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When it comes to Indy, 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits dominated Top Fuel in the 1960s

The Big Go turns 70 in 2024, and we're celebrating its incredible history. Moving through seven decades of the Big Go, we’ll first explore the origin of the sport’s biggest race and Don Garlits' domination of Top Fuel in the 1960s. First in a series.
02 Jul 2024
Posted by NHRA.com staff
70 Years of U.S. Nationals magic
Don Garlits

The Big Go turns 70 in 2024, as the world’s biggest drag race, the NHRA U.S. Nationals, takes place Aug. 28-Sept. 2 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in Indianapolis, offering one of the most incredible spectacles and celebrations on drag racing’s grandest stage.

It’s a race no fan should miss, and it’s also an event rich in legendary history. Moving through seven decades of the Big Go, we’ll first explore the origin of the sport’s biggest race and its move to Indianapolis in 1961.

The first NHRA U.S. Nationals occurred at Great Bend Municipal Airport in 1955, setting the table for 70 years of history. It moved to Kansas City, Mo., in 1956 to the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds in 1957 and ’58 and then Detroit Dragway in 1959 and 1960, finding its permanent home at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1961. 

It wasn’t until 1964 that Top Fuel made its first official appearance at the Big Go, with this year’s race celebrating six-plus decades of NHRA Top Fuel racing. Of course, it was one of the biggest legends who took the inaugural Top Fuel win at the U.S. Nationals, with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits getting the victory. 

Garlits added two more Top Fuel victories in Indy in the 1960s, winning in both 1967 and 1968, but it was his ’67 victory that cemented him as an Indy legend. Garlits grew a beard and declared he wouldn’t shave until he made a six-second run in his Swamp Rat 11. But he qualified just 23rd in the 32-car field, going 7.163 seconds, while No. 1 qualifier Chuck Kurzawa went a blistering 6.760 as nine drivers made six-second runs.

Before eliminations began, Garlits borrowed tires from competitor James Warren and then went on a spectacular run. After making a series of runs in the 7.00s, Garlits found himself in the finals — against Warren of all people. Garlits kept the tires and then delivered an epic blast in the final round, going 6.770 to beat Warren, record his first six-record run, and pick up his second U.S. Nationals victory.

Garlits kept his word and shaved his beard on the starting line after an interview with ABC’s Wide World of Sports, creating one of the NHRA’s first iconic moments in Indy.

“I got to shave the beard in front of the cameras on the starting line, and the whole TV show looked like it was written in Hollywood and produced in Indy,” Garlits said. “It was definitely one of my most memorable moments in drag racing.”

Garlits was the dominant Pro racer in the first full decade of the U.S. Nationals, but he was hardly the only success story. Another legend — Don “The Snake” Prudhomme — made his mark in ’65, getting the Top Fuel win in a car owned by Roland Leong. The next year, Leong won again, this time with Mike Snively driving, while Prudhomme came back to win Top Fuel in 1969 to close the decade.

Funny Car made its U.S. Nationals debut in 1967, and in 1969, Danny Ongais, who went on to race in IndyCar and Formula 1, picked up the U.S. Nationals victory.

It’s a race that just means more, and that especially holds true as the NHRA’s most iconic event commemorates seven decades of racing on the grandest stage in 2024.

This year, the 70th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals promises to be one of the biggest in the illustrious history of the Big Go. It features everything from the final Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge of the year to the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout, as well as the special Sox & Martin Hemi Challenge presented by the McCandless Collection and racing in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, Congruity NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by LearnEV+, Flexjet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown, and NHRA Holley EFI Factory X, plus special items like:

  • A special 70th-anniversary NHRA U.S. Nationals pennant for the first 8,000 fans in attendance for eliminations on Monday, Sept. 2
  • Free parking for all fans and children 12-under admitted free
  • An unforgettable Top Eliminator Club experience, including NHRA driver appearances, food and drink, TEC gift bag, starting-line seats, and much more
  • The biggest field in drag racing; last year, more than 900 cars competed in Indy

All the greats have forged their legacies through their Indy success, including iconic drivers like Garlits, Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ed McCulloch, Shirley Muldowney, Joe Amato, Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, and many more. It's a list that also includes current stars like Tony Schumacher, John Force, Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Greg Anderson, Erica Enders, Doug Kalitta, and Matt Hagan.

Top Fuel’s Schumacher has an amazing 10 victories at the Big Go, the most of any driver in NHRA history, while Force’s five Funny Car wins are tied with McCulloch for the most in class history. Anderson’s 100th career win in 2022 gave the five-time champ seven overall wins in Pro Stock at the world’s biggest drag race, while Brown has five career wins across two classes at the U.S. Nationals.

Last year, Brown (Top Fuel), Capps (Funny Car), Matt Hartford (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all won, with Brown, Capps, and Smith winning in Indy for the second straight year. This year’s race will again be broadcast on FOX and FS1, including live eliminations on FOX on Monday, Sept. 2.

Doug Kalitta currently leads the Top Fuel ranks, while Austin Prock’s debut season in Funny Car has been a huge success as he leads the way. Dallas Glenn is the Pro Stock points leader, while Gaige Herrera remains undefeated in 2024 with six wins to his credit in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Other stars to watch include Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley, Shawn Langdon, and racing legend Tony Stewart, who will make his Indy Top Fuel debut, Funny Car’s Bob Tasca III and J.R. Todd, Pro Stock’s Aaron Stanfield and Troy Coughlin Jr., and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angie Smith and Richard Gadson.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the 1970s in Indy, which included amazing moments, the introduction of Pro Stock, and iconic winners like Prudhomme and Glidden.

To purchase tickets to the 70th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals, fans can visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. All children 12 and under will be admitted free in the general-admission area with a paid adult.