Gone Racin' - Don Garlits Biography

Gone Racin' - Don Garlits Biography
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Biography and photos/captions by Don Garlits

     Longevity doesn't guarantee success, but success over a long period of time can elevate a person to the top of his or her profession.  In drag racing I have been able to have a long and continued success.  My name is Donald Glenn Garlits, but an announcer gave me the name of "Big Daddy," as a way to personalize my success on the drag strips and it is an honor that I’ve kept proudly.  I won the first NHRA Drag race I’ve ever entered with the first race car I built.  Success can be defined as hard work, passion, drive and perseverance.  Success in any field and especially drag racing is difficult but not impossible.  In 1955 the NHRA Drag Safari had come to Lake City, Florida and I remember the impact that it had on the area and me.  I owned a garage and a body shop and three years later in 1958 I had become a professional drag racer with the first of 37 racecars that I would later tag the “Swamp Rats.”  It was a name that literally exploded on the drag strip, full of determination and fury.  Perhaps it wasn’t refined and gentile, but it defined me as a competitor to respect.  Nothing was going to stop me, not fierce competition, and I had that in spades, or life-threatening accidents that I used to motivate me to reach higher.  Eventually, in 1992 I was forced to stop driving due to eye trouble, the result of deceleration G forces of nearly 7 G’s, forced me from the seat of my dragsters at the age of 60.  I’m not a quitter, though, and I refocused my life into other fields of racing just as serious and important as winning on the drag strip.

     In the four decades that I drag raced professionally I took on all comers on any race track in the country and sometimes abroad.  I fabricated my own dragster chassis that were powered by engines I built and won 144 major open events.  Those victories gave me 17 National Championships in the sport's three major hot rod associations; National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) and the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA).  I just loved every minute of racing whether I won, lost or otherwise.  I liked the idea of two cars lined up side by side, not bumping into one another.  It was one person against one person, one machine against one machine.  There was a winner and a loser.  It was real simple.  I was rated one of the best drag racers by peers and fans over the years and I am proud of that recognition because it came by way of hard work, sacrifice and all the talents that I had as a driver, fabricator, engine builder and team owner.  The NHRA, with whom I have often had a rivalry with even put me in the top 50 all time and in 2001 on the 50th anniversary of the founding of NHRA I was voted in as the all-time #1 drag racer (from 1951 through 2001) and that was a very special honor.

     I’ve held my own and succeeded on many grounds.  I’ve had championships, wins on the dragstrip, technological breakthroughs, popularity, innovations, and I helped bring popularity to drag racing.  Even the NHRA admitted that having me on their drag strips increased their popularity.  Mention drag racing to the average man on the street and if he knows only one name, it surely is "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.  I came from Sulfur Springs Florida, considered the wrong side of the tracks by many people, in the early 1950’s.   I certainly wasn't rich, famous, nor did I have a college education.  My success came from my desire, zeal, intelligence, confidence, strong work ethic and the will to succeed which propelled me past those liabilities of my birth to the top of the drag racing sport as quickly as I blew off the sport's early hotshots from Southern California.  They were a brash bunch of drag racers and tough and we southern, eastern and midwestern drag racers wanted to beat them as often as we could.  We had some thrilling races with those guys.

     Following my first win in 1955 with what was my first, rather crude race car by modern standards, I made constant improvements.  That first race car was a highly modified 12.1-second, 108-mph, flathead-powered '27-T roadster-like slingshot dragster.  I next built my first Swamp Rat dragster built on a '31 Chevy frame rail and I raced that car for six years all over the country and in many incarnations or rebuilds of that car.  A race car isn’t built and then just stays the same; a racer modifies it constantly and replaces parts and improves upon it constantly in order to get better performance at each race.  I earned my first appearance money and won my first big events with that car.  Drag strip promoters offer you “appearance money” just to show up and race, whether you win the race or not.  They do that when the crowds increase because of your name and recognition value.  If you win races or excite the crowds with your innovation and personality you can get appearance money and that helps you stay on the race circuit and compete.  It also makes you feel special when you can get that kind of money and other racers are trying to get where you’re at.  That day when I got my first appearance money was when I won the Florida State Championships in 1956.  I turned a 10.9 second elapsed time (ET) at 135 mph.

