NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The Garlits lovefest continues

05 Apr 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
The Bucher brothers -- from left, Mike, Rick, and Tim -- helped Garlits push Swamp Rat 34 back into the pit area at the 2002 Gatornationals.

Just back in from a great weekend in Sin City, and the Inbox has been overflowing. I should have known better than to expect the "Big Daddy" lovefest to end after just one column. No doubt inspired by the outpouring of Don Garlits stories and photos that  I published here last week, I received quite a few more, some of which I'll share below.

One of the best came from Tim Bucher, the middle son of late, great Chevy Top Fuel racer Jim Bucher. I had mentioned in Part 3 of the Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide that the Bucher boys had been part of the effort to help Garlits ready Swamp Rat 34 for the 2001 Indy event and Garlits' hoped-for 300-mph pass, and Tim outlined that episode and many more of his brushes with greatness, which also included a stint on the crew in 1985.

"I worked for [Garlits] part of the 1985 season," he wrote. "After I graduated from college, was engaged to be married, thought I had to give this racing thing a shot. I got hired by Don after the Springnationals in Columbus 1985. I traveled with Herb Parks for the summer, was with the team long enough to win four national events that year. Here are two of my most memorable moments regarding 'Big':

The victory celebration at the 1985 Grandnational. Tim Bucher is fifth from left.

"At the 1985 Grandnational Molson, I remember not liking the intensity of Don during the event. I thought he was being kind of a jerk during the whole weekend. I kept to myself as much as possible, tried to do my job as best as I could. After winning the final round, I remember getting to the end of the track; I walked past Don just trying to do my job right, getting the car ready to tow back to the pits. Don ignored everybody else, stopped me, gave me a big hug, and told me, 'That was for your dad.' From that point on, I looked at 'Big Daddy' differently.
"After losing in the first round of the Brainerd event, it was just the three of us towing out of the track. Herb was driving the truck, Don was in the front passenger seat, and me in the back seat. It was a disappointing loss. At a quiet moment, I felt comfortable enough to ask, 'So, who do you want to win this event?' I’ll never forget what happened next. Don turned around to look at me, said nothing, then turned back around. We drove in silence for quite a while. I wondered what was so wrong with what I said. Herb later told me, 'If Don doesn’t win, he doesn’t want anyone to win.' Wow, I’ve never been around someone so intense and so driven to succeed as 'Big Daddy.'
"I went on to live normal life, raise my family, did some Sportsman racing on my own to get racing the rest of the way out of my system. As the years went by, I learned to appreciate Don and his influence on me. When I heard he was thinking about making a comeback at Indy in ‘01, I offered to come down and help. I think he had many offers to help. I picked up my younger brother Rick and drove all night to Florida. We walked into the shop on a Monday morning, and Don looked at us like we were ghosts -- I think because after all the offers of help, we were the first of just a few who actually showed up to help. We weren’t even that qualified to help, but we showed up. I have many good memories of that week, getting to drive the truck to push-start 'Big' in Swamp Rat VI-B, working with Jim Hunnewell and 'T.C.' Lemons, hanging with Peggy Hunnewell. Most of all the one late-night conversation on that late-August evening when my brother and I hung out with 'Big Daddy' in his own personal garage, watching him assemble an engine and listening to us about several important topics -- I’ll keep that conversation between the three of us, but one of the most memorable evenings of my life. Finally, I’d like to say that I think 'Big Daddy' is a much kinder and compassionate man than he’d want anyone to know."

Bucher also shared this very special (and funny) photo of him, his brother, Hunnewell, and Garlits – and his little green friend – posed in and around Swamp Rat VI-B. As many know, Garlits has a passionate interest in extraterrestrials. "After NHRA pulled the plug [on their hopes to get Swamp Rat 34 ready to race], we helped [Garlits and Hunnewell] get Swamp Rat VI-B running. The last night we were there, we gathered for a group photo, and at the last minute, I grabbed Don's secret alien to put in the photo. Don is really a lot more compassionate and funny than most people know. As Rick and I drove home from Florida the next day, I remember telling him that we just spent a week with a person most drag racing fans would never get to. I think there are only two photos of this; I have one, and Rick has one. That photo has a lot of meaning in it for me."

