I spent the weekend combing through recent submissions to catch up on some of the follow-ups you guys have been sending. (Yes, this is how I spend my weekends ...)
Cool stuff; thanks John!
I heard from Youngblood as well, happy with the story's outcome, who corrected me by noting that the Flop-O-Aerodynamico wasn't the end of the Magneto saga. "He went on to build an equally unique Top Fuel dragster (my drawing of it was also featured in Hot Rod)," he said. "Unfortunately, I have misplaced the pic but will keep looking; perhaps a reader might have the image from Hot Rod?" Little did Youngblood know, but reader Tim Froment had already sent me a scan of the Magneto Top Fueler. The quality wasn't that great, but it was enough to send on to Youngblood, who plans to redraw it and share with us. There's a great Youngblood-imagined story behind the continuation of the legacy, but that will have to wait until we get the drawing.
More reader-submitted Don Garlits photos, you say? No problem. I received this great snapshot of "Big Daddy" from Joe Raulerson, son of Gainesville Raceway founder Jim Raulerson. It shows his brothers Sam, left, and Kelly with Garlits on one of the return roads at Gainesville Raceway. "We kept [the photo] because 'Big Daddy' was then and still is a great guy, and my father had many good stories about 'Big' coming to the track and racing," he wrote. This looks like the ill-fated Swamp Rat 13, which means that this photo was taken shortly after the track was opened in 1969 (SR 13 was built in mid-1969 and only lived until March 1970).
How great a guy is Don Garlits? Consider this email from Ed Dovidas, who saw Garlits make his historic 200-mph run at Island Dragway in 1964. "Mr. Garlits, I would like to thank you for countless years of enjoyment," he began. "The BIGGEST kicker of all came on Friday, April 8, 2011. I was in a hospital bed having had brain surgery two days prior. My wife, Harriet, told me I had a phone call. It was from 'Big Daddy' himself, wishing me well. Words can’t express the way I felt. For someone as busy and famous to be taking time to call me; that man gave me, a 60-year-old drag racing fan, something I will treasure for the rest of my life."
Jon Clark had a different kind of Garlits questions:
"1) What is the status of Don's two daughters? I have not heard about them in many years. They both must be in their early 50s by now. Are they close to their dad? Evidently, they did not want to drag race, but what about their kids (Don's grandchildren)? It seems kind of odd that no younger-generation Garlits kids have ever wanted to go drag racing.
"2) What is the status of Don's brother Ed? Is he still alive? Are Don and his brother close? Ed was involved in some of Don's early drag racing days but seemed to fade from the scene by the 1970s."
I contacted "Big Daddy," who was more than happy to answer Jon's questions.
"My oldest daughter, Gay Lyn Capitano, lives in Ocala [Fla.], has a piano school, and teaches at the university here in Ocala. Her children are not interested in drag racing. The oldest is just graduating from music college, the next is into TV production, and youngest has not yet decided. My youngest daughter, Donna Garlits, teaches school in Virginia but is moving back to Ocala to take over the duties of the Drag Racing Museum in the very near future as I’m retiring soon. Her two children, Rodney and Sarah, are not into drag racing at this point. Someday Rodney might be, but Sarah is into singing and won the Virginia state contest for alto voice last year. She starts college next year.
"My brother Ed is alive but suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He lives in Floral City, Fla., not too far away. Ed was the clutch person during the 1992-95 campaign with Swamp Rat 32 and 34. Ed was always a big help with my drag racing career."
I heard from Gary Watson, whose Fugitive wheelstander I featured a few columns ago, who shared some photos and a brief history, which I'll present in a column soon. His other cars were the Paddy Wagon and the Red Baron
Swingle sure got around. You read his name throughout my three-part Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide, and he also drove for Ed Pink and Crossley & Williams, and he briefly piloted the AMT Piranha (profiled in this column) for a failed attempt at the 200-mph mark. I only met Swingle once, briefly, in Gainesville in the mid-1980s, and it's obvious that I never got to meet the real deal. He was one of drag racing's true characters.
Garlits' other longtime sidekick, Tommy "T.C." Lemons, is another larger-than-life character the likes of which you'd never find today. Tom Nagy sent this Garlits pit photo, taken at the 1973 Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Mich. Nothing special, right? I mean, sure, the blower is off the car and Lemons and Garlits seemed to be concerned with the fuel line, but it's what's not immediately visible that cracks me up.