     By 1961 and with the retirement of Swamp Rat I, the eight Stromberg carburetors on the car had been replaced by a supercharger, the gasoline by nitromethane, and the ETs were in the low eights, (8.21).  That was fast in those days, record breaking fast and people were saying, even scientists and engineers said it, that we couldn’t go much lower from a standing start on the drag strip.  In 1957, I was the first to exceed 170 mph, (176.40) and my name was established.  The next year (1958) I was the first drag racer to go over 180 (180.00) miles per hour (mph). By the time I built Swamp Rat III, I had won the AHRA Nationals, the Texas State Championship in 1958 and most drag racers would have considered that a good career and quit.  It’s tough being a drag racer and having to travel and work long hours.  It’s even tougher on families of drag racers, but drag racing is in my blood and I wasn’t through by a long shot. 

     In 1959 I won the Northern California championship, the Arizona State championship.  Then with Art Malone driving while I recovered from nearly fatal burns that I suffered in a match race in Chester, South Carolina, Art won The Riverside Invitational in California in my car.  Malone was one of my best friends, but oh, how I wanted to be in the seat of my car.  I’m happy for him though.  In 1960 I was healed from my injuries and returned to driving, but in the Swamp Rat II, a gas-powered dragster, and in this car I won the first NHRA/NASCAR Winter Nationals in Daytona, Florida.  I have the story detailed in my book ‘BIG DADDY; The Autobiography of Don Garlits.’   This event morphed into the NHRA Winternationals the following year. 

     It was an event I didn't win that convinced me to devote my life to drag racing.  The hottest car in the country in 1957 was the 160-plus-mph Cook & Bedwell car in California.  The best fuel dragsters in the country were going to be racing in the World Series of Drag Racing, held in Cordova, Illinois.  That summer event was sanctioned by the Automobile Timing Association of America.  My self-confidence was flagging when I arrived and realized that my competitors were more than two seconds faster than me. Emery Cook, World Champion driver of the Cook & Bedwell car, showed me how to modify my Stromberg carburetors to run 98% nitromethane, far more than the 25 percent that I had been using.  The advice picked up my performance to competitive times, and I beat Cook in eliminations before losing in the final to Serop Postoian.  They were my heroes.  I had their picture nailed up on the wall of my shop.  When I outran them, I thought this is what I want to do. I want to be in their company, I want to be a drag racing champion.

     It was NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge who tagged me with the famous and unforgettable "Big Daddy" nickname at the 1962 U.S. Nationals.   Prior to that time in the 1950’s, when I broke speed barriers and whipped the Southern California boys with my crude Swamp Rat I, they called me "Tampa Dan," or "Don Garbage," and "Swamp Rat."  It wasn’t meant as praise.  Neither Partridge nor anyone at the time could have known that 39 years later, in the second week of November 2001, the nickname “Big Daddy” would also connote my final ranking in the sport as the #1 all-time drag racer by racing fans.   I advanced to my first of 43 career NHRA national event final rounds in Indianapolis in 1962.  I lost in the Top Gas final to Jack Chrisman.   We had to use gasoline at that time because of a ban on nitromethane by the NHRA.  The following year the NHRA lifted its seven-year-old nitromethane ban for the 1963 Winternationals, before dropping it forever at both national events in 1964.  

