“Big Daddy” Don Garlits Part II and snowmobile race scheduled

Episode 256

March 17, 2018

It was January 14, 1932 in Tampa, Florida when drag racing legend-to-be, Don Garlits was born to Edward and Helen Garlits. Ed and Helen had eloped from their New Jersey homes, she was 18 and Ed 40.

When the Garlits had arrived in Florida, it was said they possessed somewhere near $100.000 and lived in Tampa’ high end. In the grips of the Great Depression, the bank they had deposited their money went broke, leaving them virtually penniless owning only a small plot of land on the outskirts of town.

The Garlits shared a ramshackle home with another couple according to Don Garlits who shared the story at the Don Garlits Museum with my brother Bill and I in January. For some reason the other couple were disgruntled living in such conditions.

In March 1932, two months after Garlits was born, he was in his crib near the back of the home when the couple that had been living with them decided they had enough. A trail of kerosene was spread throughout the house and was ignited as they locked the front door and ran away.

It was unclear if they knew that baby Don was still in the shack, however, as the smoke began to billow out the windows, Helen screamed, “The baby, the baby!” and she and Ed raced to the house.

Ed got there first and tried the back door, it was locked. He raced around to the front which was also locked. He knocked the door down and raced to the back room where Garlits was in his crib. The crib was covered in a mosquito net which had caught fire and was dropping embers on the baby.

Ed scooped Garlits into his arms covering him in his coat, ran through the house which was fully engulfed, and through the flames, out into the front yard gasping for breath thus saving his son’s life.

Garlits did not tell us if charges were pressed against the former co-tenants, but he did say his mother and father  moved into a tool shed on the property.  His father began to rebuild the family home.

Life lesson at two

At two Garlits got a lesson in perseverance and hard work when a load of bricks for the new chimney were dropped off at the home site. Wet soil conditions did not allow the truck to get close to the chimney building area and the driver dropped them off at the road despite Garlits mother urging him not to drop them at that location.

Garlits described it this way, “When dad came home from work he went ballistic. He was ranting and raving and all of a sudden he got this bright idea. He said: ‘The boy can move the bricks.’

“And boy, did I like that.”

But my mother yelled, “The baby can’t move the bricks, Ed! It’s cruel!”

“It’s not cruel,” Dad said. “He can do it!”

“For the first time, I felt like a contributing family member. My mother said I couldn’t do something, but my father, a strong but often abusive man, said I could. I wanted to make my father proud.”

“I’m already gearing up to do it. My dad said I could do it. My mother said I couldn’t do it. I thought to myself, ‘What in the world is she talking about? Who’s the baby? You’re holding the baby!” Garlits said of his little brother Ed, who had been born earlier that year.

Big Daddy’s father went out to the dirt road and got out his engineer’s slide rule. He walked up to Don’s little red wagon and put five bricks in. He then looked at his pocket watch. He did some math, and said, “The boy can move the bricks in seven days, if he starts when I drive out this driveway in the morning at daylight and he stops when my truck comes in at dark.”

Helen screamed and screamed: “The baby!” Garlits recalls. “Every other word was baby.”

As it turned out, Garlits said,”The baby moved the bricks in five days and became a man.”

School teacher is an influence to Garlits

Garlits was influenced his senior year by his high school General Metals Instructor Mr Howard Fuller. Mr. Fuller showed the young man, who up to then was considering a career as an accountant, the California publication, Hot Rod Magazine with its shiny street cars and home-built race cars.

When Garlits met Hillsborough High School senior Pat Bieger in 1952 his interests changed from street rodder to married man in February 1953. A chance visit to a drag strip they were passing by lit an interest in both of them. This 27 Ford Model T was built by Garlits under an oak tree in their front yard in North Tampa in 1954. It had a top speed of 130 mph and turned the 1/4 mile 13.5 seconds and a speed of 93 mph. The drag racing fuse was ignited. (HTF Motorsports photo)

Garlits was burned by igniting fuel after a manifold explosion at Chester, South Carolina in 1959. His hands were so severely burned that at one time, doctors considered amputation. Garlits would hear nothing of that.

He sold his racing equipment and went into a racing partnership with Art Malone who would drive Swamp Rat 1 followed by Connie Swingle later in 1960. Both men continued with Garlits for years. Swamp Rat I was pictured in last week’s episode. It is the car that Malone used to set a speed record at Sanford, Maine.

Three career highlights

At the interview conducted in Big Daddy’s office by my Florida helper/brother Bill and I, Garlits was asked about three highlights in his career.

