Drag racing legend Don Garlits interview part 1

Episode 255

March 10, 2019

“Big Daddy” opens up to UpNorth Motorsports

In the personal shop of drag racing legend Don Garlits. In the background is Garlits’ electric dragster, Swamp Rat 38, which he hopes will set a drag racing record for electric-powered dragsters. Could 2019 be the year? The name Swamp Rat was given to Garlits in 1959 by fellow dragster driver Serop “Setto” Postoian who based it upon the Florida location of the eastern based racer. Most of the hot shoes at the time came out of California. (HTF Motorsports photo)

In previous episodes of UpNorth Motorsports, listed several motorsports legends that I would like to meet and interview. Never in my wildest dream did I think I would get a chance to sit down with one of drag racing’s biggest legends Don Garlits.

The journey to Garlits Museum actually began in January 2018 when on a whim I called the Museum and asked to speak to Garlits after reading about him in Road & Track magazine. Somewhat to my surprise he agreed to an interview on the Thursday prior to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

Turns out that Phil Miller and I were stranded in northern Maine when the airport was snowed in thus forcing us to leave on Thursday, meaning no Garlits interview in 2018. I called Don and explained that I would not be able to make the appointment. He was very gracious and agreed to an interview in 2019 if I was returning to Florida.

Turn the clock ahead to 2019 when an interview was set up for Thursday January 24 at 10 am. I stay with my brother Bill while in Florida and utilize him to take photos in the garage area at Daytona when I am in the turns.

It was with a great deal of anticipation that we left his Orlando home and headed northwest toward Ocala, about 1 1/2 hours away. In my mind I wondered what Garlits would be like…would he be like to young Garlits who was not always the nice guy at the track? Would this be a three question interview and then done?

Before the Swamp Rat moniker, Don Garlits built his first dragster from 2 sets of Model T frame rails at the shop where he worked in Tampa, Florida. The Canadian model flathead Ford displaced 289 cubic inches and netted him his first NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) win. Top speed with this rail was 108.17 mph and 12.10 ET. Photo from Garlits Drag Racing  Museum, Ocala, Florida. (HTF Motorsports photo)

When we arrived at the Don Garlits Museum we were ushered in to meet Don in his office which is filled with racing memories of every imaginable type. It was like taking a walk down memory with photos, trophies, or keepsakes surrounding us depicting some event or memory of importance to one of the best known drag racers in history.

On his desk neatly stacked about 8 inches high were autograph requests which he had signed just prior to our interview. We were greeted by Garlits, who at 87, is quite spry as he bound out of his big leather chair and shook our hands with a firm handshake and the words, “Hi, I’m Don Garlits”.

I was unsure how much time he would allot to the interview so I had my list of questions ready to go and was fully prepared to have him answer two or three questions then excuse us so he might attend to other business.

Not the case. Two hours after arrival while touring Garlits collection of engines and cars in his private garage, his grandson Rodney tracked us down to remind his grandfather that he had other commitments. We took time to pray together after which my brother and I talked with Chris Bumpus, Museum Restoration Specialist and Shop Foreman about a couple of projects going on in the fabrication shop. Next episode I will include more of Chris’s interesting story of how he became the project guy at the Restoration Shop.

Don Garlits with his grandson Rodney who serves as Assistant General Manager and Comptroller of Garlits Drag Racing Museum. I do believe Rodney works out with weights…look at those pipes! (HTF Motorsports photo)

After interviewing Garlits in his office for about an hour he said, “Want to see some of our special projects?”

We jumped at the privilege of being offered an inside look at both the fab shop and his private garage. First stop was through a door in the back of the office which opens directly to the fab shop where we were greeted with the new battery-powered dragster Swamp Rat 38. In fact the special gearing was to arrive that very day enabling Chris Bumpus to make serious strides forward to getting the car ready for 2019 record attempt, over 200 mph in the quarter-mile.