     In 1963 I won the first of 35 NHRA national event titles, the Winternationals at Pomona CA.  With a wing mounted over the engine, the first on a Top Fuel dragster, I beat my good friend Art Malone with an 8.26 ET at 186 mph.  Good friend or not I was out to win the race.  I achieved the first of my three greatest accomplishments in the sport in 1964.  With nitromethane now legal at all NHRA events, in August of 1964, at Great Meadows, New Jersey I became the first to record an official backed-up 200-mph speed (201.34) record.  The next month, in September, I drove Swamp Rat VI to the first of my eight US Nationals titles, defeating Jack Williams in the final with a 7.67 ET at 198 mph.  Three years later, with a dragster I built in 72 hours, the Swamp Rat 11, after failing to qualify at the Winternationals and Springnationals, in Swamp Rat 10, I became the first two-time winner of the most prestigious drag race in the world with an ET of 6.77 seconds at the NHRA US Nationals.  If I had any thought that this would be the pinnacle of my career that would be a mistake.  I was just getting started in this sport and some mighty big battles awaited me in the future.
     The next year, in September 1968, with Swamp Rat 12, I was the first to win two straight NHRA US Nationals titles.  By the close of the 1960’s, when NHRA hosted only two national events a year from 1961 to 1965 and four a year from 1965 to 1969, I had won six titles.  People often wonder and argue how many more I could have won had there been the modern day schedule of 24 national titles a year.  I have no doubt I would have won a good share of them.  I had also won four AHRA national events and the first of five US Fuel & Gas Championships in seven career final rounds.  Driving two different Swamp Rat dragsters each day of the two-day Fuel & Gas runoffs in 1965, I won Saturday and again Sunday over teammate Marvin Schwartz.  The event had been created in 1959 specifically to lure me out to California to race against the powerful west coast guys.  I wanted so badly to beat them and I know I had many fans in the east that were rooting me on.  They were the high and mighty and had earned their reputations and to beat them was a drag racer’s dream.
     The 1970s opened badly for me when a transmission explosion in the fatefully tagged Swamp Rat 13 in the final round of an AHRA national event at Lions drag strip in Long Beach, California, cut my car in half and took a portion of my right foot with it.  That was the last straw for me with that type of front-engined dragster.  Like everyone else I had been sitting behind the oil- and fire-spewing supercharged, nitro-burning engines for more than 10 years.  I had already reached a speed of 240 mph two years before and I was faced with quitting the sport or making the novel rear-engine dragster design competitive.  I’m not a quitter though and chose the latter, resulting in my second major accomplishment.  Exactly one year later at the race at Lions drag strip where I was severely injured, I took my rear-engined new Swamp Rat XIV to the finals of that race again.  Several weeks later I became the first to win an NHRA national event with a rear-engined dragster when I set the Top Fuel class on a new course by winning the Winternationals, in Pomona, California.  The following weekend I won the prestigious US Fuel and Gas Championships at Bakersfield California. 
     Within two years the front-engined dragster was extinct as a viable contender, to be used in nostalgia racing leagues.  My first rear-engined dragster not only rejuvenated "the Old Man's" career, I was 39 after all, but revived the Top Fuel class at a time when the danger of the diggers and the surging popularity of the new Funny Cars had Top Fuel on the ropes.  I take great pride in being an innovator in the sport of drag racing.  Swamp Rat XXX, the first successful streamlined Top Fuel dragster, took me to my third Winston Top Fuel championship in 1986.  In 1987, I took Swamp Rat XXX and my reputation in the sport of drag racing to Washington, D.C., for the car's installation at the Smithsonian Institution.  In the 1970’s, driving a succession of Swamp Rat dragsters, I became the first to run in the 6.3 ETs and the first to exceed 250 mph.  I ran the first 250-mph speed at the 1975 NHRA World Finals to win my first Winston NHRA World Championship and the first awarded by Winston.  That speed would not be eclipsed for seven years.  My ET on the run at 5.63 seconds was a tenth and a half quicker than the record I had set two years earlier.

     Richard Parks told me this, “In 1975 I was in the suites at the old Ontario Motor Speedway and we were talking to some people when a huge roar was heard, even through the glass, as a burn-out caught our attention.  Someone said, ‘Quiet, Garlits is running.’  We went outside on the veranda, high above the drag strip as Don Garlits backed up and staged.  Don took off in a roar of horsepower as the Christmas tree turned green and the roar of that sound reverberated through, up and over the stands shaking us and he won the round in such a convincing fashion that we all just stood there gaping with mouths open.  I’d seen all sorts of races, fast ones, slow ones, tragic accidents, exciting side by side finishes and boringly slow ones.  This drag race was different.  We all knew we were in the presence of a great and memorable event.  It was a once in your lifetime event that you remember and tell your children about.  I can’t even recall who the other driver was or if it was somewhat of a competitive race.  All that I can remember was that it was Don Garlits; just Don Garlits.  It was as if he was in a universe all of his own making with not a drag racing competitor in sight.  It was a solo performance of one of the greatest runs I have ever, or will ever see again.  We all knew it was a record and a big one, but when the announcer screamed ‘Don Garlits has gone 5.63 at 250.69 the reaction of everyone was, ‘It has to be a faulty clock.’  It wasn’t.  We knew it for what it was, a performance by man and car for the ages.  It was the quintessential run and no matter how fast drag racers can go today the one race that will be remembered forever belonged to Don Garlits and the Swamp Rat and I was there to see it.” 

     By the end of the decade, I had won 16 of 20 NHRA national event final rounds, including two more US Nationals, all four of my IHRA championships (26 national event wins), and six of my 10 AHRA titles.  I had been thinking about preserving the history and heritage of drag racing for some time and in 1976 I opened the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Seffner, Florida and then moved it to Ocala Florida in 1983, where it remains today.  The museum has grown over the years and has hosted many events and fans from all over the world come to admire the cars in the collection and the history that is preserved there.