He replied, “Winning the US Nationals in 1964, and that was the highlight of the first car over 200, officially 201.34. Then winning the 1975 World Championship for NHRA, which was the first NHRA points race sponsored by Winston. Going into Ontario 400 points down having to win the race, set top speed, and low ET, in order to get enough points ahead and I did that.”

“And then 2001 they dared me to come back and drive one of these top fuel dragsters. I’d been out for 17 years and I came back into the sport. I borrowed a car from Gary Clapshaw in Las Vegas, the Spirit of Las Vegas, and drove 303 mph at Indianapolis. It revived me and I got one of my old cars out of mothballs and refurbished it, Swamp Rat 34, campaigned if for three years, reached 323 mph in 4.7seconds. I would say those are 3 big highlights.”

The race that changed Garlits and top fuel dragsters

Probably one of racing’s most famous photos. Caption read: March 1970 Driver Injured as Transmission Explodes. Don (Big Daddy) Garlits is in satisfactory condition in a Long Beach, California, hospital after he suffered leg and foot injuries when his AA-fuel dragster broke in half. Garlits underwent surgery on his right foot after the accident, which occurred in the final round of top fuel-eliminator competition at the American Hot Rod Association Grand American Pro series in Long Beach. It is not known if he will ever race again. Garlits is an ex-national champ. (Credit: The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The above photo was splashed around the world when Garlits’ Top Fuel Dragster transmission exploded at the start line at the Lions Dragstrip. A piece of the exploding transmission went into the crowd at the opposite side of the track seriously injuring 17-year-old Timothy Ditt whose left arm was nearly amputated.

When Garlits came to the line, Lions Dragway Starter Larry Sutton noted, “The car didn’t move right after the dry hop and I knew something was wrong with the car, I have seen enough cars race to know the difference. So I knew something stupid was going to happen I just didn’t know what. I push the button, Garlits’ car exploded and something hit the pole in front of my face, cutting the timing lights wire.”

Garlits car was cut in two and sat running about 100 feet from the starting line until the Hemi engine ran out of fuel. Crew member TC Lemons sprinted to the roll cage portion of the dragster as did Sutton. Fortunately nothing ignited and they along with Tom McEwen, another Top Fuel Dragster driver, and Mickey Thompson were at the site helping extricate Garlits.

Garlits lost consciousness for a short time and when he came to, “Mickey Thompson came up there, and he looked at my foot. You couldn’t actually see my foot with the boots and all, but you could see it was all mangled up. So Mickey Thompson took that leg up under his arm just like that, so I couldn’t see it while they unbuckled me and got me out of the car.”

“Now there are some events that are very important and probably more important than the three from above. One would be the explosion at Long Beach which I lost part of my right foot. It’s not a highlight, but it’s one of the most important things because it forced me to get serious about developing a rear engine car which I did.”

“One year later we debuted that car which changed the entire face of the sport. Every car out there now of any consequence, all the classes, are rear engine because of that development. There were no successful rear engine cars up to that point and all that were had been jokes. People just laughed at them.”

“They all crashed and they did all sorts of stuff. They couldn’t compete with the slingshots but my car did. It not only competed with them, it was faster, and of course, look what it did, the results are history.”

The rear engine Swamp Rat 14 that changed everything

My assistant/brother Bill Hale admiring Swamp Rat 14 at the Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum. (HTF Motorsports photo)

When I asked Garlits about whether he had been thinking about a rear engine drag chassis before the Lions transmission explosion and how did he overcome the problems that others ran into with their rear engine designs.

“Oh yeah, but it was just thinking about it, not actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of building it and taking it to the track and realizing how difficult it was to make it work. And I’d set in Dwane Ong’s ‘Pawnbroker’ car which was a nice car and also Bernie Schackler had one.”

“Dwane Ong’s wasn’t too bad. He’d actually won a race over there in New York at New York National Speedway, a big event. That was really the first big event won by a rear engine car but for some reason that was all he did. He didn’t do anything in AHRA or the NHRA  and he wasn’t a big name so and he didn’t out run anybody important so who cared, right?”

“Nobody wanted to, I mean people don’t like change, I’ll never forget when I showed up at Waterman’s place (Waterman’s Racing Engines) with the rear engine car. I actually had given up on the rear engine car and set it aside after 3 months of testing, never getting down the dragstrip once.”

“I set it aside and we snapped together Swamp Rat 15. The rear engine car was Swamp Rat 14. And we were just putting the finishing touches on the body panels when the wife walked out in the shop. She was comptroller and she took all the deposits and everything, so she knew what was going on.”

“She looked at that car on the rack with the jig and me working on the body and she knew what it was but she says ‘What is that?’”

