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The Rat Roast: Who was roasting whom?

14 Feb 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Photos by Jerry Foss

Celebrity roasts are always good fun, where friends and acquaintances take turns skewering the object of their affection, regaling the assembled multitudes with sordid stories, amusing anecdotes, and tall tales meant to simultaneously embarrass and fete the guest of honor.

NHRA hosted a spectacular roast Saturday night after qualifying at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries, saluting legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The cause a great one, benefiting the Quarter Mile Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the history of our sport through interviews with the principals involved before we lose them. Obviously, as regular readers here would guess, that’s a cause near and dear to my heart, and there was no way I was going to miss it.

The list of those doing the roasting was long and deep. Don “the Snake” Prudhomme. “TV Tommy" Ivo. Jerry “the King” Ruth. Ed Pink. Sid Waterman. Dave McClelland. Ed Iskenderian. All got their shots in at “Large Father,” but ask anyone who’s ever raced him or seen him race, he’s famous for turning the tables and should never be underestimated, and that proved true once again Saturday night. Some of the stories that were told I’d heard before or read about, and some were uniquely fresh, but the only thing that mattered was that we were getting to hear them straight from the people who lived them, which is a million times better than reading about them (which, unfortunately, is what you’re stuck with here today, but I’ll do my best to bring them to life).

Garlits may not have been much of a ho-ho kind of fun guy to be around during this racing heyday, but in his golden years, he’s become an engaging and entertaining storyteller, gifted with an extraordinary memory for details of the whats, whens, and wheres of his amazing career, and that was well on display as he used his rebuttal time after each roaster to verify or clarify their funny stories about “the Old Man” and once again come out the clear winner.

Linda Vaughn, as Marilyn Monroe, sang "Happy Birthday" to Don Garlits

I had the opportunity to sit at the roasters’ table prior to the show – don’t think I wasn’t soaking in and loving every minute of looking around the table at a walking, talking history of our sport – and they all acknowledged that nailing Garlits would be tough because, as I mentioned, he wasn’t much into humor (T.C. Lemons excepted) while he was kicking everyone’s asses, and even easy targets such as his fondness for UFOs and his alleged cache of buried silver weren’t going to help much.

I got a chance to speak one on one with several of them, and they knew what I was looking for. Pink had largely left drag racing by the time I had joined the sport’s inner sanctum, but I certainly knew who he was. I was glad to see he also knew who I am, and when he asked for my number so we could talk in depth, I couldn’t give it to him fast enough, so look for something about “the Old Master” in a future Insider column. He has a fascinating tale that extends beyond building engines for drag racing stars in the 1970s that I know is a story unto itself. I first met Waterman in Gainesville, on my first trip to the Gatornationals, where he led me through the basics of nitro fuel systems for an article for DRAGSTER, explaining to me where the check valves were and what they did, which line went where, and more, and we’ve been friends ever since. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but it didn’t take us long to get reacquainted and for him to say, “We have to get together; I have some great stories to share with you.” Sign here, Mr. Waterman.

But on with the festivities. After Linda Vaughn, in full Marilyn Monroe regalia, serenaded Garlits with a breathless “Happy birthday to you,” the song was reprised by the entire room, a cake was cut, and the roasting began.

The ever-humble “King,” Ruth, went first. Working off notes scrawled onto a legal pad in the three days since he had been asked to take part, the self-acknowledged “word guy” drew on a series of adjectives to describe Garlits: “Dedicated: Yeah, he’s done this for more than 50 years and did some great things while he was doing it. Focused: Yeah, he did nothing but that; he lived, breathed, and ate it. Persistent: Yep, some things were hard to beat, and he beat ‘em. Innovative: The rear-engine car, he wasn’t the first one to have one, but he made it work. Cagey: If you raced Don Garlits and didn’t get him early in the race, he was very hard to beat because he got better as we went along, Social: Yep, lots of fans and friends. Emphatic: He talks with conviction, affection, and speaks loud. Controversial: Yep, his decisions are what he thinks they should be, and sometimes they’re different. Opinionated: Much like myself, if you ask Don about anything, he has an opinion on it. It’s not always what you agree on, but he does have an opinion. He likes to know what he’s talking about.”

