Garlits IV The Hemi, battery power, and a pistol

Episode 259

April 7, 2019

Swamp Rat 8 on display at Don Garlits Museum in Ocala, Florida. This was his first AA/FD dragster that used the new 426 Hemi to replace the out of production 392 version. (Courtesy Joseph E. Adams photo)

The Legendary 426 Hemi

I always associated “Big Daddy” Don Garlits with the Chrysler Hemi engine. When I was younger in the 1960’s I dreamt about owning a Hemi powered car with two four barrel carbs. Of course I wanted it in a Dodge Challenger, winged Daytona, or Barracuda, my favorite cars at that time.

I had the chance to ask Don Garlits about his experiences with the Hemi specifically the 426 version. Here is his reply to my inquiry.

“Okay, I’ll tell you the 426 Hemi. It’s so funny. We got some of the very first ones, in fact we got a 1963 426 Hemi. I wished I’d have kept them. They were junk, they were pitiful, they were too weak, and the blocks weren’t cast right. They broke but you know, to have one of them today on display would be something, but they were all thrown away.

We built the first 426 for 1964 Swamp Rat 8. It’s in the museum, but the front half has been changed and we call it 10. The back half is from number 8. So, we actually recreated that car because we had all the pieces and had a pattern right there. We actually have a re-creation of Swamp Rat 8 in my collection out here because it’s so important.

We carried the (426) at the Bakersfield race in 1965. There were a hundred and twenty top fuel cars in attendance.  They ran a 64-car field on Saturday, which I won with Swamp Rat 6D. They had a 32-car field on Sunday, which the car that won that race was Marvin Swartz’s Garlits Chassis Special which I drove through the entire five rounds.

Then Swartz had to get in it and race me because the winner of the 32-car field got to race the 64 car field guy who sat out on Sunday. I beat him. I won the whole shebang with 6B but 8 was there and it didn’t even qualify for the 32-car field on Sunday, but it did qualify it for a 16-car consolation race that day.

Swingle took it to runner-up against James Warren and it was running in the 8.80s the low 8.90s where I was running over 200 in the 7.70’s with my car. So, we come home and the phone rings. It’s Frank Wiley from Chrysler, my boss, which was actually Dodge, he was public relations.

And he says, ‘Garlits, we want you in the 426 car. We don’t build 392s anymore.’

I said, “It ain’t running that good.”

He said, ‘It’s never going to run that good until you take it out on the road!’

I said, “Frank the thing is so heavy.”

He said, ‘It has to be heavy. It’s for heavy-duty racing. Now I want you in that car.”

I said, “yes.”

I take the Swamp Rat 8 sign off and put Wynn Jammer on it and away I went. I couldn’t beat anybody. During that year the Greek (Chris Karamesines) was the big match race, because he was really running good.

The “Silver Bullet” Chris Karamesines dragster after restoration for the “Cackle-fest”. (Cackle-fest photo)

He was running 7.80s all the time. He beat me twenty-three runs side-by-side. In that period, I never could put a wheel out front of him. I called the car the Silver Bullet. It was so funny because his was the first car that I got in my museum besides mine.

I was in Chicago. He was our fuel dump. That’s where the nitro truck would leave the fuel and then we go by and pick it up. So, I went to pick up my fuel at the Greek’s place.

The Silver Bullet had been hanging in the ceiling for years and years and he had it down on the ground. I said, ‘Great, what are you doing with the Silver Bullet?’

He said, ‘I sold it to some guys in St. Louis. They are  going to make a dragster out of it.’

I said, ‘Greek, you would sell the Silver Bullet, the car that beat me so bad for money?’

He said, ‘I need $2,000 real bad Big Daddy.’

‘I know,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you $2,000 for it and I’ll take it back to the museum.’

This was after the museum was formed. He was probably about 80 something like that.

He said, ‘What in the world do you want with it?’

I said, ‘I’ll put that SOB in my museum and I’ll just put my Swamp Rat 8 just about two wheels out front. At least I won one race.’

He said, ‘You got it!’

We carried it back on the on the roof of the trailer and got it back here. I have it. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it. And it runs and it has  been to “Cackles” and everything.( Cackles is short for Cacklefest events which feature nitro burning race cars that seem to cackle and crack when on nitro)

UpNorth Motorsports: So did he have the 392? And did you have the 426?

Of, course, So, this 426 I had, everybody was beating me, but at this particular event where it all came to head. I won the race. It was a match race at National Trails Raceway against Jim and Allison Lee.

