Bobby Vodnik, second from right, consults with the Masters & Richter team after losing fire in the first round at the 1964 Winternationals.
The great thing about this column has always been the way that one story can cascade into another, and that’s especially true for today’s column.
Shortly after I posted the tale of Jack Williams at the 1964 Winternationals two weeks ago, I got an email from Bobby Vodnik, who gained national fame by upsetting Don Garlits in the final round of Top Eliminator at the 1963 Nationals and also competed in that 1964 Pomona event, asking me to call him, which, of course, I eagerly did. Even though he never reached another national event final, everyone remembers Vodnik and his place in Indy lore, and I was eager to hear his story.
Vodnik wanted to take issue with part of the report I’d written on the Winternationals, specifically his first-round race with Garlits. I was working from the report in National Dragster and Vodnik from personal — albeit 50-year-old — memory, but it was worth hearing. While he admits that he lost fire on the line against Garlits, he also swears that Garlits fouled on his winning run, and they were both disqualified and that Garlits did not run against Kenny Safford in the semifinals, where I had reported him losing on a red-light.
Vodnik, now 70 years old and feeling a bit under the weather — medically and literally after five feet of snow in the Chicago area, where he still lives — the day we spoke, was emphatic about what happened.
“I remember it clearly,” he said. “When I let go of the brake to grab the steering wheel, I tripped the mag switch. The tire never made a complete turn. I was so pissed I just turned right off the track, but Garlits red-lit. Both of us were disqualified.”
I’m not sure if the famed “first or worst” rule was in use then, which would have re-instated Garlits’ lesser infraction against Vodnik’s lane-crossing violation, and I couldn’t find any supporting material, online or in books, to support what did or didn’t happen.
“I was very pissed off that they might let Garlits back in,” he remembered. “I told Masters & Richter, ‘You get this car ready to run; if they let him back in, they’ll have three cars on the line,' and I was dead serious about it.”
With such a conflict, I was intrigued, so, naturally, I reached out to “Big Daddy,” his own bad self, for clarification. Over the years, I’ve known Garlits to be a fair and accurate historian of his own career, but, alas, he was not able to shed any new light on the subject.
In what I find to be a deliciously ironic photo, Don Garlits, near lane, squares off against Norm Weekly on a qualifying run. Garlits' own Swamp Rat VI did not qualify, but Weekly then stepped out of the Frantic Four car to let Garlits drive it on Sunday. Note that the Christmas Tree is laid down on its side between them; apparently it was not used during qualifying?
“That race has left my memory completely,” Garlits admitted. “I would tend to believe ND. Over a long period of time, a lot of the memories change, and the person thinks his memory is fact, when they are not. I have had a lot of experience with this because I have all the records here to draw on and see hundreds of people telling me stories that are just not true. However, I do not contradict the story teller; it just upsets them!”
One could hardly fault Garlits for not remembering one run out of a career that spanned thousands, especially a first round. I also don’t think he meant anything derogatory toward Vodnik.
Still, I remained perplexed. I went through the photo department’s contact sheets from the event but could not find Garlits racing Safford. The problem was somewhat exacerbated by my less-than-thorough ability to pick out cars from that era, especially when the cockpit was enveloped in smoke from the run. Safford’s car had a very unique cockpit area — squared off and heavily upholstered — but you can’t see that when it’s covered in tire smoke. Garlits was driving that day for Weekly, Rivero, Fox, and Holding after he had failed to qualify his own car (he was not alone; Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Art Malone, Connie Kalitta, and other big names also failed to make the quick eight); had Garlits been driving his own Swamp Rat VI, it would have helped, but he was driving the Frantic Four car Sunday. While there are many from that era who can identify the bare bones, bodyless slingshots by their injector scoops, headers, front-wing size and placement, and other clues, I’m not one of them.
