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90 for 90: Happy Birthday, Don Garlits

There’s never been another drag racer quite like Don Garlits, and there’s probably never going to ever be anyone like “Big Daddy.” The icon of our sport turned 90 years old Jan. 14, and we’re celebrating him with a massive 90-image photo gallery spanning his career.
14 Jan 2022
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Let’s admit it: There’s never been another drag racer quite like Don Garlits, and there’s probably never going to ever be anyone like “Big Daddy.” Heck, there’s probably no one else in the world exactly like Donald Glenn Garlits, who turns 90 years young today.

It seems like there’s no stone he hasn’t turned over in search of better performance. He’s run front-engine cars, rear-engine cars, and a sidewinder. He’s tried long cars and short cars, light cars and heavy cars. He’s run cars without wings, cars with wings, and, of course, a couple of memorable streamliners. After exhausting the limits of internal combustion, he’s tried turbine power and electric power. 

He’s innovative, inquisitive, indefatigable, and pretty much indestructible. He’s controversial, unflappable, and, best of all, still as sharp as ever. I’ve interviewed a lot — and I mean, a lot — of racers and heroes of yesteryear, and there’s no one with the kind of memory that Garlits has. He doesn’t just remember cars or runs or wins like some people can, but he remembers specific mechanical details. Heck, he could probably tell you how many nuts and bolts it took to build Swamp Rat I.

He’s not just an icon of our sport, but very probably THE icon, and I say that with tremendous love and respect for people like Shirley Muldowney, Don Prudhomme, and John Force. When an expert panel named Garlits the No. 1 racer in NHRA history back in 2000, Force was second, and even though he had more wins, Force didn’t argue with the call.

He’s meant so much to the sport, to hot rodding in general, and to generations of fans and fellow racers. For guys like me, who grew up watching and idolizing him from the grandstands and then had the incredible good fortune to pursue a career that allowed me to interact with him and plumb the depths of his memory and his persona, it's been a true blessing. When the NHRA National Dragster staff compiled a list of interviews for an issue we called "Most Intriguing People," Garlits was — naturally — on our list. I got the honor of interviewing him, and we covered everything from the origination of his nickname to his rivalry with Muldowney to his belief in UFOs and the grief he's taken from fellow racers for those beliefs. ("There’s no question about it: They’re out there. I’ll make this statement. Unless I die prematurely, I will be vindicated.") He was amazing, and he continues to watch over me in my office every day.

Here's just a sampling of some of the cool Garlits stories I've done over the years of the Dragster Insider.

History lessons relearned
March 19, 2008: 
The debut of the Garlitsglide and how it led to the first successful rear-engined dragster

2,470 days later ...
June 11, 2008: 
Don Garlits' historic 5.63 pass stood as the quickest of all time for nearly seven years

'I was there:' Garlits debuts Swamp Rat 14
Aug. 7, 2008:
 The debut of Don Garlits' rear-engined car in Florida, as witnessed by column reader Wade Nunnelly

Fire in the hole
Feb. 17, 2009: 
Tommy Ivo and Don Garlits talk fire burnouts; huge fire burnout photo gallery! It's HOT!!

Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
March 18-275, 2011: 
The cars of Don Garlits, from Swamp Rat I-A (1956-60) to Swamp Rat 34 (1993-94, 2002-03)

Your Garlits stories and photos
March 29, 2011:
 Just like the headline says ...

Remembering Tommy "T.C." Lemons
Jan. 13, 2012: 
Saluting the career and humor of famed Don Garlits crewmember Tommy Lemons

The Rat Roast: Who was roasting whom?
Feb. 14, 2012: 
A Who's Who of drag racing roasts "Big Daddy" Don Garlits in Pomona for his 80th birthday

Top Fuel blowovers, Part 1
May 11, 2012: 
Don Garlits, Jimmy King, Jack Martin, and Paul Logenecker

Pat Garlits: The Great Woman behind The Man
Aug. 28, 2012: 
A salute to the woman behind and always at the side of "Big Daddy"

Don-ning my Garlits-Prudhomme trivia cap
Nov. 8, 2012: 
Drag racing legends Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme have a lot more in common than just their first names

More Garlits and 'Snake'
Nov. 15, 2012: 
Don Garlits/Don Prudhomme/Donovan Hot Rod cover; Comparing the legends, decade by decade; plus, the Glidden factor

Remembering Pat Garlits
Feb. 9, 2014:
 For years she was by "Big Daddy's" side through thick and thin, and will never be forgotten

Reliving some magical Indy moments
Sept. 5, 2014: 
Prudhomme-Nicoll (1970); McEwen-Prudhomme (1978); Don Garlits (1967), in their own words

Just another day with the legends
Nov. 21, 2014
: Ivo, McCulloch, McEwen, Bernstein, Prudhomme, Garlits, and Muldowney share some Pomona memories

Front to back: The rear-engine transition, Part 2
Feb. 27, 2015: 
Garlits debuts Swamp Rat 14 in Pomona; memories from Woody Gilmore, Don Long, Don Moody, and Wes Cerny

Don Garlits' sidewinder Top Fueler
March 2, 2018: 
In 1982, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, always the innovator, experimented with a sideways-mounted nitro engine in his Swamp Rat 27. Although the engineering marvel didn't pan out, it was still vintage Garlits to even try it.

The Clapshaw Effect: How Don Garlits finally made his first 300-mph pass
Dec. 20, 2019: 
Thanks to a huge assist from fellow racer Gary Clapshaw, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was able to race to his first 300-mph performance at the 2001 NHRA U.S. Nationals. In the wake of Clapshaw's passing Dec. 15, it's a story worth retelling.

Swamp Rat 14 rides again; the history of one of Top Fuel's most important cars
Oct. 2, 2021: 
Steve Torrence won the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in a Don Garlits tribute car modeled after Garlits' famed Swamp Rat 14, one of the most important cars in Top Fuel history. Here's the story behind the success of Garlits' original SR14.

Indy 1971: 'The Great Burndown'
Aug. 27, 2021: 
The most epic burndown in NHRA history happened in the Top Fuel final 50 years ago at the 1971 NHRA U.S. Nationals between Steve Carbone and "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.

Don Garlits, Bob Taaffe, and the 72-hour car build that led to drag racing lore
Dec. 17, 2021: 
Don Garlits' amazing win at the 1967 Nationals, so well remembered for his post-race starting-line beard shave, might not have been possible without Bob Taaffe, who helped "Big Daddy" build a new car in just 72 hours. Garlits remembers Taaffe after his recent passing.

So much Garlits, so much goodness. Yes, there's just no one like him, and I'm glad that he's still part of our lives.

Happy Birthday, “Big.”

Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]

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