NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Your Garlits stories and photos

29 Mar 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Writing a drag racing history column about "Big Daddy" Don Garlits is like playing The Beatles or The Beach Boys on your classic-rock radio station: Ain't no one gonna complain. I wasn't surprised to see an outpouring of love (and old photos) for "Large Father" after my three-part Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide, some of the best of which are shared below.

Reader Tommy Thompson of Hardyville, Va., sent a trio of Garlits photos from his long and varied life as a drag race fan that started in the late 1950s in Chester, S.C., and included regular visits to the old Charlotte track ("in the boonies just north of the present Charlotte Motor Speedway complex," he reported), where he remembers seeing Garlits and Art Malone and Super Stock heroes like Ronnie Sox, Shirl Greer, Buddy Martin, Jake King, and others. "Man, it was like heaven!" he said. "On the big SS race nights, they'd have what they called a parade lap. All the racers would line up and drive down the track, turn around, and drive back up the track. In those days, of course, all the so-called ‘stockers’ still had a full complement of seats, so if you were in the staging area and were real lucky, you had a chance to ride in the parade lap. One of my fondest memories is sitting in the middle of the back seat between two other guys and doing that parade lap in Richard Broome's '63 Z11 Impala."

He joined the Air Force and in August 1964 was sent to tech school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., home of Gulf Coast Dragway, where he saw his first almost-200-mph pass in the spring of 1965. "There were posters up all over town and the base: ‘See Don Garlits and his 200-mph dragster!' Well, it wasn't Garlits but Swingle, and he only did 198, but it was still something to see!"

Stationed in the Northeast, he went to all of the great tracks in the region — Cecil County, Capitol, Aquasco, York U.S. 30, Budds Creek — and after his service stayed in the Richmond, Va., area, saw the first of 21 consecutive Summernationals, moved to Houston, then back to Virginia, seeing as many races along the way as he could.


"I suppose that over the past 50 or so years, I've been to probably 100 major NHRA events, a handful of AHRA and IHRA majors, and a couple of ADRL Pro Mod events. Oddly enough, I've never made it to Gainesville or close-to-home Bristol,” he said. "I have a 2-cubic-foot cardboard box absolutely packed with nothing but racing photos — some NASCAR, but probably 90 percent drag racing. Sadly, they're all in a massive jumble. I've been telling myself for years that I should straighten the mess up, but so far ...

"I'm including three pics of Garlits cars. The white-bodied one was taken at E-town (early '80s?). The black car, which looks like the same except for the paint, was taken at Ontario, again in the early '80s. (Don't remember the exact year, but it was the race where Shirley came from behind to steal the championship from I think Jeb Allen; could these be the same car?) The other pic of the front-engine car was taken at a Division 2 points meet at Suffolk Dragway in Virginia. Must've been in the very late '60s right after I got out of the Air Force. It's the car with the red stripe down the center of the body. First couple of passes were made with the body in place. Don removed it later (it's sitting on top of his trailer) because of the wicked crosswinds that day."

The two cars in question are actually not the same car, the white one being Swamp Rat 24 with the famous "God is Love" cross and the black car being Swamp Rat 25 (aka Godzilla), which came the following season, in 1980, when indeed Shirley Muldowney did beat Jeb Allen (and Gary Beck and Marvin Graham) for the championship, her second. The front-engine car is Swamp Rat X, easily identifiable by its red and black cowling.

Here's another pic of a Garlits car that wasn't all black. In fact, it's the all-red version of Swamp Rat X. Clyde Blair of Southgate, Mich., took this photo in 1966 at Detroit Dragway, where Garlits beat Don Prudhomme's B&M Torkmaster in a match race. Garlits tells a pretty funny tale about another 1966 race with "Snake" in his book. At Half Moon Bay, during a challenge for Garlits' top spot on the Drag Racer magazine list, for some reason, the track had already engraved the winner's trophy with Prudhomme's name. Garlits still has the trophy and the "runner-up" plaque that was quickly removed before it was presented to him. Garlits was still learning how to make the new 426 hemi run after years of dominating with the old 392, so the promoters obviously thought that Prudhomme, winner the year before of the Winternationals and Nationals in Roland Leong's car, might hand "Big Daddy" his lunch. Didn’t happen that way; Garlits won two out of three.