That launched Ruth into a story he’d heard about Garlits and his late crew chief Herb Parks, in Bradenton, Fla., that ended up with Garlits climbing out of his still-rolling car on the return road in mid-argument and getting run over by the rear tire. “Herb was a big guy -- 6-four, 230, much larger than ‘Large Father' --  I think Don pretended to get hurt so Herb wouldn’t really hurt him, and an ambulance came and took him off to safety,” he chortled.

When Garlits took the mike, he put it all into context. It was 1981, the season after an unsuccessful year with the experimental thick-bodied Godzilla car. “Herb’s salary was [largely] based upon how many wins we got, and we won nothing in 1980, so Herb was really down on his money,” Garlits explained. “We built this new car, and I was very proud of it. Herb was pulling the car way too fast [down the return road] and sand was going on my face, so I pulled the brakes, and the tow strap broke and put a big dent in the cowl. I was fuming and cussing. I got into the front seat of the truck and kicked out the window on my side. Herb took his fist and knocked off the mirror of the tow truck on the driver’s side.

“I mean, this is a really serious situation. First, you have to understand how tough Herb was. In Kansas City, a guy came up to me and told me I had to move my rig. I was unpackaging a rear end and didn’t pay much attention. He said, ‘Listen to me Garlits, you have to move this rig right now or I’m going to beat the s—t out of you.’ I didn’t even look up, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw these two hands, and it was Herb. He grabbed this guy by the throat and picked him up off the ground. His feet were dangling, and Herb just choked him until he went unconscious.

“Anyway, [in Bradenton] Herb walked off to the center of a field, and as we drove by him, he waved something at me, and I flipped him the bird, and here the son of a bitch comes. I mean, this is a mad man. He came right up to the car, and I jumped out of the cockpit and fell right in front of the wheel. Of course, the guy who was towing me couldn’t see it because Herb had broken off the mirror, and it ran right over me. It broke vertebrae in my back; I could hear it pop when it ran over me. The entire situation changed there. Herb picked me up and took me to the hospital. I spent the night in the hospital.”

Pink, who recently celebrated his own 80th birthday, was up next and reminded Garlits that despite his ability to run quicker than everyone, it took him 80 years to get to 80, just like everyone else.

He then proceeded to tell a funny story about sharing a ride with Garlits in the early 1960s from Southern California to Half Moon Bay in Northern California, where both of their cars were running. “T.C. had taken the car up there, and Don had no way to get there, and they asked if I would take him with me. On the way up, I worked him over trying to get speed secrets, and all he’d tell me was what a nice drive it was and how bad my truck was running. When we got to Half Moon Bay, I yelled over to T.C., ‘He didn’t tell me a damned thing; don’t worry about it.’ From that point on, T.C. and I were good pals until the time he passed on.”

Pink also reminisced about racing at the 1967 NHRA Springnationals in Bristol, where he had four engine customers qualified in the field: Prudhomme in Lou Baney’s Ford-powered dragster, Tom McEwen in Don “the Beachcomber” Johnson’s car, Bub Reese in Jim and Alison Lee’s Great Expectations, and Al Friedman  in the Wheeler Dealer. Late in qualifying, Garlits was not in the show and went over and told Pink, “ ‘Old Master,’ I need you to come rub on my engine. I need to get qualified.’ I told him, ‘I wish it was that easy.’ "

Garlits remembered it, too; it planted the seed for building the car in which he famously won that year’s Nationals and famously shaved his beard after finally running in the sixes. “All of Ed’s cars were in the sixes, and I think it only took a 7.50 to make the show. But our car was a couple of years old and was heavy, so I told my guys, ‘We gotta get out of here and build a new car.’ We started out the gate, and McEwen and [Connie] Kalitta asked where we were going. I told them we were going to build a new car, and McEwen just started laughing. Kalitta said, ‘Don’t do that, McEwen … you never know what he might do.’ We went home and in 72 hours built the car that won Indianapolis. It was 1,150 pounds, won a two-out-of-three with the Hawaiian in Muncie Ind., and went on to Indy and went 6.77. It was that race and those cars that inspired us to do that.”

