by Jennifer Harrington
Several names may cross one’s mind when they think of drag racers, but one of the first would be “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. The easy-to-talk-to Garlits is probably one of the most influential pioneers in the sport of drag racing. He has 144 national wins, eight U.S. Nationals titles, and 17 world championships under his belt. The first to beat 170 mph in the quarter mile, later the first to beat 250 mph, he also owns the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing (Ocala, Florida), which is home to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
What was your childhood like – up through going full-time in drag racing?
I was a Great Depression child. We never had anything – one pair of shoes for a whole year, homemade clothes, used toys that my father gathered up and we repaired together. However, I loved it, and I never thought I was deprived. I had a couple of “rich” buddies and was always amazed at how they mistreated their toys and just got new ones. I wouldn't mistreat my toys as I had personally repaired them.
When I got married to my present wife in 1953, we had a total of $125 in wedding money. We spent the weekend at Paradise Point in Florida and returned to work on Monday morning. We saved every nickel we could get our hands on, and we opened my own garage in 1956 – Don's Garage. I never worked for a salary since, have bankrupted no companies, never wrote a bad check and owe nobody any money.
We drag raced from 1953 'til 1957 just for fun. I had actually drag raced a little from 1950 'til 1952 but quit during our courtship, as drag racing was mostly “black-leather-jacketed hoodlums.” We accidentally stopped at a drag race in March of 1953 after our wedding and found the crowd to be quite nice, so we got involved.
In 1957, I set the drag racing world on its ear by becoming the first person over 170 miles per hour in the quarter mile – 176.40 miles per hour. The strips clamored for Don Garlits and his record-holding dragster, so I became a professional drag racer.
What made you think, “Hey, I want to drag race?” Was it something from when you were a kid or being the typical teenager during the hot rod era?
There was no drag racing when I was a kid. It was all round track, and a buddy and me tried it for a little while. However I didn't like the wrecks and banging up the cars. I was a “body and paint” man, so I liked my cars to be pretty. Drag racing was more for pretty fast cars and gentlemen racing, so I chose drag racing.
How has drag racing impacted or influenced your life in general?
Drag racing made me what I am today. Not to say I couldn't have done something else, but I really loved what I was doing. And that is my advice to young people – do what you love, forget the money, you only pass through here once, enjoy it!
If you could've done something besides drag racing for a career, what would it have been?
I would have liked to flown jet airplanes.
What is the story behind the “Swamp Rat” name, and how did they evolve throughout the years? How many were there?
The “Swamp Rats” were always on the cutting edge of technology, and of course that did pose problems from time to time as there were accidents. However I always survived and then proceeded to make things better, either performance wise or better speeds and elapsed times.
I built, tuned, and drove my own cars, and I always found this to be an advantage back in the day. This would not work today as there is too much to do between rounds of racing. This has improved the performance of our professional classes but has taken away some of the excitement of the races.
Setto Postoian called me a “swamp rat” in 1959, and I picked up the name and ran with it. There have been 36 numbered Swamp Rat cars, but in actuality there have been nearly 45 different cars as many were named the same number as to not confuse the drag strip promoters. My contracts were made sometimes a full year in advance, and I may have built and fielded several new cars during that time period.
Would you ever take Swamp Rat I out on the track again?
Swamp Rat I is a fully restored running car, and I did take it out in 1989 to Bristol, Tennessee, and ran it down the drag strip to the speed of 182 miles per hour. This was a full 2 miles per hour faster than it had ever been. I won't do it again as the safety issues are too great.
After your unfortunate explosion at Lions Drag Strip, what was the thought process for designing the rear-engine dragster? How was it successful?
After the Lions Drag Strip transmission explosion, I was very mad that we had put ourselves into such a dangerous position, behind the engine and over all the moving parts, while at the same time the Indy 500 guys had moved to the rear-engine cars. I went to work on the new project as soon as I was released from the hospital and three months later took the new car to California and won the NHRA Winternationals. The competitors couldn't believe their own eyes! There had been many rear-engine dragsters, but none were successful and most had crashed.
In fact the competitors refused to race me at the first event, the AHRA Grand American at Long Beach, California. This was the same event that just one year before I had lost part of my right foot. However, after making all my time runs without mishap, management made the racers line up with me. I was runner up that afternoon, only because on the final run was in the same lane, same strip, same time as the accident, for a brief moment I had déjà vu, and my competitor got a slight lead from the start that I was unable to overcome. This didn't happen any more, and I won the NHRA prestigious Winternationals and then went on to Bakersfield to win the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships. The slingshot dragster was finished, and the builders started building the new cars.