It was a two out of three, $1,250 for me. I’ve won the race with an 8.12. and 192 top speed. I won two of the three rounds and made all three rounds.

The match race finished up about midnight.  I go to the tower to get my money and old man Clark Rader, Senior that built the place was sitting there.

He had that great big moose head up on the wall and the beard on the moose hung down to here. That’s a real long beard on the moose. I’ll never forget that one time. I asked him, ‘Who shot that monkey?’

He said, ‘It was me.’

I said. ‘It’s a shame to kill such a beautiful animal.’

He said, ‘You see that beard? See those gray hairs in it?’

I said, ‘Yeah.’

He said, ‘That shows that moose wasn’t breeding anymore. So, it didn’t make any difference.’

I said, ‘It’s a good thing they don’t think that way about humans.’

He never liked me after that.

So, how am I going to get paid? He slides $500 across the table. At the same time, he has a 45-caliber service pistol and he slides it right out on his desk aimed  at me with his finger on the trigger. Just like that in his hands and just kind of shaking like that. (Garlits reaches in his top drawer and pulls out his 45 caliber pistol to demonstrate. He noted,’This was my sidearm in the military. It’s a dangerous weapon.’).

Garlits, ‘You laid down on me tonight!’

I said, ‘Mr. Rader, please point that pistol somewhere else. I made all the runs. I have top speed and low ET. I did not lay down.’

He said, ‘Yes you did. You didn’t go 200 miles an hour. You’re saving it for tomorrow. I advertise 200. You’ve made a fool out of me, now get out of here before I shoot you.’

So, we go down the road to Byron Dragway for the next day. We were stood up for that race, (at Rader’s track), but we weren’t saving it. It was running as hard as it would run I thought.

So, I told the kids, we’re going to blow this 426 up tomorrow and we’re going home and get the 392 stuff and going to give up the Chrysler deal. I said what good is it having free engines if they won’t run?

My crew man Bob Taft said, ‘Hey, how you going to blow it up? We never even put a rod bearing in it this whole year!’

I said, ‘I’m going to put some spark lead in it.’

Remember if you ever put more than 34 degrees (spark advance or lead) in a 392 Hemi, it doesn’t last. If you put 40 degrees, you only get one run. Then we see her walls are cracked and the waters running down in it.

We thought that this 426 was weaker in a way. I don’t know why we thought that it was weaker than the 392, but I guess because that it got so much hotter so much quicker. The 392 would make a run and it would hardly heat the water.

The water in the 426 will steam and shoot out of it at the end. What it was, it was always too lean.

So very carefully the next day at Byron Dragway with my timing buzzer I set 40 degrees, then locked the mag down.

We had been running 34 degrees in the 426 like my 392. The tune-up had that on it that’s including all the injectors and everything from the 392.

That SOB went 213 miles an hour, 7.51 seconds. and it didn’t blow up, but we rushed back to the pits and got it up on the jack stands really quick to see how bad it was hurt. Pull the pan down with no water dripping out of it. The oil looks brand-new. Didn’t need an oil change.

I pull a couple of rods down, the rod bearings weren’t touched. We put it all back together, put the pan back up on it. I said, what have I got here, and I loosen the mag and just did this and locked it down.(Garlits demonstrates a twisting motion with his hand)

I lock it down after I just eyeballed it. Just give it the “Bateman twist”.

You ever heard of John, John Bateman? He had a funny car and every run up to the final they ran like 34 degrees, but when it was the final round he loosened mag and just give it a twist and tightened it up right in the staging lane.They call it the “Bateman twist” because it  usually  blew the blower right off.

So anyway, I give it the “Bateman twist’ and locked it down. Later when I checked, it was 52 degrees.

It was the ride of my life, 219.84 miles an hour and 7.31 seconds. Bruce Crower made a t-shirt. It was a world record but not official, but he didn’t care, it was the speed. It was there and backed up too you know, and I never hurt a thing.

Keith Black, who was the big 392 guy on the West Coast for boats. He had two 392 engines for Dome (Don Prudhomme), in the Greer, Black and Prudhomme car and the Hawaiian. Those were the 2 Keith Black engines that he had in drag racing.

He called Center Line in Detroit. Center Line was the big parts depot. Black talked to the manager and said, ‘It looks like that 426 is going to be the engine of the future. I want to be a dealer. What do I have to do?

The guy said, ‘Mr. Black, the policy is you have to take a tractor-trailer load of them.’

He said, ‘Send them’.

He did become the West Coast dealer and he got real tight with Chrysler. When he made the aluminum block, it actually had a 426 Chrysler part number right on it.