Fortunately, I have no lack of friends with great resources. I know that Bob Frey keeps incredible records on these things and has the magazine collection to back it up, so I asked for his help. I also reached out to Dave Wallace, who I knew would have the Drag News — "the Racer's Bible" — from that event.
Frey went above and beyond the call, searching through multiple sources. Here’s his report:
“I have often said that the reporting of races back then was an antiquated and flimsy as the cars that raced. It is very confusing, but I will try to do my best.
"Garlits faced Vodnik in round one, and according to most reports, most but not all, Garlits won the race and advanced to the second round. There, he faced Kenny Safford, fouled out and was eliminated. According to Car Craft magazine, May 1964, ‘ … the next round (second round) was a different story, however. Garlits came back against Kenny Safford and, gambling for an edge on the line, hit the foul lights.’ That would mean that Garlits did advance to round two.
“Hot Rod Magazine, May 1964, has a mini-ladder in their report, and it shows the #71 car (the one driven by Garlits) advancing to the second round where it fouled out against Safford. But there is no mention in their article or ladder about the fact that the car was driven by Garlits; all references are to Norm Weekly.
“To further muddy the waters, Modern Rod magazine, in their July 1964 issue, states, ' … Daddy got a red-light on a strong, smoky run, but Vodnik’s engine coughed when 50-feet out. He turned off, and both were disqualified. … In the next round, Safford made a wind-blown single to prepare for his go with Ivo in the semifinals.’
"Drag Racing Magazine, July 1964, says this about the Garlits-Vodnik race: ‘Both dropped out as Garlits got a red-light, and Vodnik’s engine coughed on the line. He turned off early and was disqualified.’ It added, ' … Winds pushed Safford to a single speed of 195.22.' The Modern Rod and Drag Racing magazine stories have the feel of being written by the same guy, which could account for the similarity in wording.”
So that seemed like a bit of a push to me, but Frey then turned to even better source material, Garlits' own King of the Dragsters book, which was published in 1967. It reads, “I got some revenge against Bobby Vodnik by putting him on the trailer with an 8.17 at 187.88. Then I went up against Kenny Safford and gambled a particle of a second too much with the Christmas Tree starting system and drew a red-light.”
Opined Frey, “That sounds like proof positive to me that he ran in the second round. [Garlits’ writing was] current enough that I think the race would be fresh in his mind, so I certainly think it's correct. I would think that stories that have him racing in round two would be more correct than ones that say he wasn't there. It easy to miss a round, as they often did in those early stories and recaps, but it's impossible to make up a round.”
Yet as they say on TV: But wait, there’s more …
Wallace scanned me the pages from the Feb. 22, 1964, Drag News coverage of the event, which reported thusly: "Next up was the M&R Special against Weekly, Rivero, Fox, and Holding with Don Garlits at the controls; the Weekly crew felt that Garlits knew the Christmas Tree best, so they let him drive ... Don was just a little too quick and got a red-light and lost the race with an 8.17 and 187.88, but M&R blew something and were unable to continue in competition." And later in the story, it reads, "Second round of Top Fuel started off with Safford making a single at 7.95 and 195.22."
So there you have it. Clear as mud. Anyone have any other evidence to add?
Just as that tidbit about the race seemed to still be spinning out of control, Frey sent me a couple of scans from the 1964 issue of Drag Racing Magazine
that also dismisses the romantic notion of the Crossley-Williams-Swan’s tow back to Bakersfield to repair an ailing engine and their police-led escort through the Grapevine snow back to Pomona.
In an article blurbed on the cover as “How I won the Winternationals,” Williams confirmed the engine damage (a cracked cylinder wall just before Saturday’s class final led to no water on that side of the engine) and, because they didn’t have a spare engine, the Bill Crossley and Don Swan headed home to Bakersfield to repair the engine. “Don and Bill sleeved the block, bored it again, and spent all night fixing it up for Sunday afternoon,” he wrote. “On the way back, they were slowed up in the mountains, because of rain, but rolled into Pomona just in time. The stories about the police escort leading them through a snowstorm made a good human-interest item, but were only a figment of some announcer’s imagination.”
