U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments: Don Garlits

Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments Moment No. 9 : 'Big Daddy' returns CLERMONT, Ind. -- By the time he retired in 1992, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits had won every race and received every honor a drag racer could hope for, but he was ...

U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments: Don Garlits
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Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments
Moment No. 9 : 'Big Daddy' returns

CLERMONT, Ind. -- By the time he retired in 1992, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits had won every race and received every honor a drag racer could hope for, but he was still haunted by one yet-unachieved dream: earning a four-second, 300-mph time slip.

"I used to have people come through my museum and ask me, ' "Big Daddy," what's your best time?' And I had to tell them that I've only been 5.07 at 287," Garlits said in a 2001 interview. "At one time, 287 was good, but that's not a great speed anymore. I would like to say that I've been over 300. I always thought it would be great to say that."

With a four-second, 300-mph time slip as his primary goal, Garlits set off on another comeback at the 2001 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, an event held during NHRA's 50th Anniversary celebration.

Drag racing fans voted the moment No. 9 in the top 20 Memorable Moments of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. The final eight moments will be announced in the weeks leading up to the 50th anniversary of the world's most prestigious drag race, Sept. 1-6, at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The top five moments will be revealed on Monday, Sept. 6, during pre-race ceremonies prior to final eliminations.

The initial plan was for Garlits to return in one of Don Schumacher's dragsters, but that idea was scuttled less than a month before the event because of a lack of sponsorship. Garlits then made plans to update his mono-wing-equipped Swamp Rat 34 for the Big Go, but that plan also failed when the eight-year-old car could not be updated in time to current NHRA specifications.

Garlits crew worked feverishly to ready the car, but with less than a week to go before the event, he had to pull the plug. "It's over; we're not going, boys," Garlits said to them.

Disappointed and frustrated, the man not used to failure had simply run out of time.

Less than two hours later, Garlits' phone rang. It was fellow Top Fuel racer and 2000 Indy runner-up Gary Clapshaw, who unselfishly offered to let Garlits drive his car, which had recently gone as quick as 4.68 and had run well over 300 mph on numerous occasions, including a 312 best.

"I didn't know Gary all that well," said Garlits. "I had seen him race, and I knew of him. We weren't personal friends. He said his car was entered in the race and that I was welcome to drive it. He said, 'I know how bad you want to do this.' I can't thank him enough."

Within days, Matco Tools stepped in and provided additional funding, and Garlits was now in position to not only pursue his four-second, 300-mph pass but also challenge for his ninth U.S. Nationals title.

"We had been following the story and saw where that might be headed," said Clapshaw, whose generosity made him an instant fan favorite. "We got together -- me, my tuner, Lonnie Strode, and the guys on the crew -- and thought about it: What's big and what's bigger? We think 'Big' is bigger. It's not an easy thing to give up the seat at Indy, but when you look at the big picture, I think it's a pretty nice thing for the fans, the association, and the racers. I think people will be happy to see Don back and for him to get to the fours at 300 mph. If it goes from A to B and doesn't spit the belt, he's going to get a pretty respectable time."

Garlits' first run Friday night was a planned half pass, and Saturday's second run had to be aborted after a small part failed. Under the lights Saturday, with a packed house on its feet, Garlits staged against longtime rival Shirley Muldowney. The setting seemed perfect, but Garlits smoked the tires just off the starting line, leaving him with just two more chances.

The following morning, Garlits achieved his dream. With old friend and rival Chris "the Greek" Karamesines in the opposite lane, Garlits drove Clapshaw's dragster to a 4.720 at 303.37 mph, outrunning Karamesines' 4.84 effort. As an added bonus, he qualified for Monday's eliminations.

"I had a feeling strapping in that time that this would be it," said Garlits after the run. "What a feeling! I'll tell you, I'm 69 years old, and I just did what the kids are doing. You're only as old as you feel, and right now I feel pretty young. You have no idea how fast 300 mph is until you do it. I can't describe it other than to say it is the most wonderful feeling in the world.