My assistant Bill Hale in the fab shop at Garlits Museum with Swamp Rat 38, the battery-powered dragster under construction. Hopefully it will be completed for record attempt in 2019. (HTF Motorsports photo)

I did not know that Garlits or at least his partner, Art Malone raced in Maine. After incurring burns at a race at Chester, South Carolina. in 1959 Don was unable to drive and his friend Art Malone, took over the driving. Don also changed over from the 8 carburetor set-up he had used previously pictured here, to a Hilborn two-port injector. With the ability to tune the car more accurately, performance immediately improved. At one of the first outings with Malone in the seat at Sanford, Maine on August 23, 1959, the car set a new 1320 foot speed record of 183.66 MPH.The Swamp Rat 1, claims Garlits,was his favorite car, stating it was that car which helped make him what he is today.(HTF Motorsports photo)

Garlits is a huge Smokey Yunick fan. He did not have a great deal of interaction with Smokey while he was alive, however, he did value the innovative spirit of the Daytona based Yunick. Garlits dedicated his garage section of the drag racing museum to a depiction of Yunick’s shop in Daytona which Garlits was able to visit after Yunick’s death in May 2001.

Smokey told his daughter Trish that Garlits could have his pick of the engines that were located at the shop that needed to be removed after he died. Garlits obtained several very famous engines which are now on display including the dynamometer Smokey used up until retiring. On the dyno is a 427 Chevy developed for the Can Am an effort of McLaren in 1963. The engine was deemed to heavy after an aluminum version was produced.

Actual engines, dyno, and miscellaneous “stuff” from Smokey Yunick’s “Best Damned Garage in Town” located in Daytona. The spot where Yunick’s garage stood is vacant after the garage was torn down. Smokey did not want no museum dedicated to him. (HTF Motorsports photo)

Don Garlits with Smokey Yunick’s “Smoketron” which was built to test engine friction and develop ways to reduce the horsepower requirements simply to rotate the engine through its four cycles. Airflow through the engine was tested as well as exhaust flow.Smoketron was driven by the huge electric motor in the lower right. The test engine was bolted to the test device where Garlits left hand is located. (HTF Motorsports photo)

The Ardun head flathead Ford. The heads were built in Manhattan by Zora Arkus Duntov and his brother Yura Arkus Duntov. The name came from the brothers last names ARkus DUNtov. Garlits said the Ardun boys designed the heads for truck mechanics who wanted more power than the stock 100 horsepower and less overheating in the Ford trucks used by the military and commercial truckers. The brothers developed the hemi-heads which gave the engine another 75 horsepower. After some problems with the heads the Ardun was abandoned. You may recognize Zora. He went on to be “The Father of the Corvette” at Chevrolet. (HTF Motorsports photo)

Garlits was like a kid in a candy store as he started up four engines for us. The engines were mounted on stands with fuel tanks, electrical, and cooling. This was a pristine example of the 60 horsepower 1932 V8 which revolutionized the power plant market with its relatively cheap horsepower to cost ratio. The V8 provided the basis for many pre-war and post-war midget racers. (HTF Motorsports photo)

Next week Part 2 of Garlits Interview

Throughout the interview, Garlits’ voice would start softly as he told the beginning of an adventure and then ascend to a loud, almost shouting voice as he excitedly explained how each account blended into what has become his life’s story. I was absolutely and thoroughly entertained by him as time passed very rapidly.

You won’t want to miss part 2 with a seldom told story of how Garlits nearly died at 3 months of age in a fire and a story he has never shared before in an interview. How a flight back from California with Chaparral famed Jim Hall helped Swamp Rats develop wings.Do not miss next week’s episode.

Garlits takes on Shirley Muldowney at Gator Nationals next weekend

NHRA fans have spoken and the first-round pairings for the much-anticipated Unfinished Business competition have been selected.

Hoards of fans voted online to select which NHRA Legends will face each other on the track at the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.

The first-round match ups, in random order, are:
• “Big Daddy” Don Garlits vs. Shirley Muldowney
• “The Professor” Warren Johnson vs. Terry Vance
• Kenny Bernstein vs. Joe Amato
• Don “The Snake” Prudhomme vs. Ed “The Ace” McCulloch

NHRA fan favorite Darrell Gwynn, who will serve as the honorary starter for this prestigious group of competitors, announced the pairings online via NHRA’s Facebook page.

“I’m excited to watch all of these legends of NHRA drag racing get back on the track,” said Gwynn. “Just because they’re retired from professional drag racing doesn’t mean they’ve lost any of that competitive fire that makes them great. It’s going to get heated out there and the fans are going to love it.”

Each driver will compete in a custom Toyota Camry distinctly wrapped to emulate looks inspired by some of the drivers’ favorite rides.