Man, I hate it when the facts get in the way of a good story …
OK, that’s it for today; make of all of that what you will. Next week, I’ll talk about the short-but-very-interesting career of Vodnik and a follow-up on last week’s Cassidy brothers column.
(Above) The Cassidy brothers, John, third from left, and Les, third from right, made a lot of fans on the East Coast in the 1970s with their Funny Cars, including their rare Grand Am-bodied alky burner (below). Sharp-eyed race fans might be able to pick out other familiar faces in the photo above, including Nick Boninfante, center, and respected machinist John "Indian" Morgan, far right.
I may have mentioned a time or two (or maybe 20) that I was a big fan of the rare Grand Am Funny Car bodies of the 1970s, which is why I always had a special place in my heart for an East Coast car and a team that I never saw race, the New Jersey-based Cassidy brothers.
Brothers Les and John first competed in Top Alcohol Funny Car, first with a Barracuda, then with a Grand Am before making the leap to nitro in 1976, and they more than held their own in the tough Division 1 wars. Les, the driver, passed away in 2004 and “Big John” joined his younger brother at the great dragstrip in the sky this past Monday, passing away after a decades-long battle with diabetes.
The sad news came to me from longtime Insider follower Franklin Amiano, who was a crewmember on the brothers’ team over the years, and was able to offer some background on their efforts over the years.
According to Amiano, the brothers campaigned a number of cars over the years, including a ’32 Bantam-bodied fuel altered named Heaven Express that Les began driving when he was just 16. They stretched the altered’s chassis to Funny Car length and added a Barracuda body for a car that became the first of a series of Sundance Kid machines. They ran the blown Donovan-powered 'Cuda as an outlaw (at the time) blown alcohol Funny Car on Tom "Smoker" Smith's East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit.
As their skills progressed so did their cars. A new S&W chassis was commissioned and "Rapid Red” Lang called Mickey Thompson, who owned the mold for the Grand Am, and put in a good word for the brothers, who then had their own beautiful Grand Am that was circuit raced up and down the East Coast and was “a middle of the pack qualifier” at East Coast national events, according to Amiano.
The brothers had impressive immediate success when they switched to nitro (“after the usual learning curve, which included the addition of seven fire bottles and trucker-chain restraints on the blower!” recalls Amiano).
In one of their first outings with pop in the tank, they were runner-ups to “Jungle Jim” Liberman at Maple Grove Raceway’s NHRA WCS event and hit the East Coast match race scene hard. Before long they won their first match race, beating Gary Burgin (twice) and then AHRA world champ Tom Hoover in the final at eight-car Englishtown, then were runner-up to Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max the following weekend at the IHRA Pro Am at Rockingham, N.C. Later that year, they ran the quickest nitro-powered Donovan pass in history, a 6.18, at New England Dragway and closed out the year with a runner-up to Shirl Greer in Florida.
“By 1977, they were on a roll,” recalls Amiano. “Combining a trick match race combination, a new, lighter Monza body, and Les' razor-sharp reaction times, they squared off the best touring gunners in the country with extremely impressive results. Over the next couple of years, they managed to beat (at least once) every top name Funny car in the country, except Prudhomme and the Blue Max.”
Amiano recalls that Les beat Gary Burgin six times before Burgin finally got a W against them, but “Big John” didn’t give Burgin much time to gloat. “John went over to Burgin, put his arm over Burgin's shoulder, and told him, ‘The crankshaft and cylinder heads are older than the driver. What did you beat?’ "
The brothers never ventured far westward but ran all up and down the East Coast — their motto was "Montreal to Miami" — running both Division 1 and 2. They won the Division 1 crown and probably would have won Division 2, but, according to Amiano, backed off to allow Billy Meyer to win the title to gather points to compete at the World Finals. The Cassidys also swept the Winter Rebel Series, winning both the Snowbird National Open and the Turkey Trot Nationals. Les also owns the distinction of being the last driver to square off in competition against Liberman before his fatal auto accident in September 1977.