"Nothing special about this photo in particular," agreed Nagy, "except for the impromptu duct-tape message on T.C.'s shirt that reads, 'Don't Ask Me For Pictures.' I was 15 years old in 1973 and remember getting a Garlits handout photo at Martin that August, but I sure as hell didn't ask T.C."
Mike Goyda, who runs the goyda.com memorabilia site, had a great Garlits pic that I had never seen. "Hi Phil. I know that once you start these columns, they don't seem to end, but this is such a great photo that I had to send it along," he wrote. "Garlits and Mickey Thompson among a group of onlookers. This was shot at Aquasco in the '60s. I'm sure you will be able to date it correctly. It appears that Gar is asking a question and Mickey is in deep contemplation." What a find. Although you can’t see Garlits well, you can definitely see M.T. deep in thought. The car, according to NHRA historian Greg Sharp, is Swamp Rat IV, which puts the date as 1962. Sharp also has questions about whether or not that's Garlits talkjing to Thompson ("seems too tall and thin") , but I like the way that the "onlookers" are truly looking on, not realizing that they were in the presence of two guys destined to become motorsports icons.
A few columns ago, I mused about the introduction of white pants to a sport in which everyone ends up covered in black, whether it's from oil or "Akron fallout" from burnouts. Robert Nielsen thinks he has the answer.
"If we go back and look at photos from the very early days of drag racing, we see young men wearing T-shirts and jeans," he noted. "I think somewhere in the mid-1960s, there was a definite shift to wearing white pants. This probably came about for two significant reasons. I know in my specific case, I started wearing white pants to the races about this time because I was influenced by a lot of the circle-track racers in the area. They typically ran at SoCal tracks like Saugus Speedway that mandated all racers and crewmembers had to wear white pants. The reason for this was because they ran on Saturday night, and the lighting in the infield pit areas was not very good, and the white pants made it a lot easier to see people when driving through these areas. The second reason was to have a more professional appearance. While none of the SoCal dragstrips had similar rules, I thought this was a great safety idea for the exact same reasons. The return roads at Lions, Irwindale, and OCIR were never well-lit, and most race cars at that time did not have functional headlights, or if they did, they were not used in order to maintain the battery better.
"The change to white pants also brought along a change away from the T-shirts. In fact, I think OCIR was the first SoCal dragstrip to have an employee uniform. This was white pants and a dark blue Hang Ten (a popular SoCal clothing manufacturer back in the day whose corporate logo was two bare feet on the chest of their shirts) polo-type shirt. This was augmented by a light nylon windbreaker that was light blue in color with a red and white stripe running vertically on the left side and the OCIR patch on the right side."
I mentioned Friday that former Top Fuel owner and driver Neil Mahr was not doing well, but I didn't really let on about how close the end was, but it did come later that day. Jon Asher, who had been in touch with Mahr's son, Scott, gave me the bad news and then found out that Mahr had requested that Asher write a eulogy. I didn't know Mahr all that well other than to say hello passing in the pits, but I loved the racing calendars he produced. I was going to print Asher's eulogy here but then realized that might be spoiling what will be such a fine memory for those who will be attending his services Friday. Asher also wrote a piece about Mahr for CompetitionPlus that outlined what a tough racer Mahr was, on and off the track! I learned things I never knew, that's for sure. "As a racer Mahr was one tough son of a gun," Asher wrote. "As a businessman he was just as tough. His often bruised and swollen knuckles were proof enough of that. But when it came to his extended family, he was a pussycat, a 'victim' waiting to happen at the sight of any of his 30 descendants. Behind the bluster he was the same way with his friends. Ask and ye shall receive – if you had the guts to ask!"
On the same day that Mahr's East Coast friends will be saying goodbye in Pennsylvania, a lot of us will be gathered in California doing the same for Lou Gasparrelli. As I mentioned last week, my love and respect for Gasparrelli know no ends, so I wouldn't miss being there with what promises to be a legion of his friends, former competitors, and family.
It has been another rough week for heroes; we learned late yesterday that Ed Lenarth, of Secret Weapon and Holy Toledo jeep Funny Car fame, also passed away.