Pat Garlits: The Great Woman behind The Man
“Don [Garlits] had many close partners -- his brother Ed, Connie Swingle, Art Malone, Tom 'T.C.' Lemons, Emery Cook, and a few others. But it was his lifelong partnership with a sweet girl named Pat Bieger from Tampa that was Don's best investment. Of all the great blessings God can give a man, it is his soul mate, and Pat was Don's. With their two daughters, Gay Lyn and Donna, the family moved along the highways from track to track making a living and paving the road to immortality. Pat was Don's strong arm and soft shoulder. It was her gift of a leather jacket that she wanted him to wear just before his fiery crash in Chester that saved his life. She was the one who insisted that the rear-engine dragster project continue. She is the one that said, 'That's it, Don, no more.' Until someone writes a book about Pat Garlits and her influence in Don Garlits’ life, we will just have to thank her for all that she has done for him.”
My buddy, drag racing author and historian Todd Hutcheson, wrote those words about Pat Garlits a few years ago, and they’re included in "Big Daddy's" recent book, Don Garlits and His Cars, and I can’t think of a better summation of what we all feel about this amazing lady who today is fighting the cruel battle with Alzheimer’s disease, with “Big Daddy” at her side, forgoing his planned trip this week to Indy to continue to do for her what she did for him for a lifetime. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is the great lady behind the great man. In those early years, she was everywhere he was. In the truck on those long cross-country drives. In the pits. And, of course, in the winner’s circle, hundreds of times.
She was there to nurse his wounds and his ego when things went bad. A terrifying fire in Chester, S.C., the horrifying clutch explosion at Lions in 1970, the blowover in Englishtown in 1986, and the lean years, in the early 1980s, when people thought they’d seen the last of him. She knew better.
Twenty-year-old Don Garlits was Pat Bieger's senior-prom date in 1952. They were married the next year and inseparable since.
Drag racing’s first couple met at Florida’s Lake Magdalene in 1952, Patricia Louise Bieger a “pretty, petite brunette senior” and Don a 20-year-old hot rodder in his Cadillac-powered ’40 Ford ragtop, and, as he wrote in his book, “It was love at first sight.” How do we know he was right? When he arrived for their first date, Pat’s father, Richard, looked askance at young Donald's ride, so he went out the next day and traded it in for a more sedate and bone-stock '50 Ford. They dated for eight months – “dancing, bowling, the movies, at the beach, no drag racing. Hell, I never even mentioned it,” he recalled.
They were married Feb. 20, 1953, and celebrated their 59th anniversary earlier this year. Just a month into their marriage, Pat proved she was going to be his good-luck charm when he won his first trophy at the airstrip in Lakes Wales, Fla. And she understood his need for speed. When he won a $450 paycheck-poker “hand” at work (he was working at the American Can Co. as well as painting cars for a living), they toyed with the idea of putting it down for a house, but Pat told him, “Honey, why don’t you get that Mercury crank and pistons you’ve wanted. Enjoy yourself; you might not be able to later.” At the time, Garlits was a member of the Florida National Guard and was on standby to be deployed into action in the Korean War. Fortunately for him, hostilities ended before that happened, but he never forgot. “This is the kind of support I have always received from Patricia Louise throughout our entire marriage,” he wrote.
The Garlits family, in the winner's circle in Indy (again) in 1986: from left, Gay Lyn, Don, Pat, and Donna Garlits and their canine friends.
She traveled the nation’s highways and byways with her man, riding shotgun to drag racing history, and fans came to know her from the constant photos of her in the drag mags. In that era, it wasn’t uncommon to see wives supporting their husbands. That’s how we got to know Lynn Prudhomme, Linda McCulloch, Pat Dixon, Bette Allen, Etta Glidden, Gere Amato, Penny Beck, Rona Veney, and dozens of others. It helped put a new face on the drivers, that they had lives beyond the quarter-mile and people who cared for them just as much as the fans did. They didn’t all work on the cars, but their moral support and organizational skills helped keep many a hero on the road.
In the opening to this column, Hutcheson mentioned the leather jacket; it was the gift she gave him before he headed out to Chester, S.C., that fateful day, June 29, 1959, that almost claimed his life. He suffered third-degree burns to his hands and face. “Without that jacket, I would have never made it to the hospital,” he said plainly. And when doctors wanted to remove his badly damaged hands to save his life, Pat wouldn’t let them. In response, the doctors asked them to find a different hospital, so she rode beside him in a train home to Tampa, Fla., on what was “a hellish ride,” he remembers.
Pat Garlits and Jim Marrone watched "Big Daddy" shave in Indy in 1967.
And it was Pat who was there to hand him the shaving cream and razor to shave his beard after his historic win at the 1967 Nationals, she who was at his side when he sketched the plans for the first successful rear-engine dragster in his California hospital bed after the devastating Lions incident, and she who got really, really, really upset with him when he tried to sideline the rear-engine project because of handling woes. The story goes that she walked in on “Big,” Lemons, and Swingle, who, out of frustration, had begun construction on Swamp Rat 15, a new slingshot to take west in early 1971, but she’d have none of it. “Pat just glared at me,” Garlits wrote, “and she put us back on the RE project.” As Lemons remembered in Hutcheson and Mickey Bryant’s book about that car, titled R.E.D., “She was tough, tougher than the rest of us.”
And, according to Garlits, it was Pat – not Father Time or Mother Nature or any other competitor – who ended his nitro career, telling him in no uncertain words in 2003 that 318 mph was way faster than she wanted him going, and later urged him to fulfill his competitive urges in the Drag Pak Dodge Challenger he now wheels in Stock.
It’s kind of ironic that Garlits’ famed dragstrip career would be headed to its conclusion in the Sportsman ranks in a Dodge because Pat herself even drag raced for a short time in 1962, wheeling Don’s bright-red 413-powered Super Stock Dodge in Powder Puff competition at Golden Triangle Drag Strip.
“I usually won, but it had nothing to do with my driving abilities,” she was quoted in Mike Mueller’s book, The Garlits Collection. “My Dodge was simply always the fastest car out there. It always had the strongest engine; Don wouldn’t have it any other way. I just stepped on the gas and held on. I won a couple trophies, but after a while, I decided Don was the racer in the family.”
Motorsports in general and drag racing in specific can never thank her enough or repay what she did to help her husband’s legendary career. It just needed to be said before it's too late for her to perhaps know how we all feel. God bless.