From 1974 to 1978, the brothers famously hauled their race car inside an old school bus that “Big John” had bought from a guy who had used it to haul a show car.
“It was still yellow, everything inside was gutted, but it had ramps and a Ryder truck back door,” recalls Amiano. “At the time, I was helping Joe Siti put together the original Philadelphia Flyer Monza (I named it!), so John and Les drove the bus to Joe's Custom Paint Shack and we painted it Coca-Cola red and white. Johnny finished off the inside like a motorhome with bunks, closets, and a 12-volt refrigerator. I installed the 8-track stereo.
“At the Maple Grove points race, when Lester beat ‘Jungle’ for the win, he wasn't even booked in. That was a Frank LeSeur show, but Mike Lewis told Johnny, ‘If you guys want to come out, whatever you win is yours.’ At the track, John and Les went over to Frank LeSeur to ask about getting booked in; Frank told them: ‘I don't book no school bus acts.’ That really hurt Lester's feelings and made him mad. He proceeded to march through Frank's cars, finally meeting ‘Jungle’ in the final. The bus is now being used as a storage shed in Jackson, N.J.”
The brothers raced together through the early 1980s, and Les became a hired driver for a few years after that. They finally sold the race car operation and started a taxi cab company in the Florida Keys, and life was pretty good, according to Amiano, until Les’ 2004 passing at age 50 under very sad circumstances.
“Les was on his way to see his son, Lester Jr., for Junior’s birthday when apparently he had a stroke,” said Amiano. “He finally made it to his ex-wife's house but very late. Junior had fallen asleep on the couch waiting for his dad. Les' ex told him to go sleep in Junior’s room and they'd sort everything out in the morning. When Junior went in to wake up Les in the morning, Les was dead. He had a heart attack in his sleep and died in his son's bed, on his son's birthday. How sad is that?
“ ‘Big John’ soldiered on, dealing with the complications of diabetes. He remained upbeat and optimistic until the very end. The stories of the Cassidy bros.' antics are legendary. You'll hear them whenever old fuel racers gather. Guys like Tommy Ivo, Dale Pulde, Nick Boninfante Sr., and ‘the Greek’ all have their own personal favorites.”
I’m sure they’re not alone in thinking of the Cassidy bros. as favorites, especially among the legion of East Coast fans who rooted for them against the big dogs in the 1970s.
Fifty years ago at the Winternationals, Jack Williams scored a wild Top Fuel victory that ultimately would lead to the world championship. Race queen Bobbie Hefley presented him with a "flash edition" of National Dragster proclaiming his win.
The 2014 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals went successfully and speedily into the record books last weekend, with John Force running the fastest Funny Car speed and the second quickest Funny Car e.t. en route to setting both ends of the national record. Nitromethane fuel, of course, is the key ingredient in propelling Funny Cars from a standing start to more than 320 mph in less than four seconds and 1,000 feet, an exotic and wondrous fuel, a byproduct of furnace fuel that contained nitrobenzene for improved heating efficiency. It was adapted in small doses in the Formula 1 cars in the 1930s and eventually found its way to the salt flats and dragstrip in the mid-1950s.
The potent fuel boosted performances in dragsters to a level that many Southern California track owners were not comfortable with, perhaps highlighted by the stunning 166.97-mph pass at Lions Drag Strip in early 1957 — a 7-mph increase over the best gas dragster time.
On April 1, 1957, a consortium of SoCal tracks, including Santa Ana, Lions, Pomona, San Gabriel, Kingdon, and others voted to ban the use of exotic fuels and called for NHRA to support it, which NHRA President Wally Parks did. The so-called “fuel ban” officially lasted until the end of the 1963 season, although NHRA experimented with its return at the 1963 Winternationals but ran that year’s Nationals in Indy on gas only. The 1964 Winternationals marked the official end of the ban, which brings me to today’s subject.
