Donald Glenn "Don" Garlits (born January 14, 1932, Tampa, Florida) is considered the father of drag racing. He is known as "Big Daddy" to drag racing fans around the world. Always a pioneer in the field of drag-racing, he, with the help of T.C. Lemons, relating at least in part to the loss of a portion of his foot in a drag racing accident, perfected the rear-engine "top fuel dragster design". This design is notably safer as it puts most of the fuel processing and rotating or reciprocating parts of the dragster behind the driver. The driver is placed in "clear air" in front of nearly all mechanical components, thus remaining capable of activating a variety of safety equipment in the event of catastrophic mechanical failures or fire. Garlits was an early promoter of a full-body, fire-resistant suit - complete with socks and gloves, often branded as Nomex.
Garlits was the first drag racer to officially surpass the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, and 270 miles per hour marks in the quarter mile; he was also the first to top 200 in the 1/8 mile. Note that all official NHRA records require a "back-up" (speed and elapsed time within 1% of the record) run during the course of the particular event where the record was set to verify the newer, higher level of performance. He has been inducted in numerous halls of fame and has won numerous awards during his career.
In the early days of drag racing, the post-World War II Central and Western United States military aircraft pilot training fields had become available for alternate uses, including automotive racing. Don Garlits first “Real” drag race car was built under an oak tree at his home in North Tampa in 1954. An electric welder and gas torch modified an old 1927 Ford Model “T” Roadster to accept a 1948 Mercury Block, ’39 Ford floor shift transmission, and a ’48 Ford rear. That early T-Bucket's quarter mile performance was a 13.5 second e.t. at a speed of 93 mph. It was this successful, formative roadster that would give Don the beginnings of his first rail job dragster when he took off the body, moved the engine back and moved the seat behind the rear end. This would be the 12.1 second, 108 mph early slingshot dragster with which Big Daddy would win the first NHRA race he entered when the NHRA Safety Safari came to Lake City, Florida. Three years later, he would become a professional drag racer. The first national drag racing meet, sponsored by the National Hot Rod Association was held on such an airfield near Great Bend, KS in 1955. Don Garlits, being from Florida, was something of an outsider. He was sometimes referred to as the Floridian, before permanently adopting the nickname, "Swamp Rat," which also became the theme for each generation of his innovative dragster designs.
In 1959, Garlits traveled to Bakersfield, California for the US Fuel and Gas Championships, later to be named the "March Meet", to show that the times he was setting were as legitimate as those set by the west coast racers. Over 30,000 people attended the event, the largest attendance at a drag race at that point. His presence helped to grow the sport of drag racing beyond its California base. In 1964 after winning the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Garlits travelled to England, with Tommy Ivo, Tony Nancy, Dante Duce and other racers to participate in the First International Drag Festival, a six-event series that did much to promote the sport of drag racing in the UK.
Accident leads to innovation
In 1970, Garlits was driving Swamp Rat XIII, also called the Wynnscharger, a front-engined slingshot rail, when the vehicle suffered a catastrophic failure. The two-speed transmission Garlits was developing exploded and took a piece out of Garlits' right foot; he was out for the remainder of the season. In an interview by Florida Trend, Garlits said this of the incident: "In 1970, the transmission exploded in my dragster on the final run, and it cut my foot off and cut the car in two. That’s when I drew up plans for what I thought would be a championship rear-engine car. I would go out to the shop in Seffner on my wheelchair, saw stuff out on the band saw and make the parts."
He returned to Pomona in 1971 with Swamp Rat XIV, a brand new mid-engined, front-cockpit rail, also dubbed the "Swamp Rat I-R" by Hot Rod Magazine in the article introducing it to their readers.
At first, the rodding magazines considered the disadvantages of the new car design "obvious". Swamp Rat XIV was however so successful that in 1971, Garlits won two of his next three Top Fuel Eliminator titles (the Winternats and Bakersfield), plus a runner-up at Lions, all in the new car. A change so momentous had not happened since Mickey Thompson moved the seat behind the rear axle to create the slingshot in 1954. Rear engine dragsters have since become mainstream in drag racing.
Garlits has won ten American Hot Rod Association Championships, four International Hot Rod Association championships, and three National Hot Rod Association for a total of 17 World Championships. He was age 54 when he won the last Championship. He won a total of 144 national events. On October 20, 1987, his Top Fuel dragster, Swamp Rat XXX, the sport's only successful streamlined Top Fuel Dragster, was enshrined in National Museum of American History, a branch of The Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC. In true Garlits style, during the press conference submission and placement ceremony, the dragster was fired on the Smithsonian "porch."