"To line up with old 'Greek' after all of these years was pretty special," Garlits continued. "I remember one time when 'the Greek' beat me 23 match races in a row. He was fierce. It almost brought tears to my eyes when we were down there before the run suiting up. It was almost like we were match racing like we had done so many thousands of times over the years. Then for him to run 4.84 and 300 side-by-side down that track. If I never do another thing in drag racing the rest of my life, I can always say I had a great time at Indy on Sunday afternoon."


The following lists results (Memorable Moments 20-10) to date of an online vote at nhra.com where NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series fans determined the order of the top 20 Memorable Moments from the last 49 years of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious drag racing event in the world. Positions nine through six will be revealed during the next several weeks leading up to the historic race. The top five moments will be announced during pre-race ceremonies on Monday, Sept. 6 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

No. 20 -- 1958: Ted Cyr drives outdated 'Old Blue' to winner's circle

Ted Cyr and partner Bill Hopper brought two entries to Oklahoma City, a new lightweight supercharged entry, painted orange, and their old reliable unblown dragster, painted blue with shoe-polished "For Sale" lettered on the nose and driver cowling. The orange car carried the team's primary hopes of winning the "Big Go," while the blue entry was considered spare parts. Cyr piloted both, hopping back and forth between the entries, but it was "old Blue" that carried him to the national championship.

No. 19 -- 1969: Santucci chokes on gum, doesn't choke in final

The late Domenic "D.A." Santucci, a respected Top Gas racer from Pittsburgh who had yet to win a national event, choked on his gum when the chute hit on a qualifying run, and it became lodged in his throat. After surviving that funny but potentially dangerous episode, the future fuel Funny Car independent plowed through a huge field Monday and won the final on former Indy Top Fuel winner Phil Hobbs' foul start.

No. 18 -- 1961: Sneaky Pete's Big Idea

While the majority of his competitors were using horsepower produced from Chrysler engines, "Sneaky" Pete Robinson chose the road less traveled and raced to victory in a lightweight Chevy dragster with a single engine.

No. 17 -- 1974: Marvin Graham stuns TF field

Marvin Graham, an Oklahoma City television repairman unknown to all but the most hardcore drag racing fans, came from nowhere to win the premier category in drag racing's premiere race. He ran a series of competitive 6-teens and 6.0s to win the rain-delayed race on a Tuesday morning and went on to a distinguished career that included three more wins before his retirement in 1982.

No. 16 -- 1966: Snively mirrors the Snake

In the mid-1960s, Indy may have meant more than it does now simply because there were only four nationals per year. Don Prudhomme, driving Roland Leong's Hawaiian dragster, had swept the two biggest races of the season, the Winternationals and Indy, in 1965, then left to form his own Torkmaster team. In 1966, while Prudhomme initially struggled on his own, his replacement in the Hawaiian, the late Mike Snively, defied the odds and duplicated Prudhomme's feat, sweeping both Pomona and Indy in 1966.

No. 15 -- 1955: Calvin Rice wins the first U.S. Nationals

The one that started it all: NHRA's first National Champion was crowned in a race that began on the 8,000-foot runway at the Great Bend Municipal Airport in Kansas and finished two months later in Arizona, where 25-year-old Calvin Rice of Santa Ana, Calif., defeated Fred Voight.

No. 14 -- 1991: The Impossible Double

Dominating Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Pat Austin nearly pulled off an amazing double category win when he entered the U.S. Nationals in both Top Alcohol Funny Car and Top Fuel. After winning the AFC title moments earlier, Austin's dragster, which he purchased from the estate of the late Gary Ormsby, broke at the start of the burnout in the Top Fuel final. An emotional Austin climbed from his car and watched helplessly from the guardwall as Kenny Bernstein rolled on for the unopposed victory.

No. 13 -- 1967: First Funny Car eliminator

Doug Thorley dominates a talented Funny Car field in a true Chevy-powered entry. NHRA used the U.S. Nationals as the backdrop for the first Funny Car eliminator.

No. 12 -- 1963: Introducing the Christmas Tree

Teenager Bobby Vodnik, acting on a tip that revealed the Christmas Tree would be used in place of flag starters for the first time at the '63 U.S. Nationals, was the surprise winner after the 19-year-old driver put months of pre-race practice into perfecting his reaction time to the new device. Ironically, Vodnik's final round opponent, Don Garlits suffered a red-light start in the final.