UpNorth Motorsports: So, what happened to the guy that blamed you for not going 200 miles an hour?

He called me and told me I was the dirtiest SOB that ever was. He says, ‘I didn’t need anything like that. You could have just given me 200 or 201. I didn’t need 220 miles an hour. Don’t ever come back here. Don’t ever call me again.’

Garlits and land speed racing, “Whatever you say Mom”

Don Garlits “Saltliner” built to set Land Speed Records in FX/GS at Bonneville Salt Flats. The “Saltliner” went average of 217.947 mph on August 8, 1988. The Flathead Ford engine that powered the “Saltliner” is on the left of the photo.  (HTF Motorsports photo)

UpNorth Motorsports: Have you ever considered land speed racing? I’m from the former Loring Air Force  area in northern Maine where the Loring Timing Association host land speed races twice a year.  Have you ever considered doing something like that?

Yeah. I actually did it. There’s my car. It’s a flathead dragster engine, supercharged. I got in the 200 Mile-Per-Hour Club. I went an average speed of 217.917 mph, the average of two ways in August 8, 1988.

UpNorth Motorsports:What was that an attraction to you? I mean was that almost kind of boring?

I don’t want to say it that way, but it was fun. It just comes at a time of the year that’s bad for me. I’m real busy and I make a lot of money in August. There’s no money involved in this right?

Yeah. I have that car. We have it in the museum and we have the real engine that did it. It’s out of the car. So people can look at it.

A long way back there was another issue in land speed racing, when they built the Blue Flame out of Chicago. I was the driver. I want to be the driver. Yes, and because I knew the guy’s, Dick Keller, Ray Davis, and Pete Farnsworth and the other guy, Chuck Suba that was involved that had the X1 rocket car.

I was the guy scheduled to do it and we just get ready to go test and my mother, who had real good intuition, says, ‘Donnie I’ve never asked you not to do anything. I have a real bad feeling about that. Please don’t drive that car.’

I said, ‘Whatever you say Mom’. Then I  called him up and said I wasn’t driving.

Chuckling as he said it, ‘Sure enough. It went off the end. It didn’t hurt the guy but it did crash on the first run.’

I think it was Gary Gabelich. They did go fast. They did set the records with it. (Over 600 mph)


UpNorth Motorsports: What do you do in retirement?

Well, I come to this office and I open my mail. I sign all the autographs that people send me. There’s the autograph table right there (pointing toward a thick piece of glass directly in front of his desk).

That happens to be is step out of the World’s Fair in 1939 at New York. This was a step out of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass “Stairway To the Stars” exhibit. You can see where so many people went down the steps its worn supposed. It supposed to be like this (pointing toward the edges of the glass step which was the original thickness).

They set the stuff to be signed on it. I already signed this morning the stuff that had to be signed.

UpNorth Motorsports: Do you still work in your shop?

Yes, I have a shop, my own up there (pointing to another building on the sprawling complex). I’m working on a flathead dragster engine right now for a customer. And I build a couple of flatheads a year.

Big Daddy in the fab shop area. Swamp Rat 38 being built by shop foreman Chris Bumpus is directly behind Garlits and the Chrysler industrial water pump engine is on the engine stand. (HTF Motorsports photo)

I’m getting ready to put together a 1951 Chrysler industrial engine that came off of a water pump in Lake Okeechobee. This will be a running engine.

It was really in bad shape. We’ve got it all apart. Now, we’re going to over bore it and rebuild it. This will be a runner, a run stand motor.

UpNorth Motorsports: So that’s what you do in your spare time?

Yeah, it is. I have the world’s largest toy box problem. This is my toy box.

Chris Bumpus key to battery-powered dragster, Swamp Rat 38, potential success

Shop Foreman/fabricator for Don Garlits Museum, Chris Bumpus, Dunnellon, Florida, with Garlits latest version of Swamp Rats, the SR38 battery-powered dragster with a goal of 200 mph for the 1/4 mile. The Chrysler Industrial water pump engine mentioned earlier is on the left of the photo.(HTF Motorsports photo)

Chris Bumpus was a medical student who washed cars for Don Garlits as a part-time worker. Thirteen years ago Don Garlits approached Bumpus about going to work for the museum and giving up his studies in the medical field. Garlits recognized the talent that Bumpus exhibited.

Bumpus for example said, ” My father was a transmission mechanic. I did not learn a lot from him. I was in pre-med type courses in high school and did not take shop classes.”

” My wife bought me a welder. I didn’t know how to weld so I tinkered around with it and learned how to weld. Totally self-taught.”