Penultimate race for the 2019 Tame The Track Tour in Skowhegan

The vintage snowmobile endurance race tour is winding down with only one race to go, The Mega Meltdown race in Caribou March 23, 2019.

Meanwhile the Skowhegan make up race was held at Get ‘Er Done Raceway with Skowhegan Sno-Hawks Snowmobile Club the hosts. Thirteen entries in the 50 lap Trail 600 class made that race one of the most exciting for the day and a good conclusion to a day of racing.

Race promoter, Jere Humphrey, described the Trail 600 race stating, ” After dominating this epic special event last season, the talk amongst drivers was that RMR XC regular, Derek Dawson, had a huge bullseye on his back for the 2019 version, with several new competitors joining the winter racing action.”

“Anticipation grew throughout the afternoon, looking forward to the main event, which kept spectators on edge of the banks, cheering and talking about racers they probably didn’t even know.”

“Suspense was all now in the hands of the drivers, with fifty grueling laps awaiting on the deteriorated quarter-mile oval layout.”

“Action prevailed as promised, right from the initial green flag, with Henry Moneypenny capturing the Holeshot Contingency Award, sponsored by Last Chance Sno, passing Derek Dawson on the outside groove. Unfortunately, directly behind the leaders, sleds we’re beating and banging, searching for positions , causing a red flag conditions, as Justin Hartford was trapped underneath a rolled over snowmobile.”

“The original lap had not yet been recorded, race officials opted to restart the race and Hartford was able to get a sled replacement.”

“Green flag take two was an eye opener for the others, showing Dawson harder on the handlebars and leading not only the first lap, but the first forty-one circuits collecting the Tame the Track Halfway Contingency Bonus with the eventual race winner on his rear snowflap.

“Brandon Ouellette, who recently joined the Tame the Track Snowmobile Tour made the long trek from Fort Kent, Maine pay off, as his #179 Arctic Cat made the pass on Dawson on lap forty-two and never looked back stretching out the lead, with the end in sight.”

“The added challenge for Ouellette was not only on the track of fierce competitors, but with his loyalty to his brand Cat, as his 2019 entry only has a three gallon fuel cell!”

“Daytona Gould also on a well prepared Arctic Cat, would earn the runner-up spot, after making the pass on Dawson just a lap later (lap 43), giving hope and running room to chase down the leader.”

“With Derek Dawson now dropping back to third spot, the two Cats clawed their way to the checkered flag for the final eight laps, putting on an awesome showcase of talent and machines.”

“At one point, Gould took the lead briefly weaving through lap traffic, but Ouellette was able to regain the lead on the same lap.”

“In the end, when the snow dust settled Brandon Ouellette — #179 won the BCD Excavation Trail 600 race sponsored by Dawson Racing, with Daytona Gould— #6 coming home second and Derek Dawson- #29 third in the final podium spot.”

“Great race for the supportive spectators and the fellow competitors. Great display of respect and sportsmanship amongst the drivers.”

Race results

Dysart’s Truck Stop KIDS 120cc STOCK —
1st Kaleb Partridge: Charleston, Polaris
2nd Keeghan Reynolds: Hermon,Polaris
3rd Keaton Brennen: Eustis, Arctic Cat

Witham’s Heating KIDS 120cc IMPROVED —
1st  Riley Hartford: Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Polaris
2nd Nick Ciampa: Mount Vernon, Arctic Cat
3rd Ben Ciampa: Mount Vernon, Arctic Cat

Witham’s Paving & Machias Savings KIDS 120cc MODIFIED –
1st Emmett Walker: New Vineyard, Arctic Cat
2nd Riley Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Polaris
3rd Kaden Rose: Skowhegan, Arctic Cat

Katahdin Motorsports & Pro Industrial Plus KIDS 200 STOCK
1st Kaden Rose: Skowhegan, Arctic Cat
2nd Jayce Rose: Skowhegan, Yamaha
3rd Austin Lancaster: Skowhegan, Arctic Cat

Casella Waste Systems WOMEN’S INVITATIONAL —
1st Alley Ripley: Center Ossipee, NH, Yamaha
2nd Haley Frohlich: Auburn, Polaris
3rd Haley Brownell: Ossipee, NH, Yamaha

