NHRA's 50 Greatest Drivers - No. 1, Don Garlits

NHRA'S 50 GREATEST DRIVERS -- NO. 1: DON GARLITS Longevity doesn't guarantee success, but success over a long period of time can elevate a person to the top of his or her profession. In drag racing, that person is Donald Glenn Garlits, also known ...


Longevity doesn't guarantee success, but success over a long period of time can elevate a person to the top of his or her profession. In drag racing, that person is Donald Glenn Garlits, also known as "Big Daddy."

Garlits won the first organized drag race he entered with the first race car he built. It was 1955, and the NHRA Safety Safari had come to Lake City, Fla. A short three years later, the garage and body-shop owner was racing professionally with the first of 34 race cars he would tag Swamp Rat. He didn't stop until 1992, when eye trouble, the result of deceleration G forces, forced him from the seat at age 60. In the four-decade interim, Garlits took on all comers on any racetrack in the country and sometimes abroad. Driving chassis he fabricated that were powered by engines he built, Garlits won 144 major open events and 17 national championships in the sport's three major hot rod associations.

"I just loved it," Garlits said of why he drag raced. "I liked the idea of two cars lined up side by side, not bumping into one another. It was one person against one person, one machine against one machine. There was a winner and a loser. It was real simple."

By any measure, Garlits belongs at the top of NHRA's Top 50 Drivers list. Scores of wins? Check. Numerous championships? Check. Technological breakthroughs? Check. Popularity? Check. Innovations? Check. Contributions to the growth of NHRA? Mention drag racing to the man on the street and if he knows only one name, it surely is "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.

He came from Florida -- the wrong side of the drag racing tracks in the 1950s -- and he wasn't rich, nor did he have a college education. But his desire, intelligence, confidence, strong work ethic, and will to succeed propelled him past those liabilities to the top of the sport as quickly as he blew off the sport's early hotshots from Southern California.

Following his first win in 1955 with his crude and highly modified 12.1-second, 108-mph, flathead-powered '27-T roadster-cum-slingshot, Garlits built his first Swamp Rat. Built on '30 Chevy framerails, he raced that car for five years all over the country and in many incarnations. He earned his first appearance money and won his first big events with that car. When he won the Florida State Championships in 1956, it turned 10.9s at 135 mph. By 1960 and with the retirement of Swamp Rat I, the six Stromberg carburetors had been replaced by a supercharger, the gasoline by nitromethane, and the e.t.s were in the low eights. In 1957, he was the first to exceed 170 mph; the next year, he was the first over 180 mph. By the time he built Swamp Rat II, he had won the AHRA Nationals and the Texas State Championship in 1958, and in 1959, he won the Northern California championship, the Arizona State championship and, with Art Malone driving while he recovered from near-fatal burns suffered in a match race in Chester, S.C., the Riverside Invitational. With another gas-powered dragster, he won the first NHRA Winter Nationals in Daytona, Fla., in 1960.

It was an event he didn't win that convinced Garlits to devote his life to drag racing. The hottest car in the country in 1957 was the 160-plus-mph Cook & Bedwell car in California. It and several other of the best fuel dragsters in the country were going to be racing in Cordova, Ill., that summer at the Automobile Timing Association of America event. Garlits' self-confidence was flagging when he arrived and realized that he was more than two seconds behind the competition. Emory Cook, driver of the Cook & Bedwell car, showed Garlits how to modify his carburetors to run 95-percent nitromethane, far more than the 25 percent Garlits had been using. The advice picked up his performance to competitive times, and he beat Cook in eliminations before losing in the final.

"They were my heroes," Garlits said. "I had their picture nailed up on the wall of my shop. When I outran them, I said, 'This is what I want to do.' "

NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge tagged Garlits with the famous and favorable "Big Daddy" nickname at the 1962 U.S. Nationals. (In the 1950s, when he broke speed barriers and whipped the Southern Californians with his crude Swamp Rat I, they called him "Tampa Dan," "Don Garbage," and "Swamp Rat." Neither Partridge nor Garlits could have known that 39 years later, in the second week of November 2001, the nickname would also connote his final ranking in the sport. Garlits advanced to his first of 43 career NHRA national event final rounds in Indianapolis in 1962. He lost in the Top Gas final to Jack Chrisman.