“I said, well it’s my car for 1971. In three weeks I have to be at Long Beach, California at the Grand American.  That was a 10 race series that paid $10,000 a race. That’s a $100,000 contract, nothing to be sneezed at in 1971. I said they’re expecting me there and I haven’t got on the strip one time in this rear engine car.”

Garlits voice was now raising to a crescendo as it often did when he was excited about telling a story during the interview.

” She said, You would get back in one of those monstrosities after its mutilated you like it has?'”

” I said, ‘Honey this is what I do and I don’t have a transmission in this car and that’s what hurt me.’”

“She said, ‘You have 6 friends that were killed in these cars in the last 2 years and not one of them had a transmission. There’s one hundred things back there to hurt you.’”

“It’s so funny, in the picture of me winning the NHRA Nationals with the slingshot, in the other lane, it’s blowing up and, in the lights, you can see the black pieces in the smoke that’d just went by the guys hip. I mean it’s so poetic.”

Garlits, like a good husband listens to his wife

“We took the car back to the track the next day and went right off the track. We were working on the rear, we thought there was something funny about the rear end.”

“We were trying Detroit lockers, we were trying spools, we were trying open rears, we were trying everything, and it just darted off the track at high-speed, which you couldn’t do today because of the concrete barriers. You’d hit them about 2 or 3 times, you’d kill yourself or it’d be over.”

“But this track was built though in Orlando and a guard rail was 100 feet from the track in front of the spectators, way away from the track. It’s like all this nice smooth dirt and I could go out there and spin it out and not get hurt you know. So, we went back out again and went off the track. We were coming home and I’m like really dejected, I mean we just have run out of ideas on what’s wrong.”

How close is it now to Long Beach, California race?

Three weeks, two weeks maybe. Maybe another week has gone because the sling shot was finished. All I had to do was paint the panels and put the letters on”

“So we go back to the shop, on the way back to the shop I’m riding what I call shotgun in the passenger’s seat, Swingle is driving and TC’s setting between us.”

“I didn’t have glasses then and I had my hat just like this and I said, ‘You know boys if I didn’t know better I’d think the steering is too fast, but that can’t be it ’cause we put the steering on that car just exactly the way it came off the slingshot.’”

“See this was before rack and pinions. We had the steering box way up front with all exactly the same stuff, it just ran the little arms out to the arms on the spindles.

Swingle said,” Gar, this isn’t a slingshot.  This is a front driver. If you think it steers to fast, we’ll just slow it down’.

“That night, we made longer arms for the spindles and shortened the little arm up which was pretty short already but we shortened it up more on the box and we go back to the track the next day and go straight as a string.”

“But the good part was, which you didn’t even expect, this is a very light car. It went to the line about 1250 pounds with me in.”

“It turned 6.86 seconds.  Now that don’t sound like anything today, but at that particular point in the sport that track record was 6.85 by the Ram-Chargers who set low ET everywhere they went.They hardly ever won a race cause they had a p- poor driver that couldn’t leave good, but they could sure lay down a number.”

“We only had 75% nitro in this car ’cause we just were trying to get from here to there.”

“We couldn’t get that stuff together fast enough. We go back to the shop and we got this nice brand new slingshot sitting on this jig and it’s a totally worthless now.  We’ve just made it worthless.”

“This is how my life has went and it goes this way because I believe the Man Upstairs runs the show and if you work with Him, they can’t stop you.”

“So anyway, the phone rings. Its Goodyear Tire and Rubber. They said,’Big Daddy we’re in trouble.’

“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’

‘The car we were supposed to have at Coliseum in LA can’t make it this weekend. We got a big problem, we wanted a nice dragster there,  a slingshot dragster with Goodyear tires on it for this show. Have you got anything?’

“I told them what I have.”

‘Oh my God, that’s perfect, that’s perfect. Can you get it to us?’

“I said I can.”

‘How much will all that cost?’

“I said $10,000.”

‘We’ll wire you the money,’

“We take the rear engine car all apart and we load the chassis in the rear of this small trailer; just tag-along trailer. We put the engine in the rack.”

“Now we don’t even have a spare engine, and of course the engine in the sling shot is a dummy we make up from broken parts. We put the nice finished sling shot on the floor of the trailer just like it’s a race car.”

“We got the rear end of the rear engine car over in a box in the corner, the body panels are wrapped up in blankets. It’s a tiny little 2 side panels and a nose. you know it’s nothing to it. They’re wrapped up in blankets on the floor.”

“For all practical purposes, you open that little side door and there’s no lights, it just looks like there’s a slingshot in there, a brand new one so we head out to California, me and Tommy.”