No. 11 -- 1972: The Rookie

Top Fuel rookie Gary Beck surprised everyone with an upset over Jerry Ruth in the final round. Holding his NHRA competition license for only two weeks, Beck promptly entered the biggest drag race of them all and earned his first victory in his pro debut.

No. 10 -- 1976: Burgin ends Snake's streak

Gary Burgin, a Southern California veteran who always ran hard but never won any national events or appeared in any final rounds, stunned Don Prudhomme in the Funny Car finale, handing "the Snake" his only loss in what still stands as the greatest season in the sport's history, regardless of category. Prudhomme hazed the tires and suffered what would be his only loss from September 1975 to March 1977.

No. 9 -- 2001: Big Daddy Returns, Part II

At age 69, Big Daddy Don Garlits returned to competition at the U.S. Nationals during the NHRA's celebration of its 50th Anniversary. He accomplished his mission in clocking a performance quicker than five seconds and faster than 300 mph. Paired for the qualifying round alongside another ageless veteran, 71-year-old Chris Karamesines, Garlits steered Gary Clapshaw's dragster to a time of 4.720 seconds at 303.37 mph. Earlier in the weekend, Garlits squared off in another memorable qualifying round with Shirley Muldowney, as the pair were given the green light by original NHRA Safety Safari member and longtime NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch.


1967: Big Daddy Loses His Beard

After failing to qualify at the Springnationals earlier in the season, Don Garlits vowed not to shave his beard until he ran his first six-second run. Garlits used some Indy magic to record his first six-second run (6.77 seconds) when he needed it the most, in a final round win over rival James Warren, who clocked a 6.95. Ironically, it was Warren who gave Garlits a fresh set of tires for eliminations. Before the memorable final, Garlits offered to return the tires, but the confident Warren declined. Following the round, 20,000 fans cheered as Garlits' beard was shaved off in a dramatic winner's circle celebration.

1970: The Crash

After Don Prudhomme wins a close final round encounter over Jim Nicoll, 6.45 to 6.48, a clutch explosion on Nicoll's car sends debris in all directions as his car was speeding along at more than 225 mph. What was left of his slingshot dragster slid hundreds of feet to a stop. Nicoll emerged from the wreckage with only bumps and bruises.

1971: The Burndown

Steve Carbone and Don Garlits pull to the starting line for the Top Fuel final and one of the most intense staging duels begins. Prior to the final round, Carbone insisted that he would not stage first in response to a Garlits-psyche job that he felt cost him the 1968 Top Fuel final. Carbone out-waited Garlits in one of the most dramatic burndowns in NHRA history. When the race finally started, Carbone's strategy paid off as he rumbled to the victory over the heavily-favored Big Daddy.

1978: Mongoose bites Snake

Still shaken by the death of his son Jamie to leukemia weeks earlier, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen earned the biggest victory of his career, defeating storied Hot Wheels rival Don "The Snake" Prudhomme. Ironically, it was Prudhomme that offered support for the still-grieving McEwen and encouraged him to enter the event as a form of therapy. For McEwen, who clocked a career-best run of 6.05 seconds during the final round meeting, the victory avenged a lifetime of being outperformed by Prudhomme.

1982: Shirley's Victory

Shirley Muldowney defeated former companion and crew chief Connie Kalitta in this legendary grudge match. At the time, an emotional Muldowney called the victory "the race of her life."

1982: Snake Clocks the Run of All Time

With engine oil trailing in his wake, Don Prudhomme made what most fans still consider the run of all time, regardless of category. He clocked a 5.63-second effort, nearly two-tenths of-a-second better than any Funny Car had run prior.

1984: Big Daddy Returns, Part I

After a lull in his drag racing career which had him contemplating retirement, Big Daddy Don Garlits, 52, returned to form with a final round victory over Connie Kalitta. The win sparked Garlits to earn U.S. Nationals titles the next two seasons and back-to-back NHRA championships in 1985-'86. Garlits won the U.S. Nationals eight times during his storied Top Fuel career.

1988: Glidden Dominates Indy

Bob Glidden earned his fourth consecutive U.S. Nationals victory, and his ninth overall at the prestigious event. The win was Glidden's 12th consecutive final round appearance at the U.S. Nationals, one of the most remarkable final round runs in NHRA history.


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