I have always felt that this was my greatest contribution to our sport as over six men had been killed in the two years leading up to the Long Beach accident, and nowhere near that many have been killed in the cars since – and consider the increase in the speeds.
The rear-engine dragster of today is basically the car I designed in 1970 in Seffner, Florida. I had lots of trouble with the project and at one point had given up, and I with the help of my two loyal helpers, Connie Swingle and Tom Lemons, were putting the finishing touches on Swamp Rat 15, my new slingshot dragster for the 1971 season. My wife came into the shop and inquired as to what was going on. I explained to her that we were building my new car for the West Coast as the rear-engine car was not working. She flew into a rage and demanded we return to the rear-engine project as we were the ones who were capable of solving the handling problems presented by placing the driver up front. We did and the rest is history, so to speak.
After all of the races you competed in throughout the years, what do you think is your favorite or most memorable race, and why?
My most memorable race was the NHRA World Finals, held at Ontario, California, in 1975. This was the first time the NHRA had held a championship series that lasted all year and paid a big purse at the end for the points leader. I came into the race over 400 points behind Gary Beck, and to win the championship, I had to win the event and set both the top speed and elapsed time national records – no easy task. In fact Beck was being touted as the new world champion even before the event got under way. Then to make matters worse, Beck set a new national elapsed time record on Friday. We went back to the motel where the work was done in those days, changed the engine to a special engine I had built just for this race, and returned on Saturday to try to save the championship, but it was raining. As the sky looked like it might clear, we got the car out of the trailer and warmed the engine. God, it sounded good!
We got into line and the track dried. I was going to get a chance to test the new engine [a Chrysler Hemi]. It ran like a scalded dog, 250.69 miles per hour in 5.63 seconds. We backed up the run the next day and the records stood for seven years. I also won the event and became the 1975 NHRA Winston World Champion. I have never been in a race before or since with so much drama.
Do you have fun promoting the “Drag Pak” Challenger?
I love my Drag Pak Challengers as they are fun to drive and the sportsman competitors are so nice to be around. I started with a 1950 Ford stocker, won my first trophy with the car, and I'll end up with a stocker! My 2011 Dodge Drag Pak Challenger turns 145 miles per hour in 9.40 seconds, a far cry from the old Ford that ran 85 miles per hour in 19 seconds!
When did you become a Mopar guy? Was it right after your 1950 Ford stocker?
I changed to Mopar and Chrysler in 1956, just after purchasing a 1954 Chrysler Hemi that produced 235 horsepower stock from the factory. The best my flathead Ford could do was about 185, full race!
What is your daily driver these days?
I have three daily drivers – a 2000 Dodge Dakota pickup with a 360-cubic-inch Magnum engine; a 2011 Dodge Charger "Mopar," one of 1,000, powered by a 5.7 Hemi; and finally one I built from scratch, a 1940 Ford 4 door sedan, powered by a 291-cubic-inch 1955 Desoto Hemi. I have numerous other cars, such as a 2006 Chrysler 300 Hemi and a bone-stock 1948 Ford coupe.
What is it like traveling across the States and making appearances at various drag strips – not really racing, but just meeting the people who come by your table? Are there times when you hear a dragster make a run and think, "I wish I could do that instead"?
I don't miss the Top Fuel cars any more. I came back in 2001, ran a best of 323.04 in 2003 at the Gatornationals, and hung up my helmet in September of the same year at the request of my sweet wife. She said the 300-plus runs were scaring her. I never drove again!
I do enjoy going around the country, making personal appearances, and greeting my old fans, and the young ones, too. It gives me time to talk to them, something that was not possible back in the day!
From any racing series, who is your favorite driver? What about in strictly the drag-racing world?
My all-time favorite driver, of all types of racing, is A.J. Foyt. He was the "man's" type of driver, tough and no nonsense. As far as drag racing goes, I have to pick Chris Karamesines. He is over 80 years of age and still pilots a Top Fuel dragster over 300 miles per hour at each NHRA event. As for the young drivers, I have to go with Tony Schumacher. He is one tough egg!
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