Kalitta Motorsports: As the bar rises, so does the passion to perform

For the Kalitta Motorsports team, success is measured not only in the speed of the race cars and the number of winning Wallies (drag racing’s most competitive award), or the coveted trophy of the NHRA. The team enjoys the passion of drag racing and the family atmosphere instilled by company founder Connie Kalitta, and in the adrenaline-intensive, competitive world of drag racing, the bar rises every year.

Kalitta Motorsports’ four race cars – two Top Fuel and two Funny Cars – now compete in 24 races a year, placing major demands on the assembly and repair crew. To meet the challenge, the team relies on the cooperative spirit of its 60 employees and its parts, equipment and tool partners.

While race fans may be familiar with Kalitta Motorsports celebrity drivers like Alexis De Joria, Del Worsham, David Grubnic, Doug Kalitta and Conrad (“Connie”) Kalitta, the responsibility for keeping the cars running at optimum performance falls to the entire crew.

Under the supervision of Jim Oberhofer, vice president of operations, the staff remains passionate about the assembly, maintenance and repair of the cars at the facility in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“Trying to keep that competitive edge is huge,” explains Oberhofer, who is now in his 25th year with the Kalitta team. “We win and lose races by thousandths of a second. To remain competitive, we have to make sure the chassis are as fast as possible.”

The team uses a combination of OEM- and custom-made parts to remain competitive. The team assembles two to three cars per year, Oberhofer notes, and competes in a race almost every month of the year.

A custom-designed work space

The 50,000-square-foot building at the Kalitta headquarters was constructed 10 years ago in an industrial park to meet the growth of the team, which 74-year-old Connie Kalitta started in 1957. The rectangular building houses an open work area where technicians attend to maintenance, assembly and repair.

The work areas include spaces for parts assembly, tire work, brake repair, and a soundproof room for analyzing the air flow of the teams’ blowers, an important part of creating speed for the engines. Seven 53-foot-long semi trailers that transport the race cars, pit crews and tools to and from races double as movable partitions inside the main work area, designating areas for specific tasks. The building also has business offices and storage areas.

Repair stations share the same open work area as the assembly. There are five dedicated repair technicians. Thirty company-owned toolboxes are positioned throughout the general work area. The repair techs also work on the transport trailers. Each tech is responsible for the tools in a section of the shop.

Everything is assembled in-house. Painting and testing are done off site. The company custom-builds over 100 parts. While they don’t make their own engine blocks, they do repair them, along with cylinder heads.

The engines are assembled according to National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) specifications for Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars. Crankshafts, pistons, valves, connecting rods, cam shafts, gears, front hub lifters, piston rings, superchargers, clutch discs and bearings are used to assemble the engines.

Preparation for future events is also done at Kalitta headquarters. “It’s a constant rotation of parts,” notes Oberhofer. In meeting the NHRA specs, the team has the flexibility to experiment with different clutch and cylinder head configurations. “We’re planning a whole year out for clutch parts right now,” Oberhofer says. “Everything is so specialized with these cars that you have to plan ahead or you fall behind.” Planning for future needs is challenging because parts are becoming obsolete faster.

The highly sophisticated engines are inspected regularly to determine wear. The cylinder walls of the engines must retain a specific size. They get replaced if they get “out of round.” A dial board gauge is used to determine this.

The growth in electronic components has made parts assembly easier in the time that Oberhofer has worked at Kalitta. “It’s actually easier to work on this stuff now,” he says.

Tools of the trade

While the tools used in the assembly have changed over the years, the pit crew tools have not changed as much, since race car engines have not evolved the way regular car engines have. “Our stuff reminds me more of the cars in the sixties and seventies,” Oberhofer says of the pit crews’ tools. Kalitta Motorsports relies on Mac Tools for all of its standard tools.

Certain tools, such as line borers, mills, lathes, valve grinders, soldering guns and wire crimpers are used more in parts making than in maintenance.

Soldering guns and wire crimpers are used to make wire harnesses for electronic ignitions.

A valve grinder cuts engine valves to a precise length to get the right angle on the base of the engine. An intake valve has a 55-degree “seat.” A grinder makes the seat a precise 55-degree angle on the intake side.

A dynometer in a soundproof room allows a tech to use an analyzer to test the airflow of the teams’ blowers.

Kalitta Motorsports serves as a tool test laboratory for Mac Tools. Mac Tools recently developed a wrench used for tightening the inner head nuts of cylinder heads and other delicate tasks. Mac Savage, a clutch tech, told Mac Tools he wanted to see more weight on the handle in its precision torque wrenches, for a more solid grip.

The pit crews play an important role in the success of the race team. The engine must deliver as much horsepower and torque as possible through the clutch to the rear wheels without the wheels losing traction. The biggest challenge the pit crew faces is being able to work fast as a team during the races. Each of the two pit crews has one person in charge of making sure tools are accounted for.

“Every time that engine runs, it has to be torn apart,” explains Bob Lawson, Kalitta Motorsports business manager, who grew up in a racing family and has spent his life in the business.

The marketing effort has increased significantly over the years as parts and tool manufacturers have partnered with racing teams to promote their products. Drag racing gets great media exposure for partners such as Mac Tools.

Mac Tools has used other partnerships to leverage its drag racing ties, such as bringing rock stars like Kid Rock to events. “Anybody that’s a fan of his is going to associate him with us,” notes Lawson. “You make these people (fans) feel exclusive.” While marketing to the public, Mac Tools also invites shop owner customers to races. Professional customers recognize racing represents the most demanding use of their tools.