Fifty years ago last weekend, the late Jack Williams scored a very memorable Winternationals win at those 1964 Winternationals, winning the event under some pretty abnormal conditions.
At that time, Top Fuel racing was conducted very differently than it is today. On Saturday, all of the AA/FDs would race against one another for class honors, with the winner earning the right to race against the winner of a qualified eight-car field that competed Sunday. Runs made in class eliminations also would count toward qualifying for Sunday’s field.
Williams, driver of the Crossley-Williams-Swan entry, and fellow Smoker’s Car Club members Bill Crossley and Don Swan worked their way methodically through Saturday’s field, defeating Mickey Thompson’s blower-belt-losing Hemi Ford with an 8.19, Denny Milani in Ted Gotelli’s machine with an 8.07, red-lighting Chris Karamesines with an 8.10 to reach the final, where he took on Gary Casady in the Baber & Casady entry. Williams collected the win with an 8.33 to Casady’s 8.88, but the win was costly for Williams when the slingshot’s engine blew in the lights.
This being 1964 and not 2014, there was no arsenal of spare engines waiting in the trailer, so the team loaded up their mount and trailered home to Bakersfield, about 140 miles to the north but over the Tehachapi Mountains and the Tejon Pass on the old Highway 99 Ridge Route that predated the modern Interstate 5.
The group made it home and spent all night building a new engine and then hopped back in the truck for what they hoped would be a speedy return to the track. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas.
A raging snowstorm had descended on the pass, and law enforcement officials closed the route, already one of California’s most treacherous, to traffic. Somehow, the trio was able to convince the lawmen — race fans perhaps? — to not only allow them to pass the roadblock but to provide a police escort down the slippery road, albeit at an “inches-per-minute” pace.
Against all odds, they made it back to Pomona in time to take part in Sunday’s pre-race parade with the eight qualified cars. Williams had actually run quick enough Saturday — an 8.03 — to qualify fifth, but because of Williams’ Saturday win, No. 9 qualifier Kenny Safford was inserted into the field in his place.
Eliminations were conducted under conditions that included “gale-force winds” and began with Safford taking full advantage of his reprieve and shutting down low qualifier Jeep Hampshire on a massive first-round holeshot, 8.02 to 7.85. Don Garlits, the defending Winternationals champ, surprisingly had failed to qualify in the top eight and had lost in Saturday’s class eliminations when he pulled off the track too soon after James Warren’s red-light also got a reprieve when the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding “Frantic Four” team allowed him to take the seat of their third-qualified machine (again, different era, different rules) to face off with Bobby Vodnik and the Masters & Richter machine in a rematch of their final round at the previous year’s Nationals. Garlits got easy revenge with an 8.17 when Vodnik lost fire on the line. “TV Tommy” Ivo put away James Warren, 8.00 to 8.06, and Karamesines joined them in the semifinals with a stout 7.86 after Milani’s engine blew.
Williams, near lane, defeated Tommy Ivo in Sunday's final Top Fuel runoff.
Garlits then red-lighted to the Safford-Ratican-Gade machine in the semifinals, and Karamesines did the same against Ivo. The final round went to Ivo, 7.98 to 8.03, to set up the run against Williams for the overall win.
The Crossley-Williams-Swan team had been given the opportunity during the day to make a checkout pass with the new engine, and all went well, heightening expectations for the final. Ivo got the jump at the Tree — being used for just the second time in national event competition — and both cars rooster-tailed smoke down the quarter-mile before Williams eked ahead to take the win with an 8.16, 193.12 to Ivo’s close 8.24, 191.48, bringing to conclusion an amazing weekend for the boys from Bakersfield. Their haul for the weekend included not just the event purse but also a new Ford Falcon Sprint.