Mike Burg of Wadsworth, Ohio, sent this fab photo of Garlits that he took in 1971 at Dragway 42 in West Salem. "I was a junior in high school," he remembered. "I snuck through the fence and ran up to Don's car, flashed him the peace sign, he flashed me one back, I snapped the picture and ran before I got caught in the staging lanes. In 2006, Don was doing an appearance at Summit Racing here in Ohio, and I took the picture to show him. He signed it for me, 35 years after it was taken. You will recognize 'T.C.' Lemons looking over the Hemi behind Don, and if you look just to the right, you can see that he is staging beside Steve Carbone (written on the black truck). This picture sits in a frame inside a case surrounded by my Swamp Rat diecasts."

Paul Greven Jr. of Pomona sent his thoughts via email with the intriguing subject line "What makes Garlits fans so loyal" and recounted his memories of The Last Drag Race in October 1977 at Irwindale, where he was competing with a bracket dragster. "No better end was possible than a match race between Garlits and Shirley Muldowney," he wrote of the fabled track's closing. "When we arrived, we found out that Garlits had almost lost his finger while working on the car in the pits," he wrote. "He was already at Santa Teresita's emergency room getting stitched up. We figured that he was done for the night. Shirley made a checkout pass, and as the evening was about to start, Garlits was back with a huge bandage on the finger in question. He got suited up, got in the car for their first race, and promptly beat her. A while later, they had their next race, and he won again. He easily could have loaded up, and nobody would have blamed him one bit, but his dedication and competitive spirit carried the day. Those were the days when you could literally walk up to the cars and crews, no ropes or aloofness at all. Even though he was in obvious pain, he was cordial with his fans and went above and beyond the call of duty to please the fans that were there."

Terry Knickerbocker of Eugene, Ore., had a similar experience with Garlits at the 1973 Winternationals. "I was in the starting-line stands at Pomona, hanging on the rail about halfway up the stands shooting stars of the sport coming back up the return road and turning through the break between grandstands to return to the pits," he remembered. "I was prefocused and ready when 'Big Daddy' made the turn, and just as he was under us, he looked up and flashed his trademark victory sign. He was in Eugene in 1995 at the spring hot rod and roadster show when he autographed it for me."

Gary Osborn has a pretty cool item on his aafueler.com website, a 1964 Garlits Speed Shop catalog that he has scanned. "It was a 10-page catalog at the time, and, of course, it is 47 years old," he wrote. "It is just amazing to look at the prices from back then and how time has changed." You can find it here: http://www.aafueler.com/garlits.htm.

Tom Miller sent this photo, which he said was taken in the pit area at the airport “dragstrip” in Dunkirk N.Y., in 1960, "where the finish-line timers were triggered by gas-station hoses," he wrote. "According to legend, this is the place where 'Big' earned his Swamp Rat name." Close, but not quite. As mentioned in Part 1 of the Spotter's Guide, Garlits started using the Swamp Rat name after Setto Postoian tried to take him to task for putting young Art Malone in the car in Sanford, Maine. Malone broke Garlits' Drag News record of 182.54 mph on his first outing in the car with a speed of 183.66, and Postoian took out an ad in Drag News saying that Garlits was a "swamp rat" for putting a "green kid" in the car. Garlits used the insult to his advantage, and the rest is history. This is, however, the Malone-driven version of Swamp Rat I (Swamp Rat I-B), as is evident by looking at the roll cage. When Garlits drove it, through the June 20, 1959, fire in Chester, S.C., there was no middle bar behind the driver's head. The cockpit was rebuilt to accommodate the taller Malone.

Stephen Justice sent this great pic of Garlits-Swingle, far lane, racing Jim McLennan and the Champion Speed Shop rail at famed Half Moon Bay Drag Strip in Northern California. "Note the front body panel sans paint," said Justice. "I want to say this is Swamp Rat III-A and the photo was taken in late 1960. Connie Swingle is behind the wheel. Signed by 'Big.' "

I also heard back from Rich Venza regarding Swamp Rat 33, which as noted crashed at Bonneville with Dave Thomssen at the wheel after Garlits had left them in possession of the streamliner. Damage was limited to some of the body panels, coil-over shocks, and wheels/tires, and when the car's body was restored, a fin was added to the tail by E.J. Kowalski in Reading. "We took it to the first SCTA Muroc reunion, where E.J. made a couple passes, then on to Bonneville, where we were ready to break a couple more records and put E.J. into the 2-Club, but Mother Nature and the rain gods had other ideas," wrote Venza. "This is a photo of the rebuilt SR 33 at Bonneville [with the fin]. It is on display in Don's museum in this configuration."

OK gang, that's it for today. Coming Friday: The legend of Benito Magneto!