being stranded in quarantine on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California.
We caught up with Connie Kalitta recently to talk racing, business, and his reluctance to slow down.
Goodguys Gazette: How does it feel to have Shawn Langdon win Top Fuel at this year’s U.S. Nationals? Does the victory seem different since the season has been so drastically altered by the pandemic?
Connie Kalitta: I don’t think what’s been going on in the world changes much about winning the U.S. Nationals, it’s still the biggest race in the sport. I’m thrilled to have won one as a driver and as a tuner.
GG: What was your very first car?
Kalitta: My first hot rod was a ’57 Chevy, almost identical to the one I’ve got today.
GG: You’ve been involved in racing and flying for decades. Are you a thrill-seeker by nature?
Kalitta: The racing was always where I got a thrill. There’s no sense in going out of your way to catch a thrill in an airplane – that’s when things get ugly.
GG: If you hadn’t gotten into racing or flying, what type of career do you think you would have pursued?
Kalitta: I’m not real sure. I got the racing bug young. Never really thought of doing anything else.
GG: What drew you to flying, and when did you begin flying yourself to races?
Kalitta: Flying was a means to pay for my racing at the time. Flying parts around for Ford is where I got my start, at the same time I was a Ford-backed racing team. We’ve flown to races for 40 years now; Doug does the flying these days.
GG: Which is more difficult – running a cargo airline or a racing team?
Kalitta: Both have their own unique challenges. Having the right people in place at both operations keep things running smooth. I don’t have to step in often, but every once in a while, folks need some “re-training.”
GG: Who have you looked up to in racing and in business? Who have been your mentors?
Kalitta: I guess you could say I always did things my way. My competitors hate that, but it’s what sets me apart from them.
GG: You’ve been extremely successful in both your racing and your business pursuits. Is there a common key to success?
Kalitta: You’ve got to put the right people in place and be confident that they are going to make decisions the same way you would. I’ve got close to 3,000 employees now, I’ve got a lot of respect for what all of them do, and I think it shows in the way they respect what I do.
GG: There have been many racers in your family. Do you think driving a racecar is a skill a person is born with? Or can it be learned?
Kalitta: Driving a dragster is all about seat time and your ability to learn what the car is going to do. Doug is one of the best because he’s driven so long, he knows how the car is going to react to what he does.
GG: Do you own more cars or airplanes?
GG: What’s your daily driver? And what’s the favorite car you currently own?
Kalitta: Toyota sent me over a new all-wheel drive Camry and it’s a really nice piece. When I want to hot rod, I take out my ’57 Chevy.
GG: What’s the most different thing about racing today compared to when you started?
Kalitta: So much has changed, I think the way we tune the racecars and the technology that’s in the cars today is the biggest difference.
GG: What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
Kalitta: I’ve got some nice airplanes, but there’s no sense in wasting money. Almost everything I’ve got is a necessity for the airline or the racing.
GG: You’ve been “on the throttle” your whole life. Do you ever see yourself slowing down and retiring?
Kalitta: No. At my age, if you slow down, you die. I’ve got a lot left to do.