1st Riley Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
2nd Austin Witham: Levant, Yamaha
3rd Hailey Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha

Houlton Powersports & RV TEENS INVITATIONAL —
1st Henry Moneypenny: West Ossipee, NH, Yamaha
2nd Landon Collins: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
3rd Asa Grace: West Ossipee, NH, Yamaha

Blanchard’s Towing & Recovery SINGLE CYLINDER STOCK
1st Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Sno-Jet
2nd Mike Eldridge: AR Ossipee, NH, Yamaha
3rd Pat Garand: Sidney, Elan

Harry’s Motorsports & Equipment SINGLE CYLINDER MODIFIED —
1st Caleb Morris: Turner, Arctic Cat
2nd Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
3rd Andy Frohlich: Auburn, Arctic Cat

Renegade Race Fuels 340 STOCK —
1st Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
2nd Daytona Gould: Dexter, Arctic Cat
3rd Henry Moneypenny: West Ossipee, NH, Yamaha

Savage Paint & Body 340 MODIFIED —
1st Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
2nd Derek Dawson: Jefferson, Ski Doo
3rd place Dalton Varney: Effingham, NH, Mercury Twister

Bangor Motorsports & J McLaughlin Construction 440 STOCK —
1st Daytona Gould: Dexter, Arctic Cat
2nd Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
3rd Shawn Berry: Center Ossipee, NH, Yamaha

Tame the Track 440 Modified race left to right Cole Valley, race winner Shawn Berry, Ben Eldridge, (all three from Ossipee Valley, NH,) and Daytona Gould, Dexter. (Jamie Hathcock photo)

O’Reilly Auto Parts 440 Modified —
1st Shawn Berry: Center Ossipee, NH, Yamaha
2nd Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Yamaha
3rd Dalton Varney: Effingham, NH, Merc Twister

1st Rate Bait and Cyr & Sons Repair IFS 440 STOCK —
1st Daytona Gould: Dexter, Arctic Cat
2nd Justin Hartford: Wolfeboro, NH, Ski Doo
3rd Joe Pelletier: Fort Kent, Arctic Cat

Crabbie’s Racing Holeshot Award and Halfway Leader Bonus — Daytona Gould: Dexter, Arctic Cat

Mission Trailers & Unifirst IFS OUTLAW —
1st Joe Pelletier: Fort Kent, Arctic Cat
2nd Daytona Gould: Dexter, Arctic Cat
3rd Ben Eldridge: Effingham, NH, Yamaha

Trail 600 Fifty lap feature podium finishers, left to right, winner Brandon Ouellette, Fort Kent, Bruce Dawson sponsor in background, second place Daytona Gould, Dexter, and third place Derek Dawson, Jefferson (Tame The Track photo)

BCD Excavation & Dawson Racing Trail 600 50 Lap Finale Winner takes –$250.00 and Runner Up receives $100.00
Brandon Ouellette: Fort Kent, Arctic Cat
Daytona Gould: Dexter, Arctic Cat
Derek Dawson: Jefferson, Ski Doo

Holeshot Award — Henry Moneypenny: West Ossipee, NH, Ski Doo
Halfway Leader Award — Derek Dawson: Jefferson, Ski Doo

The season finale: Tame the Track Snowmobile Tour double points race — Mega Meltdown, will be held during the Brian’s Ride Cancer Foundation fundraiser event on March 23rd in Caribou, Maine. The race venue is behind the Northern Brewing Company, located at 22 Main Street, directly across from the Caribou Motor Inn facility.

Go to www.tametracktour for rules, guidelines, schedules and more.

CORE Autosports back in action at Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring

CORE Autosports, with connections to the County will be competing in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring against the same Daytona Prototype International (DPi) teams from the Rolex 24 Hours race in January. The Nissan engined team will be competing for only the second time in this class. The race can be seen on CNBC starting at 10:30 am until the race concludes at 10:30 pm. (CORE Autosports photo)


This latest webinar from Ross Bentley will take place on March 26th, 2019.You’ll learn how to:
Use visualization more effectively
Learn techniques & tracks faster
Get in the zone more often
Regain your focus quickly
Sense & drive your car at its limits more consistently
Be more aware of everything around you
Drive with more confidence
Trigger your best driving performance

For more information https://speedsecrets.com/mental-prep/

Let’s go racing,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Matthew 5: 14-16)

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine