Drag racing’s founding father

Big Daddy Don Garlits to show car, share memories this weekend at Gatornationals


Big Daddy Don Garlits, a drag racing legend, is now 81 years old.

Andy Fillmore/Correspondent
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:36 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:36 a.m.

On the eve of the 2013 Gatornationals, drag racing legend Big Daddy Don Garlits revealed a trick he used for years to help him blaze down the quarter mile track like he had been shot out of cannon.

Facts

2013 Gatornationals

What: The 44th annual Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the third of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in four categories — Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle — earn points leading to 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.
Where: Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, 11211 N. County Road 225.
Schedule
Today:
Mello Yello Series, qualifying at noon, 2:15 p.m.
Saturday: Mello Yello Series, qualifying at noon, 2:15 p.m.
Sunday: Mello Yello Series, eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

It was a trick he borrowed from, well, people who shoot things out of cannons.

“When I served in the National Guard, the artillery used benzene to spread ignition throughout (multiple) powder bags to propel the shell. I added benzene to the nitro dragster fuel to get better performance. Now (benzene) is regulated,” Garlits said.

Garlits won’t be tearing up the Gatornationals track at 300 mph this year, however. After 60 years in drag racing, he’ll make an appearance at the Gainesville event to show off one of his dragsters. Otherwise, he’ll be a spectator like everyone else, which he admits is a difficult role for someone’s who’s not accustomed to sitting still.

“There’ll be a lot less pressure” as a spectator, Garlits joked.

■ ■ ■

Garlits’ love of cars and eventual entry into drag racing began with his first car, a 1940 Tudor Ford.

He saved the money for the 1940 Ford by milking cows at his parents’ dairy. After graduating from Hillsborough High School, he worked briefly as an accountant with Maas Brothers department store “wearing a white shirt” before his stepfather, Alex Weir, gave him some sage advice.

“My stepfather said ‘Son, work in something you love and you’ll spend so much time at it, things will work out,’ ” Garlits recalled.

Garlits ventured into the automotive field in the 1950s when mechanics were called “grease monkeys” and soon into drag racing when it was a “black leather jacket sport” rather than today’s family-friendly outing.

A T-shirt in Garlits’ museum gift shop in Ocala pointed out by employee Rosa Lee Marinucci carries a quote by T.C. Lemons, Garlits’ longtime racing crew chief.

“I didn’t want my mom to know I was drag racing, so I told her I was in prison for 20 years,” the inscription reads.

■ ■ ■

Garlits first raced in 1950 and took his first win in 1955.

During the 1970s, 80s, 90s and into the 2000s, Garlits sped to 17 world titles and eight U.S. National Championships. He was voted top driver of the last 50 years by the National Hot Rod Association.

Along the way, Garlits pioneered a number of evolutions in dragsters, using his Swamp Rat series of dragsters as test beds for performance and safety improvements that are standard in the sport today.

The Swamp Rat dragsters number from 1 in the 1950s to No. 34, the last dragster he drove in 2003 to set his personal record quarter-mile time of 4.73 seconds with a terminal speed of 323.04.

“(In the 1960s and ’70s) we were pioneering because everything in the sport was new. Protective equipment and track safety have improved. In the early days, spectators would actually try to touch our cars as they went by,” Garlits said.

“There’s a lot of kinetic energy (for flying debris) if a car crashes near the spectators,” he said.

Not surprisingly, it was a devastating crash in 1970 that caused Garlits to rethink the way dragsters were configured.

After an equipment failure caused a crash of a front engine-mounted dragster in 1970 at Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington, Calif., Garlits began development of a dragster propelled by a rear-mounted engine. He also introduced the protective driver’s cage that is now standard in every dragster.

“In February, (drag racer) Antron Brown had a tremendous crash at (California) but got out OK due to the protective cage,” Garlits said last week.

Garlits said he wouldn’t let his daughter, Donna, race the early front engine dragsters because of fear of injury.

“My mother (Patricia Garlits) didn’t want me to race, either,” Donna Garlits said. “Every time I see a driver survive a horrific (drag race) crash, I think of the improvement Dad introduced.

“My dad is to drag racing what Richard Petty is to stock car racing and Elvis is to rock ‘n’ roll,” she said.

In his biography, Garlits is quoted as saying the Swamp Rat 34 “could’ve gone 340 miles per hour” with the financial backing of some of the large teams that drag racers enjoy today.

“Now some of these cars are making 8,000 horsepower,” Garlits said.

“There’s no telling where the sport will go, but it can’t keep going faster. Restrictions to power might have to be considered. Some tracks don’t have sufficient length for the cars to slow and stop,” he said.

Garlits suggested single-car exhibition runs against the clock may be necessary for safety reasons.

■ ■ ■

Garlits took the Swamp Rat 12A out of the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and hauled it the Gatornationals to share it with the fans.

Donna Garlits said her “mother and father dumped their money into the museum so future generations could learn about the sport and see how many racers put their blood, sweat and tears into the sport.”

“The museum is a labor of love,” she said.

The facility features row after row of race cars, tracing the evolution of drag racing from hot rods with modified factory engines to fire breathing behemoths with slicks 17 inches wide.

These days, Garlits still toils in his workshop, bringing old cars to life and pulling performance out of anything with wheels.

His current endeavor is a salute to his roots. He recently completed a maroon 1942 Ford Tudor restoration reminiscent of his first car and is working on a 1927 Model T with an enhanced Ardun overhead valve upgrade kit, made to help improve power and cooling in trucks, according to shop foreman Chris Bumpus.

Bumpus worked on the frame last week while Big Daddy and his racing circuit friend of 50 years, Billy Hulit, looked on.

Hulit had brought several vintage transmissions for Garlits, who examined them with his characteristic attention to detail while flashing a contagious grin.

“He’s the king of racing,” Hulit said.

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