The Bounty Hunter Still Riding Hard

February 11, 2016

Connie Kalitta’s 1962 Top Gas Dragster carried an Old West style “Wanted” list of drivers he intended to defeat. As he topped each he drew a line through their names, earning him the nickname “The Bounty Hunter”. Kalitta’s ’62 Logghe chassis dragster was faithfully replicated here, and is now a nostalgia event and car show favorite.

Story by Jim Hill

If he’s not the oldest tuner and team owner at this weekend’s NHRA Winternationals, he’s close. 78 year old Conrad Kalitta, alias “The Bounty Hunter” continues to field a stable of nitro burning, ground-pounding, 300+ mph dragsters and Funny Cars. Connie Kalitta’s amazing career in drag racing now spans seven decades, including running an improbable looking dragster at the First NHRA/NASCAR Winter Nationals, in 1960, down near Daytona, at Bunnell, Florida.

A former World Champion as a driver and crew chief, Connie Kalitta has also guided nephew Doug Kalitta and his late son, Scott Kalitta, to world titles. The cars of Kalitta Flying Services’ racing headquarters, in Ypsilanti, MI, continue to maintain a sharply competitive edge.

Kalitta’s life story reads a lot like a movie script. In fact, a sizeable part of his life appeared in the feature film “Heart Like A Wheel”, where Beau Bridges portrayed the irascible Kalitta and Bonnie Bedelia the lead as Shirley Muldowney. Of course, movies are mere reflections of life, and often movies deliver the true story with a lot of artistic license, and fuzzy interpretation. Kalitta was instrumental in priming the Funny Car career of Shirley Muldowney. The pair’s colorful personal relationship and later racing rivalry was often red-hot, even leading to fisticuffs among the two rival race crews!

In spite of the movie’s portrayal of Kalitta’s often excitable personality, his career as a race driver, crew chief, businessman and drag racing personality has been nothing short of amazing.

Connie Kalitta was one of the first to use the 427 SOHC Ford in a AA/Fuel Dragster. Here, at the 1967 NHRA Nationals he prepares to push back to the pits after a run at IRP. Kalitta is standing just behind the engine wearing a well-oiled t-shirt. A Ford pick-up served as the Team Kalitta transporter in the days before 18-wheel semis! 

Kalitta’s early life was spent in the Detroit area, mainly in its northeast suburban area, in and around Mt. Clemens. From an early age he liked tinkering with anything mechanical, graduating from bicycles to motorcycles and then to hot rodder cars.

By the time he was 22 Kalitta had built a homemade dragster, and ran it at the first Winter Nationals, in 1960, at Bunnell, Florida. During the 60’s Kalitta moved steadily up the ranks, first as a Top Gas Dragster driver and then in Top Fuel. He then moved into Funny Cars when match racing Funnies became lucrative. Since then he’s owned, built, tuned and driven his own cars and then graduated into the role of crew chief and then team owner.

Kalitta somehow made it past the tech inspectors at the First NHRA/NASCAR Winter Nationals in February, 1960. This no-frills, homebuilt dragster used a 283 Chevy with six carburetors. Within two years Kalitta had a modern, full-bodied, Logghe chassis dragster that ran consistent 180 mph times in Top Gas Eliminator.

It was in Top Gas that Kalitta’s “Bounty Hunter” name was coined. He painted a list of drivers he vowed to defeat with a large “Wanted” at the top. As he beat each one on the list he crossed-off the name, earning the name “Bounty Hunter”. Corporate sponsor names and logos now adorn his team race cars, but Kalitta will forever be known by his early-on title.

In the early days Kalitta funded his racing out of his own pocket. That was possible due in part to his earliest venture into the airline business. Kalitta Flying Services was begun not with a fleet of ocean-hopping jet liners, but a modest Cessna 310. With that airplane Kalitta began flying small quantities of parts to auto plants in danger of shutting down assembly lines due to missing parts. Kalitta specialized in “no matter what” service. His flying ability and determination avoided production interruptions and the loss of millions of dollars. A second airplane, and then others were added until Kalitta had amassed a small yet busy air fleet.