     In 1982, I experimented with two different methods of locomotion that were reminiscent of the earliest days of the sport. In 1982, with Swamp Rat 27, I mounted the engine sideways in the chassis in an effort to gain more traction from engine torque.  The next year I installed a 2,000-horsepower T58-10 turbine engine in the 1,000-pound Swamp Rat 28. Both attempts at building a better drag racing mousetrap proved unworthy, but they were evidence of my determination and innovative skills.  By the summer of 1984 and with the approach of the US Nationals, I had been mostly absent from the NHRA tour for four years and hadn't built a conventional car during that time. With the urging and financial backing of old friend and schoolmate, Art Malone, I arrived unannounced in Indianapolis and repeated my come-from-behind US Nationals to win the event in Top Fuel, just as I had come from behind in 1967.   I followed that win with another win at the World Finals in Pomona to close out a successful 1984 season, and I was stoked for a return to full-time NHRA competition.
     My 1984 Indy win and subsequent return to NHRA competition was the second time my performance and name alone had breathed new life into Top Fuel.  In 1982, my friend, nemesis, and match race partner, Shirley Muldowney, had become the first to win three NHRA national Top Fuel championships.  By 1986, I had also become a three-time NHRA national champion, along the way repeating my 1984 win at the US Nationals in 1985 and 1986 to become the event's only winner for three years in a row. In my effort to win the 1986 Winston NHRA World Championship Top Fuel title, I was the first to reach 270 mph, (272.56) at the Gatornationals in my home state of Florida and in front of my loyal fans.  I accomplished both with the sport's only successful streamlined car, Swamp Rat XXX, my third great accomplishment. 
     On October 20, 1987, my homebuilt dragster was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution, which also houses The Spirit of St. Louis, the first plane to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean (by aviator Charles Lindbergh) and the first manned space capsule.  What a thrilling moment that was for me.  In 1987, after my second blowover, I retired again.  The term blowover was invented to describe my over-backward wheelie in Swamp Rat XXX at the 1986 Summernationals in Spokane, Washington.   While I was recuperating, NBC hired me to work at the NHRA National events they were televising.  This started my television career which I enjoyed until I retired from broadcasting in December, 2006.  I also worked for TNN on the NHRA drag racing shows, produced by Diamond “P” Sports and “NHRA Today.”  I have hosted numerous shows such as “Nitro Warriors,” “Road Test Magazine”,  “Top Fuel”,  and of course many shows for Master’s Entertainment in Bristol TN. 
     I returned to racing once again in 1992 with Swamp Rat 32, equipped with a monostrut rear wing, and of course an enclosed cockpit, like I had on Swamp Rat XXX in 1986, in an effort to become the first to exceed 300 mph, but I didn't debut the car until the Southern Nationals, one month after Kenny Bernstein ran the first 300-mph speed at the Gatornationals.  I retired again and had Bruce Larson drive for me for several years, building Swamp
Rat 34 along the way. I didn’t like Crew Chiefing as much as driving, so I returned to television and put Swamp Rat 34 into mothballs. I was badgered back into the driver’s seat by Chris Karamesines and my fans in 2001 at the US Nationals and drove Gary Clapshaw's car.   My fans gave me a roaring cheer as they stood for my time run, and I responded with my first four-second ET and 300-mph speed in Sunday qualifying at  4.720 ET and 303.37 mph.  I was just four months shy of my 70th birthday, and I had announced my intention of finding a sponsor and resuming my racing career.  MATCO Tools stepped up to the plate and sponsored Swamp Rat 34 for 2002 and I raised my all time best to 318.54 MPH in 4.763 seconds at the 2002 US Nationals.  Then the following year Summit Racing took over the sponsorship and I pushed the #34 to 323.04 MPH in 4.761 seconds at the 2003 Gatornationals.  At 71 years of age I was doing what most 20 year olds were dreaming of, instead of thinking about what pills a septuagenarian was supposed to take to stay healthy.  My medication was a good dose of adrenaline and the smell of nitromethane.

     Swamp Rat #35 and #36 were Super Stock Dodge Drag Pak cars that I raced for several years while my beloved wife, Pat Garlits was very sick.  She eventually passed away.  She was the love of my life.  Then in 2012, I teamed up with Mike Gerry and we put together the Electric Dragster known as Swamp Rat #37.  After several outings I finally held the World Record for Electric Dragsters, a blistering 185.60 MPH in 7.274 seconds.  My quest is not over as I intend to surpass the magic 200 mph record for this class sometime in 2015.  Call me what you will, "Big Daddy," "Swamp Rat," "the Old Man," but with my status as the top driver in NHRA's first 50 years affirmed by the fans of the sport, you’d better call me "The Best," as well.


Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.