What happens in California? What does Chaparral’s Jim Hall have to do with the rear engine dragster? What about the battery powered dragster? You will need to read next week’s episode to find out.

“Big Daddy” vs Shirley Muldowney

As part of the 50th Annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Anniversary Celebration, at Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, eight legends of drag racing squared off against each other in the Unfinished Business competition. Fan votes paired Don Garlits vs Shirley Muldowney in the first round. Muldowney In the pink Toyota never looked back beating Garlits 15.49 to 17.41 in a rematch of their Top Fuel Final at Gainesville in 1982. Muldowney also won in 1982. The legend races were won by “The Professor” Warren Johnson. (NHRA photo)

Brian’s Ride volunteers getting ready for Caribou race

Looking out the back window of Madore Farms New Holland at the John Deere of Shawn Pelletier while clearing snow for parking and pits at the site for Tame the Track Mega Meltdown 2019. The groomers will move in next to prepare the race surface. (Madore Farms photo)

Caribou’s Keith Dumond utilizes a Volvo loader to push back the banks at the Mega Meltdown Vintage Endurance race track. The track is behind the Northern Brewing Restaurant in Caribou. Races begin at 11 am Saturday March 23. Proceeds from the event will go to benefit Brian’s Ride Cancer Fund at Jefferson Cary Medical Center.(Madore Farms photo)

Vintage sled displays

Vintage snowmobile fans had a chance to view some of the area’s finest restored sleds the past couple weekends. March 9 they were on display at Lakeview Restaurant and at the Presque Isle Snowmobile Club this past weekend. Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame member Tom Peters was at both events with his sleds. (Black Dot Photography)

Some of the vintage snowmobiles on display at the Presque Isle Snowmobile Club this past weekend. (Black Dot Photography)

Austin Theriault back in action at Martinsville

After not qualifying at the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season opener, Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault will be strapping into the #92 Ricky Benton racing Black’s Tire & Service/Highland Construction Ford F-150 this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The paper clip shaped 1/2 mile track will be open for truck series practice Friday afternoon March 22 and qualifying 10:40 am Saturday on FS1. The race get’s underway at 2:00 pm on FOX and MRN Radio.

Austin Theriault’s #92 Ricky Benton Ford F-150 crew has their truck ready for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Martinsville Saturday March 23 at 2 pm. (AT Racing photo)

WAR Season Opener at Hickory Saturday

Wyatt Alexander Racing will open their 2019 racing season at Hickory Speedway, Hickory, North Carolina for the CARS Tour MTP Tire 300. The Maine based team has tested and will be ready for the 7:05 pm start.

Northern Maine Karting Association (NMKA) displaying at “Swing Into Spring” 

The Presque Isle Forum will be bustling with activity this Saturday March 23 & 24 as the Kiwanis Club’s “Swing Into Spring” Show will have a wide variety of clubs and vendors celebrating spring. NMKA will have club members on site to help those interested in kart racing at Spud Speedway, 2019. Pick up a schedule and copy of the rules as you cruise the Forum. Hours will be 9 to 6 on Saturday and 10 to 4 on Sunday. Adult admission is $3.

Check out the race karts at the “Swing into Spring” Show at the Presque Isle Forum.

Kody Swanson begins defense of his Silver Crown Championship @ USAC Season opener next weekend

Once again I am honored to cover Kody Swanson’s 2019 USAC season as he and his new team, Nolen Racing from Whiteland, Indiana, attempt to get in the Winner’s Circle. Swanson is the all-time Championship Driver in the USAC Silver Crown Series with his four drivers titles (2014,15, 17 & 18) and 24 wins.

He joins Nolen Racing after Bob Hampshire retired his race team at the end of the 2018 season. Hampshire was the leading team owner with 7 seasons championships.

The Memphis 3/4 mile D shaped pavement track will have practice sessions on Friday March 22 and racing at 2:20 pm Saturday. Race can be seen at http://www.floracing.com/?fbclid=IwAR37_l-H8kSHx-F5QIiVjYLTISuRPTY3ZHkrD5QyLWUY1PAl7b7no7HYdA4

Swanson brothers ,Trevor and Adam in the front, are ready to cheer on their Dad in 2019. Dad was practicing at Salem Speedway in Indiana. (Jordan Swanson photo)

Looking forward to the Firecracker 200 August 4, 2019 at Spud Speedway

Your chance to help “Feed the County” 2019 by signing up to sponsor a portion of the Firecracker 200 August 4, 2019. Information can be found at www.feedthecounty.com

Let us close this episode with this video showing the rebuilding of one of my favorite engines, the powerplant for the Mark Donohue 917 CanAm car courtesy Canepa . Enjoy!


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