I'm lucky in that one of the most avid readers of this column is a guy who makes my claim of being a drag racing historian seem like first-grade readin' and writin' — Bret Kepner. He’s always quick with a compliment, gracious with a correction, and generous with his knowledge, and I wasn't surprised to see an e-mail from him after the third installment.

Kepner noted that though the item about the Garlits sidewinder mentioned Mike and Chuck Sage, it omitted Russ Camp's name, a key member of the company, SCS Gears, whose initials help make up Sage-Camp-Sage. "While Mike and Chuck were known for a variety of race cars (their Ohio Express Duster BB/FC among them), Russ eventually became both driver (of their Arrow BB/FC of the same name) and an equal part of the brain trust which helped create the sidewinder."

As a member of the Society of Land Speed Historians, Kepner also had more info on the Swamp Rat 33 Bonneville car, including an important note about the car's almost demise. "Rich Venza continued to run the car at Bonneville and Muroc after Garlits set his record in 1988 and managed to put Don Kehr and Tim Thomssen into the 200-mph Club with both flathead and ArDun powerplants," he reported. "If I remember correctly, the car eventually clocked a terminal speed (not applicable to a record) of 236 mph. In 1991, Dave Thomssen drove SR 33 at Bonneville with the ArDun engine but suffered a major crash at speed, which [damaged] the streamliner as well as the thumb on Dave's right hand. The car was rebuilt and competed on the Salt until 1996, when it was sent to Ocala for permanent display duty."

I also heard from Venza — another longtime Insider reader — who verified Kepner's facts about the records and provided information about the project that was so vital that I went back and amended the copy that initially (as cribbed from Garlits' book) attributed construction to Venza. "Actually, I was the project manager on the project," he wrote. "I was involved with a group in Lincoln, Neb., running a vintage streamliner when we decided to put a new modern-style car together. I was working at Speedway Motors and had worked with Don on some parts for a '32 Ford roadster he was restoring. When I read about his retirement due to eye problems, I contacted him about the Bonneville project. With no issues about chute hits on his eyes, he was very interested and signed on to the project. At that time, the pipe for 32 was on the jig, so the Bonneville car became 33. Lucky for us, 33 was not assigned at that time, and SCTA was thrilled to give it to us. The 'liner was built by Jim Schuman in his Blue Engineering shop in downtown Lincoln. Many others in our crew assisted with dozens of custom-made parts and tons of labor."

Rich Perez passed along a photo of a great little piece of Garlits memorabilia, an Isky book on valve timing that features Swamp Rat I on its cover.  "I am from New Jersey. I've been going to the drags at Englishtown since I got my driver's license in 1969. I have three sons in their 20s and have introduced them to the thrill of drag racing. My late uncle was a heavy-equipment mechanic for the operating engineers local union. He died in an industrial accident in 1989. My cousin inherited the family-owned apartment house that my uncle lived in and decided to sell it in 2005. My uncle's tools and shop manuals were still in a storage bin in the basement of the apartment house. My cousin and I cleaned out the whole area, and we came upon an old Isky Cam pamphlet with Swamp Rat I on the cover, copyright 1958. You can imagine my surprise and delight to have stumbled onto this treasure. Maybe someday 'Big Daddy' will come to Englishtown again and I will have an opportunity to present it to him for the museum in Florida, or maybe I'll just get him to autograph it if I can't bear to give it up."

Speaking of Garlits and Isky, Steve Pace didn't take the photo above but had it in his collection and thought we'd like to see it. You don’t see many color photos of Swamp Rat I and not many photos of Garlits' early cars that didn't have an Isky cam in them. You can see that SR I is sponsored here by Giovannoni Cams. Ray Giovannoni offered Garlits the unheard-of sum of $10,000 to run his cam in 1960 ("Ray was a crazy man, had lots of money, and hated the West Coast," explained Garlits). Garlits gave Ed Iskenderian the right to match the fee, but Isky passed.

Ed Eberlein took this photo at the famed March Meet in 1976. "Only photo I have of this car. Did Don drive this or did he have someone else in cockpit? Was this really his Funny Car? Or did he help out someone?" So many questions, so few answers. Kepner rode to the rescue again. "That would be Norm Day from Indiana; he rented Gar's name for this BB/FC 'Cuda," he wrote. "It was later converted into a Dodge Magnum (!), and everywhere it appeared, it was, of course, advertised as 'Don Garlits' Funny Car!' Bear in mind, Norm had much success with the 'name-rental' program, having already campaigned a Vega wagon BB/FC under the 'leased' name of 'Big John' Mazmanian and later barnstorming Ivo's Showboat."

