For "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, a little sensory deprivation is a fair tradeoff

October 26, 2003|by TODD BURLAGE/Wheelbase Communications

Part of his right foot is gone. So is his hearing . . . and much of his eyesight.

They're all casualties of five decades in the drag-racing game.

But for "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, a little sensory deprivation is a fair tradeoff for the monetary and personal riches that come with being one of the quickest and fastest drivers down 1,320 feet of scorched asphalt: the quarter mile.

Whether it was one of his countless speed milestones, 144 event wins or 17 championships in drag racing's most prominent circuit, Garlits was a pioneer, a competitor and an entrepreneur all wrapped up in one body.

Garlits turned to drag racing because of the dangers inherent with his original automotive pastime: stock-car racing.

"I liked the idea of two cars lined up side by side, not bumping one another," said Garlits, who still carries his need for speed at age 70.


"It was one person against one person, one machine against one machine."

That's what drew Garlits to the sport. It's also what has kept him in it for so long.

What he lacked in money during the early days of his career back in the 1950s, he more than made up for with ingenuity and surgeon-like detail.

Garlits didn't just race Top Fuel dragsters in the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) highest class, he fabricated the chassis, built the engines and assembled the beast. He was the first person to put the engine behind the driver, and the first to mount a big wing over the top of it. A lifetime later, the trend continues.

Looking back it all seems easy, if not downright glorious. But Garlits was an outsider - a Florida boy - trying to muscle in on a sport dominated by California kids.

Resentment? You bet.

Opponents called him "Don Garbage" and "Swamp Rat." They also called him "gone" once the green light flashed and the drag race began.

"I just loved it," Garlits said. "There was a winner and loser. It was real simple."

Out of a little spite, Garlits eventually adopted the Swamp Rat nickname for every one of those 34 hand-fabricated black cars he built and raced during his career. The handle became as much a trademark as "Big Daddy," which was tacked on to his name in 1962 by an NHRA announcer after Garlits won one of his record eight U.S. National championships.

But all that speed, notoriety and accomplishment came with an additional cost.

Early in his career, a car fire put Garlits in hospital. He didn't regain consciousness for 78 hours

"His hands were burnt so badly that the doctors thought he might lose (them)," said Pat, his wife of nearly 50 years.

Only the skill of a surgeon in the then new specialty of plastic surgery kept Garlits in the game.

In 1973, a transmission explosion snapped Swamp Rat XXIII in half and took part of Garlits' right foot with it. It's the reason Garlits put the engine in the back in future cars.

Years of being mere inches from the deafening roar of a 4,000-horsepower engine that burns nitromethane (the fuel in Top Fuel) have claimed some hearing. The tremendous deceleration forces - from the literally thousands of races - that occur when the parachute pops at 200-plus mph have taken much of his sight.

Still, the competition and excitement always won out.

During Garlits' reign, which actually lasted about 25 years, it seemed he was constantly setting new records. He was the first drag racer to go 170 mph, then 180, then 200, then 250. and eventually 270 mph.

In 1992, he narrowly missed becoming the first driver to break the magic 300-mph mark. But he was on top again just last year when he came out of retirement and turned a career-best of 318 mph in Swamp Rat 34.

Garlits is credited with bringing drag racing to the mainstream, becoming so well known that he was a White House guest of President Richard Nixon in 1971. Even one of his Swamp Rats is enshrined at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

It's no wonder Big Daddy is back and being welcomed with open arms wherever he races.

For 2003, he's racing a part-time schedule, all the while keeping busy chasing his five grandchildren and operating Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., where he lives with Pat.

With a career spent riding the edge of speed and pushing the envelope of technology, there's really no point in slowing down now.

Todd Burlage is a feature writer and contributor to Wheelbase Communications.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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