Kalitta Air’s fleet includes several Boeing B-747’s such as this, in Kalitta’s familiar red and gold livery. Kalitta started hauling parts to auto assembly plants in 1967, flying a well-used Cessna 310. He grew his one-man air service into one of the world’s largest air cargo operations while continuing to race in Top Fuel and Funny Car.

That humble beginning grew until Kalitta’s operations became one of the world’s largest air cargo carriers and charter airlines. Kalitta’s air fleet has included Boeing 747, 727, Douglas DC-8, McDonnel-Douglas MD-11, Lockheed L-1011, Beechcraft and Lear aircraft in service around the globe. Kalitta himself is certified to fly any of the aircraft he owns.

Another facet of the Kalitta Story is the fact that Kalitta was a fully licensed pilot, with multi-engine and instrument certifications while being handicapped with just one functional eye! A childhood accident resulted in that early loss, but it never hampered Kalitta from driving race cars, or piloting jets of all persuasions.

Amazingly, the 78 year old Kalitta maintains a busy daily schedule as CEO of Kalitta Air and several charter and cargo airline operations. Among those operations are Kalitta Charters, Kalitta Cargo, Kalitta MedFlight, Kalitta Passenger, and Kalitta Maintenance.

His hands-on abilities are also legend. A few short years ago a would-be airplane hijacker threatened one of his air crews. Kalitta took charge, disarmed the knife wielding criminal and then proceeded to physically pummel him into submission, ending the one-man crime spree and sending the culprit to the hospital!

Kalitta’s air cargo services were key to lifting tens of thousands of tons of munitions and supplies in both Desert Storm and later Desert Shield wars. He was decorated by President Bush for his support of those actions. He continues to be a prime mover of U.S. Mail for the Postal Service.

One of his more unique operations involve aircraft specially modified to serve as air transports for multi-million dollar thoroughbred race horses and other high-value livestock.

By the late 60’s Kalitta was wheeling a Mustang Funny Car, still with a Logghe chassis. Big fuel tanks and cornfields in background say this is Indy Raceway Park, during The Nationals. Kalitta had switched to a Ford Boss 429 Shotgun Hemi for power. “Bounty Hunter” remains emblazoned on the rear quarter of the fiverglass body.

Despite Connie Kalitta’s amazingly glorious life and career, its darkest day came June 21, 2008. Scott Kalitta, Connie’s son and a World Champion Top Fuel and Funny Car driver, was killed at the NHRA SuperNationals, in Englishtown, New Jersey. Scott’s Funny Car violently exploded an engine and in the ensuing fiery crash he was killed instantly. Scott Kalitta was also a commercial pilot and left behind a wife and small children. Within days NHRA enacted new rules that were a direct result of Scott’s death. These included shortening the 1,320 foot track length to 1,000 feet, ostensibly to provide more driver reaction distance and to reduce the 320+ mph speeds. The rules changes were too late to save one of drag racing’s most popular second-generation drivers.

Still Connie Kalitta continues to move forward. As a racer he has absolutely nothing left to prove. He continues to race on a huge scale because he enjoys it, even with the tragically fatal potential it can present. Connie’s nephew Doug Kalitta gave up a solid driving career in equally dangerous open wheel sprint cars and midgets to take over the Top Fuel driver’s seat. He too is a commercial pilot and family man.

For 2016 the Kalitta racing stables will include: Del Worsham in the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car; J.R. Todd in the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster; Alexis DeJoria in the Patron Tequila Funny Car, and of course, Doug Kalitta driving the MAC Tools Top Fuel dragster.

Odds are that the “Bounty Hunter” stable will indeed collect a few more bounties during the 2016 season, maybe as soon as this weekend, in Pomona.