Garlits, of course, always built his own engines but did admit there was a time that he thought about getting “a California engine.”

“I called Ed and asked him to build me a real nice short block for a 426, so he put one together, but what he didn’t realize was that I was only running a 15-gallon [per-minute] pump; this thing probably should have had a 20-gallon pump. I dropped it in the car and made one pass – during a tire test in Indianapolis for Goodyear – and burned it to the ground. It was horrible. It even ruined my heads. I put it back on the skid it had come on and sent it back to Ed Pink, collect.”

He then turned to Pink and said, “Ed, I apologize for that.”

Garlits also thanked Pink for sending him a lot of old 392 pieces for the “live” engines that are in his cars at his museum, “stuff you just can’t find anymore, like rockers and rocker shafts,” he acknowledged.

Ivo, eyes gleaming in anticipation, was ready next. Now, anyone who knows Ivo knows that he was a master practical joker in his prime and that he’s still as mischievous as ever – he often signs his emails “Your hero and mine, Tommy Ivo” --  and he couldn’t wait to share his list of Garlits pranks.

“Garlits,” he smirked to the audience. “How’d you like to make your living racing this guy 50 times a year? He used to drive me crazy with his flying-saucer stories. He’d say, ‘Look over there; there’s two of them!’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ even though a week before that I’d have thought they were airplanes. He told me, ‘I’m not the practical joker kind of guy’ ... well, he didn’t know who he was dealing with.”

Ivo shared a great story about their trip to England in 1964 as part of a special NHRA exhibition event. Ivo noticed that young, inexperienced drivers on the street were required to place a giant decal with the letter L on their cars to let everyone know they were still learning how to drive. Ivo somehow acquired a couple of the stickers and snuck over and plastered them on Garlits’ dragster.

“The next morning, I didn’t hear a thing and wondered if he’d seen them yet,” he remembered. “Just about this time, this giant mushroom cloud appeared on the other side of the pits, and I knew he’d seen it. Yesssss! I got him again!

“Another time, when we first had zoomie headers, I tippy-toed over to his pit when no one was around and filled his headers with confetti. We were still push [-starting] the cars at the time, so when he came flying down the return road and let out the clutch, the whole world turned to confetti. It scared the heck out of him. Yesssss! I got him again!

“It wasn’t all just practical jokes. I liked to get into his head. One time we were racing at Pomona. He was running a little better than I was, so I figured I needed an edge. I went over and told him that I’d caught a piston on that run, so keep an eye on me in case I start drifting towards him. We used to tape up our [valve cover] breathers with rags to keep the oil in, and he looked over at my engine, and, sure enough, I had it all taped up. Just to put the icing on the cake, I took a can of STP and poured it into one of my headers. When we went into stage, he looked over, and white smoke was just barreling out of the engine. He bought it hook, line, and sinker. No one ever accused Garlits of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. He did a nice easy leave because he didn’t want to red-light away a sure win; I was off like a jackrabbit and put him on the trailer with a slower e.t. Yesssss! I got him again!”

Ivo claims his biggest and greatest shot at Garlits was the famous incident at the Hot Rod Reunion at National Trail Raceway when he rear-ended Garlits during the pre-Cacklefest fire-up down the track. The story, as it’s been told by others, was that unknown to Garlits, who was used to having the last car fired, Ivo's was the last car down. Garlits slowed to acknowledge the fans, and Ivo couldn’t see him because of the big supercharger blocking his view, and the two collided. Ivo’s version was a bit different.

“That was my cover story,” said Ivo. “How often do you get the Swamp Rat dead in the water right in front of you, right in your crosshairs? I took full advantage of it and made roadkill out of Garlits. Yesssss!”

