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Town knew Kalitta more as a dad than a racer

The new house, under construction on Snead Island in Palmetto, that Scott Kalitta was to have lived in with wife Kathy and their two sons.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

The new house, under construction on Snead Island in Palmetto, that Scott Kalitta was to have lived in with wife Kathy and their two sons.

Three weeks later, the sadness lingers in Palmetto. The death of drag racing star Scott Kalitta at a track in New Jersey has left so many in the small town just south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge struggling with grief — and reaching out to support Kalitta's wife, Kathy, and sons Corey, 15, and Colin, 8. The horrific June 21 crash that claimed the life of one of the sport's marquee names, from one of its heralded racing families, has already prompted new safeguards from the National Hot Rod Association. But that brings little comfort to friends and family mourning the loss of a man known around Manatee County not as a Top Fuel champ, but a top-flight dad.

When St. Stephen's Episcopal School football coach Matt Kitchie thinks of Kalitta, who died at 46, he doesn't picture the driver's super-charged dragster. He remembers a black Toyota pickup truck, the one Kalitta would pull up in at St. Stephen's so many afternoons to pick up his boys after school.

"His son Corey plays football for us and the first year Scott would be there — he and Kathy prepared pregame meals for the kids," Kitchie said. "I was aware that he was a race car driver, but that's not how I knew him. To me, he was the dad who came to watch his son practice, and later on volunteered to help coach."

Kitchie recalls how Kalitta showed up one day before the 2007 season and offered to lend a hand with the team: "He said to me, 'I don't know anything about football, but I want to help.' " A week went by and Kalitta approached Kitchie, telling him he might not know enough to teach the players correctly.

"I told him, 'I'll teach you everything you need to know about football,' '' Kitchie said. "I need positive male role models in our program. And that's just what he was. A phenomenal role model. The players loved him and really looked up to him. In our society today, people like Scott Kalitta, the father, is what we need more of. The dad that I saw in Scott is the dad I hope I am with my kids."

Michelle Harllee, whose son is in the same St. Stephen's class as Colin, became friends with the Kalittas and has kept in close contact with Kathy.

"I get choked up every time I talk about Scott," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "I know Kathy better than I knew Scott. Of course, traveling took him out of town. But when he was home, he was the dad on the playground and at soccer and football games. Their world revolved around family and kids and Kathy. The thing this death has taught us as a community is that she and Scott have brought all of us closer. It's an amazing power that this one very short life has had."

A dream cut short

The Kalittas always valued their privacy, friends say. Their house is in a gated community on Snead Island, and a closed service was held two weeks ago in the Bradenton area.

Family members have remained out of the spotlight since the accident, and attempts to contact Kalitta's wife, cousin and standout drag racer Doug Kalitta, and father Conrad "Connie" Kalitta — a pioneer of the sport from Michigan — were unsuccessful.

Only blocks from the Kalitta house, the massive new home Scott and Kathy were building towers over an inlet, neatly landscaped and nearly finished. The spacious structure was to have accommodated a body shop, garage and base of operations. On a recent afternoon, a gentle breeze rustled the palms in the yard of a dream home where the dream was cut short.

The pain of the loss extended far from this cozy neighborhood.

The NHRA Web site posted a special Kalitta tribute in photos and words, and issued a statement that read in part: "Scott shared the same passion for drag racing as his legendary father, Connie. He also shared the same desire to win, becoming a two-time series world champion."

Kalitta Motorsports posted its own statement, including this from Connie:

"I certainly appreciate everyone's thoughts, prayers, and support in this most difficult time. Losing a family member is always tough, but losing my son has been incredibly hard. Scott was a great racer and a great son, but most importantly, he was a great husband to his wife, Kathy, and a wonderful father to his boys, Corey and Colin. Scott died doing what he loved to do, and I am very proud of what we accomplished together both on the track and off."

Connie was known as "The Bounty Hunter" in his driving days, competing from the 1950s into the 1990s. He was the first to reach 200 mph in an NHRA event and in 1992 was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

His son followed the same path, winning Top Fuel series crowns in 1994 and 1995. After retiring in 1997, he rejoined the circuit in 1999, only to retire again after 10 races. But in 2003, Kalitta returned to the sport he loved, competing in Funny Car for his father's team alongside his cousin.

Doug Kalitta returned to the track this weekend at the Bandimere Speedway in Colorado, where he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. He is ninth in the Top Fuel points standings.

"Words just don't seem to do Scott justice," reads his statement on the team's Web site. "He was so much bigger than life, and we all thought he was invincible. He loved being in a race car, and he was a great driver. We grew up together, and I really can't imagine my life without him in it, but we will come together as a family and as a team and carry on in his honor."

'We may never know'

The yellow Toyota Solara was screaming down the quarter-mile track at Old Bridge Township Raceway in Englishtown, N.J. — the same place Kalitta had begun his career in 1982.

The Funny Car was moving at 300 mph when it suddenly burst into flames. While completely engulfed, the car sped onward and crashed at the end of the track, stunning onlookers at the NHRA SuperNationals.

The New Jersey State police are investigating the crash. Meanwhile, the NHRA has issued findings, determining "that a tragic series of events took place that fateful afternoon." Chief among them: The car's body was separated from the chassis by an engine explosion near the end of the run; the car's parachutes deployed but failed to open; and the car continued into the "shut down area" at a high speed.

Kalitta's car plowed through the sand pit at the end of the track and smashed into a barrier.

Since then, the NHRA announced a preliminary new safeguard last week, reducing the length of tracks from a quarter-mile to 1,000 feet — a difference of 320 feet — in the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. That will allow sand pits at the end of tracks to increase in size, helping slow cars more effectively and giving drivers more time to get off the throttle.

In addition, the NHRA plans to form a task force to examine safety and competition issues, with an eye toward reducing speeds somewhat.

"When something like this happens, you step back and think about it and go, 'Wow, I really can get hurt or killed in this sport,' " said James Hunnewell, a veteran machinist at Big Daddy Don Garlits' Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala. "So you look for the safest way to go about doing it. There's no facts that explain what caused the accident or why the chutes didn't open. We may never know."

Danger comes with the territory, adds Hunnewell. "That's what sets apart a good driver from a has-been — they can cope with it," he said. "But it's tough. The mood around here is still down. It'll take a while to heal."

Just as it will be on the campus at St. Stephen's, where Kalitta was such an upbeat presence, always devoted to his kids.

"Even though he had his fame in the racing world, this was his private world," principal Jan Pullen said. "This is where he was able to focus on just being Dad."

Dave Scheiber can be reached at (727) 893-8541 or scheiber@sptimes.com

Town knew Kalitta more as a dad than a racer 07/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2008 6:45am]

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