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Remembering Pat Garlits

09 Feb 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

With the Circle K NHRA Winternationals under way this week, I hadn’t planned to write a column for today, but that was before the sad news came last Sunday on the passing of Pat Garlits. “Big Daddy’s” email arrived in my inbox right in the middle of the Super Bowl, and, as I wrote on Twitter moments later, the day was suddenly much less super. As I wrote about here two years ago in my tribute to her, Pat was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and her suffering had finally ended.

“My dear wife of nearly 61 years left this world and went over to the other side at 5:53 p.m., this afternoon,” he wrote in an email to close friends and subsequently also posted on his Facebook page. “She has been suffering a lot these last few days, and it was a blessing to see God take her into His care. I will miss her very badly but will be with her sooner than I realize, as time is very different here than over there. She passed at home with her two daughters at her side and me holding her hand and a little Yorkie dog on each side of her. She went without making a sound, and this house is going to be very quiet for a while. I had Glenn Miller playing in the background, as that was her favorite big band.”

The admiration from the drag racing community for her contributions to the success of her husband was quick and unanimous, with a mourning and sadness befitting the passing of any first lady. The high esteem in which both members of the Garlits family are still held was evident in the outpouring of tweets from many of today’s top stars like Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Cruz and Tony Pedregon, and Larry Dixon, and on Garlits’ Facebook page.

Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson, who worked closely with the Garlitses in writing their book, Don Garlits R.E.D., both submitted to me their remembrances of Pat Garlits.

I found this cool video on YouTube, with Don and Pat talking about the old days. A nice glimpse into the charming lady who was Pat Garlits.

"The first time I was around Pat Garlits was March Meet 1 in 1959 when she had to withstand the verbal abuse aimed at her husband like the strong and supportive woman that she was,” wrote Bryant. “The last time I saw her was at our traditional Thursday night dinner during the annual Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green [Ky.] in 2010. These dinners with Pat and Don were during the period Todd Hutcheson and I were writing our collection of books about Don, and from these wonderful encounters came some stories about this lovely lady that made it into each book. She was quiet, gracious, and funny in contrast to the animated and opinionated guy she was married to for all those years. What stood out was how much Don Garlits admired his wife, Pat, and, although fragile and slightly forgetful at this stage of her struggle with Alzheimer’s, how he still looked to her for any and all advice. She was his rock and driving force and a poster child for ‘Behind every man ... ’.

"She never tuned an engine for Don Garlits nor did she officially belong to the pit crew, but all who knew the two of them agreed on one thing — she was his secret weapon. Now, if T.C. Lemons was still around, he would tell you in no uncertain terms, 'There would be no Don Garlits without Pat.' "

“Mickey Bryant and I arrived in Ocala, Fla., in July 2009 to do an in-depth interview with T.C. Lemons and Don Garlits on the March 8, 1970, Lions Drag Strip incident and the life of the Swamp Rat 14,” wrote Hutcheson. “We took a long tour of the museum narrated by Tom Lemons; T.C. told us many inside stories about Pat and Don for our book Don Garlits R.E.D. and for the mini-book series. The inside story of the Garlits compound at Tampa, Seffner, and Ocala, Fla., was just like any other house, a family.

“The time had come to meet in 'Big Daddy’s' office. Mickey, T.C., and Garlits mingled around. I stood just outside the entrance waiting; I was thinking how this was a great moment to me, then Don called to me, ‘Come on in Todd.’

"As I walked in, I saw Pat Garlits by the other entrance. I quickly made my way to her and said, ‘It is a great honor to finally meet you Mrs. Garlits.’ I took her hand in a gentleman’s greeting. Her hand was as soft and small as a young teen. She was beautiful and kind. She smiled in a real Southern manner and replied, ‘I am real glad you came Todd; enjoy your stay.’

Todd Hutcheson took this haunting photo at Garlits' museum. “It shows an empty T.C. Lemons chair and Pat's empty office in the background,” he wrote.

"I really wanted to meet Pat first; she was the nitro in Don Garlits’ veins. She was also the manager in chief, crying shoulder, referee, consoler, and cheerleader in a nice, small Southern belle package. She is the soul mate of drag racing’s greatest legend. I wanted to sit with her and let her tell me how they lived in and through this greatest time in our favorite sport of speed. She was the key ring to many doors, the gatekeeper of tears and joys. On top of all that she was a mother, and her two beautiful daughters turn out to have exceptional talents of their own. She was as big to me as ‘Big Daddy’ was to us all.

“I wanted to write a book on her, go way in, and find the DNA to the strength and sorrow of this amazing couple. But it never happened. Don had, and I understood this, a fierce protection around her. She was unsteady on her feet and fragile; Don would not let anyone tip the scales on her. I understood, so I let it go. At the worst of times and at great personal tragedy, she stood tall and always remained a lady, our own Iron Lady. Few things in my life have I had regrets about; this is one of them. A book on Pat Garlits would have rounded out the history of this greatest team down the 1,320 path. I will miss the gentle lady from Ocala.”

I think that goes for all of us. I feel terrible for “Big Daddy,” who lost his closest and dearest friend, much as he has lost other key figures from his racing life the last decade: Connie Swingle in September 2007, T.C. Lemons in January 2012, and Art Malone last March. I hope that he knows that the entire drag racing community is in his corner, thinking about him, and how much we still treasure and love him.