Taking the mike, Garlits merely pointed out the difference in damage between his mildly dented car and Ivo’s mangled front end and left it to the howling audience to determine who had won that one.

Of the thousands of times the two raced, one match with Ivo stands out for Garlits. They were running in Muncie, and as he approached the starting line, rain began to dot Garlits’ goggles and got progressively worse as he moved to the line. Ivo, on the other hand, seemed to have no qualms and staged his car. With rain pouring down, Garlits finally shut off his engine on the line and watched Ivo make a great run and thought Ivo must be crazy to run in that rain. He climbed out of his car and realized that, somehow, it had only been raining on his lane. “I’ve never seen anything like that happen in my life,” said a still-perplexed Garlits.

With his years of public speaking, McClelland needed no notes to work from as he lauded Garlits, acknowledging that it was Garlits who was key to his introduction to drag race announcing. In 1959, the golden-throated McClelland was working in radio and television, and it was at a race in Carlisle, Ark., that he saw Art Malone driving Garlits’ car (Garlits was still recovering from burns from his fire in Chester, S.C.) in a match race against Eddie Hill. McClelland was stunned that there was no one on the PA system talking about this great racer and his story. He mentioned to the track manager how weird that seemed and offered his services.

“He intimidated the racers, guys like Tommy Ivo and Jerry Ruth and Don Prudhomme and anyone who was in competition with him, and I’d sit back in amazement of how he could manipulate their thinking. Then I realized that he was even doing it to announcers, but that day led to my 53-year involvement with the sport of drag racing. I have explored my options and figured I could either attempt to kick his ass, I could send him the bill for my next set of hearing aids, or I could do this …” And with that, he leaned over and planted a big ol’ kiss on Garlits' forehead. “This has been the greatest 53 years of my life, so thank you, ‘Big,’ from the bottom of my heart.”

McClelland also admitted that he’d sent funds to support Garlits' run for the House of Representatives in the 1990s, if only for the opportunity to someday watch Garlits on C-SPAN talking to the House about aliens.

Garlits, used to good-natured ribbing about his extraterrestrial passion, relayed the quote he’d given to his local paper a number of years ago when asked about his belief in UFOs: “I don’t believe in aliens. I know about them. I’ve seen the sons of bitches.” Again, Garlits got the bigger laugh.

Iskenderian, the legendary 90-year-old “Camfather,” spoke at length about his long relationship with Garlits in the 1960s, a partnership and successes that were the staple of tons of full-page advertisements in all of the drag racing publications. “He became very valuable to us, and I think [our ads] also helped get him some bookings,” he said before beginning the long and twisting story of Garlits’ famous short-term defection to the Florida-based Giovannoni cams camp in 1959 with Swamp Rat 1-B, for which Garlits was offered the unheard-of sum of $10,000 when Isky was paying him $1,000.

“Don told me, ‘I’ve been trying to get the nerve to call you for five days. There’s a $5,000 cashier’s check sitting on my desk and I get $5,000 more six months from now.’ "

Isky decided to do some investigating of his own and dropped by Giovannoni’s shop in Daytona Beach, but the shop was locked up tight. “There was a sign on the door that said, ‘If you want to buy a camshaft, come down to the Old Timers beer bar, and we’ll open up for you.' I said, ‘Boy, I don’t have to worry about Giovannoni.’ He went to the top so fast that he lost interest in it. Garlits never got the second $5,000.”

Garlits got up to fill in the blanks.