The Winternationals was just the beginning of a tremendous year for the team; they also won Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside in June, beating Don Prudhomme and the vaunted Greer-Black-Prudhomme machine in Saturday’s class finals then besting fellow Bakersfield resident Tony Waters, in Ernie Hashim’s dragster, in Sunday’s runoff, netting them $2,000 plus another new car, this time a Mustang.
The trio went on to win the world championship, though their storybook year came one round short of an ultimate dream season when Williams reached the final round of the U.S. Nationals, too, by winning Sunday’s eight-car race off under even more bizarre circumstances than he encountered in Pomona.
With Garlits, Saturday's class winner, standing by to race the Sunday winner, Williams won his first-round match with defending event champ Vodnik, who was driving Dick Belfatti's blown Chrysler-powered Shadow entry. Norm Weekly beat George Van, and Tom Hoover took out Connie Kalitta, but both lost engines in the process. Joe Schubeck then beat Maynard Rupp and Logghe Stamping Co.'s entry but broke the rear end.
Neither Weekly nor Hoover could repair their engines in time for the semifinals, and Schubeck’s return was waylaid when a sticky-fingered fan made off with the specially made short U-joint and shaft for Schubeck's car. After repeated pleas by Schubeck over the PA, the unit was returned, but time had run out on all three of the crews, and Williams, with no semifinal opponent and no final-round opponent from the other half of the bracket, soloed to the Sunday win with a strong 7.83 at 199.54 mph but a run that left a half-dollar-size hole in one of the pistons.
Again, large crowds descended on the pits to watch the drama, but the team made the call, with Crossley putting in the final spark plug in the staging lanes.
Williams got nearly a car-length drop on Garlits at the green, but “”Big Daddy” came roaring by at the finish line to finally collect his first U.S. Nationals win, with a stout 7.67 at 198.22 mph to Williams' dual-piston-burning 7.93 at 188.66 mph.
Sadly, Williams’ driving career was cut short the following year when he was badly burned in the fire in the Warren & Crowe dragster at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway. He remained an active part of the racing community as a track manager at places like famed Famoso Raceway and Fremont Raceway and as owner of Sears Point Int’l Raceway. He is best remembered in his later years for a 13-year career with the Goodguys Vintage Racing Association but returned to Famoso in 1995, when he took over the lease and management of the track and helped restore some of its glory.
Williams died Feb. 7, 2006, at age 69 but left behind a racing legacy and a Winternationals win that won’t soon be forgotten.
With the Circle K NHRA Winternationals under way this week, I hadn’t planned to write a column for today, but that was before the sad news came last Sunday on the passing of Pat Garlits. “Big Daddy’s” email arrived in my inbox right in the middle of the Super Bowl, and, as I wrote on Twitter moments later, the day was suddenly much less super. As I wrote about here two years ago in my tribute to her, Pat was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and her suffering had finally ended.
“My dear wife of nearly 61 years left this world and went over to the other side at 5:53 p.m., this afternoon,” he wrote in an email to close friends and subsequently also posted on his Facebook page. “She has been suffering a lot these last few days, and it was a blessing to see God take her into His care. I will miss her very badly but will be with her sooner than I realize, as time is very different here than over there. She passed at home with her two daughters at her side and me holding her hand and a little Yorkie dog on each side of her. She went without making a sound, and this house is going to be very quiet for a while. I had Glenn Miller playing in the background, as that was her favorite big band.”
The admiration from the drag racing community for her contributions to the success of her husband was quick and unanimous, with a mourning and sadness befitting the passing of any first lady. The high esteem in which both members of the Garlits family are still held was evident in the outpouring of tweets from many of today’s top stars like Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Cruz and Tony Pedregon, and Larry Dixon, and on Garlits’ Facebook page.
Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson, who worked closely with the Garlitses in writing their book, Don Garlits R.E.D., both submitted to me their remembrances of Pat Garlits.