Retirement and post-racing career
In 1987, Garlits suffered what drag racers call a blowover at a drag racing event in the state of Washington at an AHRA event. He received several injuries from the resulting crash. Though none were life threatening, he temporarily retired from active driving and became a color commentator for NHRA telecasts on TNN and for NBC. He announced for four seasons, from 1988 through the end of 1991. In December 1991 Garlits came out of retirement to race in the Snowbird Nationals, but his comeback was to be short lived. "Big Daddy" retired again before the end of the 1992 season due to a separated retina, a product of the 4g deceleration produced by a Top Fuel Dragster's braking parachutes. Garlits resumed his career briefly in 1998, and again in 2003. His last qualifying race was in May 2003 at the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, 23rd annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals presented by Pontiac in Atlanta, Georgia. At the age of 71 years, 5 months and 19 days he qualified 16th setting a personal best speed in the quarter mile with a time of 4.788 seconds at 319.98 miles per hour. Garlits had reached 323.04 earlier in the year at the 2003 Gatornationals. Mr. Garlits lost in first round competition with his Summit Racing-Mono Winged Dragster with a 0.064 reaction time, a personal best 4.737 elapsed time, at 307.44 miles per hour to Brandon Bernstein's (son of racing legend Kenny Berstein,) Budweiser/Lucas Oil Dragster 0.079 reaction time, a 4.615 elapsed time, at 321.42 miles per hour. The difference at the finish line was 107 thousandths of a second.
Garlits operates the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing on the grounds of his home in Ocala, Florida. He can also be seen from time to time on ESPN and Speed Vision doing commentary at racing events and performance expositions.
Always at the forefront of driver safety, in the wake of Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta's fatal crash, Garlits declared "I am 100-percent in favor of it", regarding NHRA's proposal to trim the race distance for Top Fuel and Funny Car from the traditional quarter-mile to 1,000 feet, also suggesting that he would support a ban on rev limiters and a return to a 70/30 nitromethane to methanol ratio. He has later had second thoughts.
In September 2009, Garlits returned to the quarter mile, racing a specially prepared 2009 Dodge Challenger in the stock eliminator class at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, IN.
In 1994, Garlits was the Republican Party nominee for Florida's 5th Congressional District. He was defeated by incumbent Democrat Karen Thurman. Garlits made several controversial statements during his campaign. On the subject of patriotism, he said, "We need to teach that America is great. The people that don't like it, we should have the FBI investigate them. Bring them before grand juries and charge them with subversive, traitorous activities. Have the FBI turn the heat up on them." On homosexuality, Garlits commented, "The practice of a homosexual and what they do, to me, is just obnoxious. It's sickening to me." On race relations in America he said, "Black people have more power than white people in this country now because they have been so run over through the years that now the pendulum has swung."
- In 2004 he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
- In 1997, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
- He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1989 as the sole representative of drag racing.
- On the National Hot Rod Association Top 50 Drivers, 1951–2000, Don Garlits was ranked No.1.
- In 1987, Garlits' record-breaking 270 m.p.h. car, "Swamp Rat XXX" was inducted into, and enshrined at The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
- In 2008, he was inducted into the inaugural hall of fame class at Gateway International Raceway.
- In 2008, ESPN ranked him 23rd on their top drivers of all-time.
- "Florida Icon: Don 'Big Daddy' Garlits". 2012-10-03.
- Hot Rod, 12/86, p.28.
- Hot Rod, 12/86, p.29 sidebar.
- Street Thunder Flashback: "Big Daddy" and his "Swamp Rat XIV"[dead link]
- "Don Garlits". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2008-06-12.
- "Detached retina forces Garlits to retire". National Dragster. 1992-06-05. Archived from the original on November 5, 2005. Retrieved 2008-09-25.
- "Don Garlits Museum Ocala, FL - Schedule News & Events". Garlits.com. 2009-11-27. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
- Balz, Dan, The Washington Post, June 12, 1994.
- Sunsentinel.com, Big Daddy Lawmaker? 10/20/1994
- [dead link]
- "Kinser, Mansell, Garlits, Lauda, and Muldowney set high standards". ESPN. Retrieved 2008-05-19.
- Garlits Auto Museums
- National Hot Rod Association Top 50 Drivers article of Don Garlits
- Information on Don Garlits and the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing
- Listen to a live radio interview with Don Gartlits on Nostalgic Radio and Cars