Dave Gibson took one look at the photo I had of Swamp Rat 21, the 1975 Winternationals winner, and immediately noticed the tall wing struts. "Are we sure that the picture of Swamp Rat 21 from 1975 is accurate? The wing is high, and it looks more like an Amato-inspired rear wing from the mid-'80s." I'll have to agree that it looks like (once more) “the Old Man” was ahead of the game, but that photo is most definitely from the 1975 Winternationals.

Praise for Garlits was, of course, unanimous.

"It's no secret that Garlits was one of the great innovators of drag racing, and his skill and determination are sorely missed in this day of cookie-cutter cars," opined Paul Cuff. "Whether it's due to rule restrictions or lack of motivation to be different, the days of diversity in Top Fuel racing seem to be gone, for the most part."

Jeff Foulk of Finagler injected Funny Car fame wrote, "Great series on Don Garlits' cars. I learned a lot about the legend. I have met him several times and have seen him match race numerous times. As a Florida resident, I feel like a dumb ass for never having visited the museum. I need to correct that! The only other thing I can say is 'Big' sure went through a lot of pipe!”

He sure did, Jeff, and not just for his cars. David McGriff sent this ad, which ran in the February 1972 edition of Car Craft magazine, meaning that it probably went to press in December 1971 after it became clear that Swamp Rat 14 was going to work. (Actually, that became apparent after it won the Winternationals!) It's kinda small here, but the ad copy reads: "Don Garlits says, 'Rear engine dragsters are here to stay.' World's quickest and fastest rear engine chassis — 233 mph — 6.43 e.t. Big Daddy is now in full production of the fantastic Swamp Rat series rear engine dragsters. Complete chassis, including steering, firewall, rear housing, and all the pedals and levers, front spindles — only — $1,500.00. Three weeks delivery — deposit required." I'm not sure if I'm reading that right, but $1,500 for a Garlits rear-engine dragster chassis? What an investment that would be today, eh?

Jack Franklin passed along this snapshot he took of a youthful-looking "Big Daddy" in May 1973 during a match race with Tommy Ivo at Muncie Dragway. "I was asked while hanging around Garlits’ car in the pits to 'help' 'Big Daddy.' Then-crew chief ‘T.C.’ Lemons approached me and asked for the help. My job: to push the car back after the burnouts. I was 14, and this solidified my loyalty to Garlits and love of Top Fuel cars. What a weird feeling to ride in the sleeper section of his old Dodge push truck during the fire-up, then to run down the track before the burnout. My best memory? Running up to Garlits' car after his burnout, grabbing the roll bar, and Garlits looked up to me. Forty years later in my life, I still cannot believe I got to do this … man, the emotion this draws out of me. Helping my real-life hero do what he does. It does NOT get any better than that."

Jeff Thomas wrote, "I have had the pleasure of meeting him a few times over the years, and the last time having him autograph my pictures from the 1976 Popular Hot Rodding event at Martin U.S. 131 Dragway (I was all of 17). I saw him at the Mopar event at Bandimere in 1998. When he saw the pictures, he knew when and where they were taken; I was impressed he remembered so many years later. He also said to me, 'You've been waiting a long time to get these signed.' Yes sir, I had! Just a wonderfully gracious man and very welcoming to all who were there. Fond memories, indeed!"

Gary Goetz saw Swamp Rat I run in 1958 or 1959 at Fort Montgomery airport, where he remembers Garlits turning a national record 8.36 with an Isky cam and his brother, Ed, running the Buick dragster. He added an all-too-familiar note from anyone old enough to have seen the original in action: "Will send photos of the Fort Montgomery meet once I can get that 10-year-old kid walking past the house to show me how."

I'm headed off to Las Vegas later this week for the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals. Even though this race has been on the NHRA calendar since 2000, and even though it's just a short flight (or even drive) away, I've never been. I'm not telling you this so you can have me put down your Final Four bets; it’s just a heads-up that unless something falls in my lap between now and Friday that just can’t wait, there won’t be a week-ending column. Be sure to check out our daily View from Vegas photo galleries to keep up with the latest and greatest from The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.