I found this cool video on YouTube, with Don and Pat talking about the old days. A nice glimpse into the charming lady who was Pat Garlits.
"The first time I was around Pat Garlits was March Meet 1 in 1959 when she had to withstand the verbal abuse aimed at her husband like the strong and supportive woman that she was,” wrote Bryant. “The last time I saw her was at our traditional Thursday night dinner during the annual Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green [Ky.] in 2010. These dinners with Pat and Don were during the period Todd Hutcheson and I were writing our collection of books about Don, and from these wonderful encounters came some stories about this lovely lady that made it into each book. She was quiet, gracious, and funny in contrast to the animated and opinionated guy she was married to for all those years. What stood out was how much Don Garlits admired his wife, Pat, and, although fragile and slightly forgetful at this stage of her struggle with Alzheimer’s, how he still looked to her for any and all advice. She was his rock and driving force and a poster child for ‘Behind every man ... ’.
"She never tuned an engine for Don Garlits nor did she officially belong to the pit crew, but all who knew the two of them agreed on one thing — she was his secret weapon. Now, if T.C. Lemons was still around, he would tell you in no uncertain terms, 'There would be no Don Garlits without Pat.' "
“Mickey Bryant and I arrived in Ocala, Fla., in July 2009 to do an in-depth interview with T.C. Lemons and Don Garlits on the March 8, 1970, Lions Drag Strip incident and the life of the Swamp Rat 14,” wrote Hutcheson. “We took a long tour of the museum narrated by Tom Lemons; T.C. told us many inside stories about Pat and Don for our book Don Garlits R.E.D. and for the mini-book series. The inside story of the Garlits compound at Tampa, Seffner, and Ocala, Fla., was just like any other house, a family.
“The time had come to meet in 'Big Daddy’s' office. Mickey, T.C., and Garlits mingled around. I stood just outside the entrance waiting; I was thinking how this was a great moment to me, then Don called to me, ‘Come on in Todd.’
"As I walked in, I saw Pat Garlits by the other entrance. I quickly made my way to her and said, ‘It is a great honor to finally meet you Mrs. Garlits.’ I took her hand in a gentleman’s greeting. Her hand was as soft and small as a young teen. She was beautiful and kind. She smiled in a real Southern manner and replied, ‘I am real glad you came Todd; enjoy your stay.’
Todd Hutcheson took this haunting photo at Garlits' museum. “It shows an empty T.C. Lemons chair and Pat's empty office in the background,” he wrote.
"I really wanted to meet Pat first; she was the nitro in Don Garlits’ veins. She was also the manager in chief, crying shoulder, referee, consoler, and cheerleader in a nice, small Southern belle package. She is the soul mate of drag racing’s greatest legend. I wanted to sit with her and let her tell me how they lived in and through this greatest time in our favorite sport of speed. She was the key ring to many doors, the gatekeeper of tears and joys. On top of all that she was a mother, and her two beautiful daughters turn out to have exceptional talents of their own. She was as big to me as ‘Big Daddy’ was to us all.
“I wanted to write a book on her, go way in, and find the DNA to the strength and sorrow of this amazing couple. But it never happened. Don had, and I understood this, a fierce protection around her. She was unsteady on her feet and fragile; Don would not let anyone tip the scales on her. I understood, so I let it go. At the worst of times and at great personal tragedy, she stood tall and always remained a lady, our own Iron Lady. Few things in my life have I had regrets about; this is one of them. A book on Pat Garlits would have rounded out the history of this greatest team down the 1,320 path. I will miss the gentle lady from Ocala.”
I think that goes for all of us. I feel terrible for “Big Daddy,” who lost his closest and dearest friend, much as he has lost other key figures from his racing life the last decade: Connie Swingle in September 2007, T.C. Lemons in January 2012, and Art Malone last March. I hope that he knows that the entire drag racing community is in his corner, thinking about him, and how much we still treasure and love him.