When you look at the welds on Swamp Rat 38 you get an idea how talented this self-taught welder has become. Each bead looks simply correct with a touch of elegance.

Electrification via batteries to set 200 mph in the 1/4 mile quest

Garlits first experience battery power with the Darrell Gwynn electric dragsters, which were basically used to drag race for show and to raise money for the Spinal Cord Injury Foundation, which was set up to help people with paralysis and to prevent paralysis type accidents.

“I always troubled me about slowing them down. I hate slowing something down. So, I said to Mike Gerry (the builder of battery-powered dragsters used for  demonstration) later, maybe as much as a year later when I run into him. How fast do you think we could have went if we were taking the gloves off?”

He said, ‘You know you might reach 200 miles an hour.’

I said, “Let’s do it.”

UpNorth Motorsports:  What year would this be roughly?

“Well 5 years ago. Probably 2013. Yeah, maybe before then.  Oh, yeah, about 2013 we started running it. It would have been a couple of years before then. Probably 2011. Time gets away and goes very fast.”

“So anyway, we first we went just to Gainesville with just the chassis, just to make a squirt and NHRA really got ticked, ‘Don’t come back here with that thing anymore. It’s not safe.’”

“So I want to Bradenton and did all the testing.”

” After that there was lots of things that held us up. They build a body and then there was some arguing about who owns what in the batteries and there’s all kinds of things that just took all kinds of time.”

“But the first time we really got to the track we raised the record from 156 mph to 176 and then 184, and then 185. and that’s where our car parked. The car went to the line at 2,300 pounds with me in it and we had about 1,500 horsepower. It just couldn’t cut it.”

“So, then I got this idea. I knew they had this one single motor that was 1500 horse. And I got to thinking maybe we could just build a light car. So that’s why we built Swamp Rat 38 which is out in the shop with this single motor.”

“But they gave me some bad information. They didn’t tell me the right RPM of the motor. So, the gearing wasn’t right. So now we’ve changed gearing this week and ordered the new sprockets to gear it correctly.  Plus it was doing fishtailing at the very end and slipping when the power would really come into it.”

“What we did, we put a high wing on it because these electric motors don’t have zoomie headers for downforce. The wing itself is off Swamp Rat 29, one of my spares. That’s good for 265 mph.”

“Then we also have a rudder on it like on Swamp Rat 34 mono-wing. I’ll let you look at it. It’s out there. That should keep it nice and straight and the wing should plant it. That ought to make the difference and jump right up there the 15 mph that we need.

UpNorth Motorsports: When will that occur?

“The sprockets and the motor were sent back to the motor shop. It had some end play that had to be taken care of. That’s what I’m waiting on.”

“The guy just got back from China that does that type of work.  He goes between here and China all the time because he works for Disney.  His company works on all the floats and stuff. And so he’s real busy.”

” So he told me in a text yesterday that he would be getting right on the motor and see what it says here. Garlits quoted the text message, ‘Got my plane tickets,China to LA today, LA to Ohio tomorrow, Ohio to Orlando tomorrow night. Friday night at the shop working on the motor. Friday night flight to Ohio for a funeral. The best I can do.'”.

“That’s where it is.”

UpNorth Motorsports:  Do you think there’s any future in the electric side? How quiet was it?

“Very quiet, doesn’t make any noise at all. You can hear the tires screeching going down the track. NHRA. would not allow me last year to bring the car to Gainesville and display.”

“This year they said bring SR 38 up and make runs if you can, it is probably the wave of the future.”

“We got two or three of them in the country right now that are fast as I go. So two or three people could hit the 200 at any time.”

“If we get the electric worked out it’ll be cheaper, lots cheaper, and I think that’s what they’ll do. They’ll just introduce an electric dragster class in NHRA drag racing. They already have one in the National Electric Drag Racing Association, where there’s a few cars.”

“I think they’ll let what they’ll do because of the expense of fuel racing.”

Update on Loring Timing Association record setter

Jeff and Pam Gentry, Memphis,Tennessee, with their remodeled streamliner featuring a new nose and “Batmobile ” motif. They were part of the Charlotte Auto Fair at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He set a class record of 205.210 mph at Loring Timing Association’s Maine Event July 2018. (Jeff Gentry photo)

The latest edition of the Jeff Gentry streamliner. Plans are to power this car with a Mercedes OM648 turbo diesel. He will pursue records at Bonneville. (Jeff Gentry photo)

The Gentry streamliner as it looked at the 2018 LTA event when it was powered by a 383 small block Chevy. (Stacy Robey photo)

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