“I have to tell you that back then, there were no sponsorships like we have today. You might get a free camshaft or pushrods or you got some free spark plugs or a set of M&H tires, and this was good because it didn’t cost much to run these cars. When I got the call from Giovannoni and he said he’d give me $10,000 to change cams -- now, in 1959, $10,000 was a lot of money. You could buy two homes. It’d be like a quarter of a million dollars today. I called up Ed and told him what was going on, and he told me he couldn’t pay me $10,000 and that I should take Giovannoni’s money. Now the good thing about this is that the California cam grinders had just been sitting on their keisters, and Giovannoni did something to his cam, and the car ran real good. We came out to Bakersfield and ran 185.56 for a new world record and went to Fremont and went 187.10 for another world record, and the California cam grinders realized that this idiot from Florida must know something, so they all got on their camshaft programs and put together some pretty good camshafts, Then Giovannoni decided he didn’t like the business anymore, went back to Washington and opened some restaurants, and that was the last anyone ever heard of him. It’s the funniest thing I ever heard. Ed and I were on the outs for a number of years after that, and I was sorry for that because, philosophically speaking, all the money in the world isn’t worth your friendship. I would like to publicly apologize to Mr. Ed Iskenderian for changing camshafts.”

Waterman was next and opened by admitting that in 1960, while working as the finish-line judge at Fremont Raceway, he had intentionally robbed Garlits of a victory against Chris Karamesines. This was in the days before electronic beams chose a race winner and a human being at the finish line would wave a flag one way or the other to signal which lane he thought had won.

“But it was a really close race; you’d hold the flag a certain way and it was a tie, and they’d have to run again,” he explained. “Well, ‘the Old Man’ came across the finish line first, but it was a really good race, but I decided I wanted to see them race again, so I held the flag straight up. I was the guy, Don."

He also shared the tale from his youth about working for Mickey Thompson, who asked him to make a piston delivery to Garlits in Fontana, Calif. “I said, ‘Wow! A chance to meet Don Garlits! It was not an easy drive in those days because there were no freeways, but I finally got there and walked up to him all excited about meeting Don Garlits. He was at this old gas station, so I walk up to him, and he says to me, ‘About goddamn time you got here!’ That was my first meeting with Don.

Waterman then proceeded to talk about the 1973 AHRA Top Fuel championship battle, which came down to Garlits and John Wiebe. As Wiebe was leading the points, he suffered a broken leg in his infamous two-car tangle with Jeb Allen at Tulsa, and it looked as if his title hopes were over. Top Fuel aces James Warren and Roger Coburn were good customers of Waterman’s at the time, and, in what has to be the first (and likely only) time this had happened, Warren was allowed to run for and earn points for Wiebe.

“Kenny Youngblood lettered their car to say John Wiebe went to Orange County and we kicked their butts; it wasn’t even a contest,” recalled Waterman, “and Garlits went absolutely berserk. Garlits complained to [AHRA President] Jim Tice, and he agreed that they’d make [the season finale] in Fremont a double points race. We went up there, and Warren & Coburn – I mean, Wiebe – set low e.t. and won the first two rounds to get to the final against Garlits, and whoever won the race would win the championship. Warren had smoked the main bearing the round before and hadn’t changed motors; Garlits won the race and the championship, and as I was walking to the phone to call John Wiebe and tell him that Garlits had won the championship, Garlits looks at me and says, ‘Waterman … all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Wiebe together again!’ "

Garlits had a funny comeback about Waterman’s time building pistons for Thompson.

“Mickey said to me, ‘These Pontiac engines are just as good as the Hemi engines; I’ll tell you what: I’ll have my guys put together a Pontiac engine that you could put your blower and injector on, and we’ll put it in Swamp Rat III, and we’ll go out to Long Beach [Lions Drag Strip], and we’ll make test runs,' so we did that. It ran just a goofy time, nowhere near what the Hemi was running. So Mickey would call back to Sid, ‘Make some new pistons, different compression ratio,’ and they’d have to make them from scratch in just a few hours and bring them out to us. We did that for a whole week, and it never even got close to what the Hemi could run.”

And then it was “the Snake’s” turn, and just as he was on the starting line throughout his career, Prudhomme was not intimidated. He'd himself been roasted at his surprise 70th birthday party last year and was not thrown by having to go last and follow the previous acts, though he did admit to being intimidated about running Garlits in 1966.

