Scott Kalitta died Saturday when his Funny Car burst into flames and crashed at the end of the track during the final round of qualifying for the Lucas Oil NHRA SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
The NHRA said the 46-year-old Kalitta — the 1994 and 1995 Top Fuel season champion who had 18 career victories, 17 in Top Fuel and one in Funny Car — was taken to the Old Bridge division of Raritan Bay Medical Center, where he died a short time later.
Kalitta's Toyota Solara was traveling at about 300 mph when it burst into flames.
The Palmetto, Fla., resident started his career at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in 1982. His father, Connie Kalitta, was a longtime driver and team owner known as "The Bounty Hunter," and his cousin, Doug Kalitta, also drives competitively.
"We are deeply saddened and want to pass along our sincere condolences to the entire Kalitta family," the NHRA said in a statement. "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. He left the sport for a period of time, to devote more time to his family, only to be driven to return to the drag strip to regain his championship form. ... He will be truly missed by the entire NHRA community."
Kalitta had most of his racing success in Top Fuel, highlighted by his series titles in 1994 and 1995. He retired from racing in 1997, sitting out most of two seasons before returning for a 10-race campaign in 1999. He sat out three more seasons following that brief stint and then returned again in 2003, joining cousin Doug as a second driver for the family's two Top Fuel dragsters.
Kalitta started his pro career in Top Fuel in 1982, running limited events for four seasons before moving to Funny Car in 1986 for his first full season of competition. He returned to that category full-time in 2006.
One of only 14 drivers in NHRA history to win in both premier nitro categories, Kalitta's last victory came in Chicago in 2005 in Top Fuel. He had a runner-up finish two weeks ago in Chicago, his 36th career NHRA final-round appearance.
He's survived by his father, wife Kathy and sons Corey, 14, and Colin, 8.
NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski — a native of Rochester Hills, Mich., about 20 miles away from Kalitta's hometown of Mount Clemens — learned the news from a television report.
"That really hits close to home," Keselowski said after winning the pole position for Saturday night's race at the Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis. "(He was) a friend of my family's, and I send my thoughts and prayers out to him. That's tough to hear."
Last year, Funny Car driver Eric Medlen died after an accident in a testing session at Gainesville, Fla.