“When I first met Garlits, I was a little intimidated by him because he was about 10 years older than me. I’m 20, and he’s 30. We were racing at Union Grove, Wis., and coming down to the final round. I was driving the B&M Torkmaster car, and this was it, for all the money, and we didn’t care about lights or anything like that at night. You could see OK. So we’re going down there, and, apparently, I got over into his lane and ran him off the track. I dunno; all I know is that the win light came on in my lane. Garlits was ranting and raving and just screaming at me at the other end. I was just this young kid, and I was so embarrassed; 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' So all the way back to the pits, I could hear him screaming, ‘He tried to kill me; he tried to kill me,’ and the spectators were booing me. I ran up to ‘the Greek,’ who was taking care of me back then and letting me run out of his shop, and said, ‘Greek, what do I do?’

“He said, ‘Aw, eff him,’ so I always had that attitude towards him.”

The room erupted into laughter. And then he continued.

“But I tell you, he was a weird dude. He used to have these bones or something hanging from the rearview mirror in his truck. So I was sitting in the truck with him one day, and I said, ‘What the s--- is this?’ He said, ‘Let me tell you something, 'Snake.' When I rub those things, I can make a guy lose a race.’ He said, ‘But you gotta be careful; if you rub them too much, you could hurt somebody.”

More peals of laughter. “The Snake” was slaying ‘em.

“He never had a sense of humor. He’s OK now, but in the old days, no; nor did I,” he admitted. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before …

“But he’s pretty amazing. He set the example for me. I followed him. What Garlits did, I would do. He showed me how to be a champion, how to work hard.  He could take a piece of pipe, weld it together, build the engine, drive the car, take it to the track, all by himself. To me, he’s the greatest drag racer of all time.”

Even as Prudhomme was reveling in the good job he’d done, Garlits stepped to the microphone and said, ‘Boy, I’ve got some ‘Snake’ stories. … He’s ferocious. We had some match races that were unbelievable.”

Key among those memories was the event at Half Moon Bay for the No. 1 spot on the Drag Racing magazine list. Garlits won the event and the big winner’s trophy, to which, much to his chagrin, had already been affixed a plaque bearing Prudhomme’s name.

“They had to take the plate off the big trophy and put it on the small trophy,” he remembered, “but I was so excited about winning the race I drove out and was halfway to Los Angeles before I realized I had forgotten to get my $2,000. Two or three hours later, I drive back into the track, and there was [track operator] Jim McLennen and everyone just laughing at me.

“The funniest thing was the trophy girl, who was the cutest thing you’d ever laid your eyes on, had to kiss the winner, and you can see in the picture that she ain’t that happy about it. You could tell she’d have rather kissed ‘the Snake.’ "

He went on to report that three years ago, an elderly woman walked into his museum and asked about the trophy and the photo, and it was the trophy girl. “It was mind-boggling,&rdqurdquo; he said. “She didn’t look as good then.”

The same certainly can’t be said for Garlits, who looks, acts, and speaks as good as ever. For all of the tumultuous years that he had battling NHRA and its founder and president, Wally Parks, Garlits is thankful for his current relationship with the sanctioning body and thanked them for hosting the roast.

“I can’t say enough about the new NHRA management,” he said in his closing comments. ”I was telling my friend in the stands today how much I enjoy coming out, and 10 years ago, I just didn’t enjoy it. I just felt an animosity, and that’s completely gone. I take my hat off to [President] Tom Compton. He’s a really great guy. In all of the years that I’ve done business with the National Hot Rod Association, I never had a call from Wally Parks, but Tom Compton has called me several times. That says a lot. Wally and I had a lot of differences and fights because we had our own ideas about things, but that’s all gone now. I need this because I’m part of drag racing, and NHRA is drag racing. I really feel comfortable about it.”

It was a great evening of fun and camaraderie, enjoyed by one and all. I hope I get invited to his 90th birthday.
 
For more information about the Quarter Mile Foundation and Project 1320, log on to www.project1320.com/.