NHRA lifted its seven-year-old nitromethane ban for the 1963 Winternationals before dropping it forever at both national events the following year, and Garlits won his first of 35 NHRA national event titles. With a wing mounted over the engine, the first on a Top Fuel dragster, Garlits defeated Malone with an 8.26 e.t. at 186 mph.

Garlits achieved the first of his three greatest accomplishments in the sport in 1964. With nitromethane now legal at all NHRA events, Garlits, in August in Great Meadows, N.J., became the first to record an official backed-up 200-mph speed. The next month, he drove Swamp Rat VI to his first of eight U.S. Nationals titles, defeating Jack Williams in the final with a 7.67 e.t. at 198 mph. Three years later, with a dragster he built in 72 hours after failing to qualify at the Winternationals and Springnationals, he became the first two-time winner of the most prestigious drag race in the world and the next year the first to win two straight U.S. Nationals titles.

By the close of the 1960s, when NHRA hosted only two national events a year from 1961 to 1965 and four a year from 1965 to 1969, Garlits had won six titles. He had also won four AHRA national events and the first of five U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in seven career final rounds. Driving two different Swamp Rat dragsters each day of the two-day Fuel & Gas runoffs in 1965, Garlits won Saturday and again Sunday over teammate Marvin Schwartz. The event had been created in 1959 specifically to lure Garlits to California to race.

The 1970s opened badly for Garlits when a transmission explosion -- in the fatefully tagged Swamp Rat XIII -- in the final round of an AHRA national event in Long Beach, Calif., cut his car in half and took a portion of his right foot with it. That was the last straw for Garlits, who had been sitting behind the oil- and fire-spewing supercharged, nitro-burning engines for more than 10 years. Having already reached a speed of 240 mph two years before, Garlits was faced with quitting or making the novel rear-engine dragster design competitive. He chose the latter, resulting in his second major accomplishment.

Exactly one year later at the race where he was hobbled, Garlits took his rear-engine Swamp Rat XIV to the final again. Several weeks later, he became the first to win an NHRA national event with a rear-engine dragster when he set the Top Fuel class on a new course by winning the Winternationals. Within two years, the front-engine dragster was extinct. Garlits' first rear-engine dragster not only rejuvenated "the Old Man's" career -- he was 39 -- but revived the class at a time when the danger of the diggers and the surging popularity of the new Funny Cars had Top Fuel on the ropes.

In the 1970s, driving a succession of Swamp Rat dragsters, Garlits became the first to run in the 6.2s and the first to exceed 250 mph. He ran the first 250-mph speed at the 1975 NHRA World Finals to win his and the first Winston-backed Top Fuel championship; the speed would not be eclipsed for almost seven years. His e.t. on the run, 5.63, was a tenth and a half quicker than the record he had set two years earlier.

By the end of the decade, he had won 16 of 20 NHRA national event final rounds, including two more U.S. Nationals, all four of his IHRA championships (26 national event wins), and six of his 10 AHRA titles.

He further contributed to the sport in the 1980s when he opened the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., in 1984, but not before experimenting with two different methods of locomotion that were reminiscent of the earliest days of the sport.

In 1982, with Swamp Rat 27, he mounted the engine sideways in the chassis in an effort to gain more traction from engine torque. The next year, he installed a 2,000-horsepower T58-10 turbine engine in 1,000-pound Swamp Rat 28. Both attempts at building a better drag racing mousetrap proved unworthy, but they were evidence of Garlits' intelligence and determination.

By summer 1984 and with the approach of the U.S. Nationals, Garlits had been mostly absent from the NHRA tour for four years and hadn't built a conventional car during that time. Nevertheless, with the urging and financial backing of old friend Malone, Garlits arrived unannounced in Indianapolis and repeated his come-from-behind U.S. Nationals win of 1967. He followed with another win at the World Finals in Pomona, and Garlits was stoked for a return to full-time NHRA competition. His 1984 Indy win and subsequent return to NHRA competition was the second time his performance and name alone had breathed new life into Top Fuel.

In 1982, Garlits' friend, nemesis, and match race partner, Shirley Muldowney, had become the first to win three NHRA national Top Fuel championships. By 1986, Garlits had also become a three-time NHRA national champion, along the way repeating his 1984 win at the U.S. Nationals in 1985 and 1986 to become the event's only three-straight winner. En route to winning the 1986 Winston Top Fuel title, he was the first to 270 mph, at the Gatornationals in his homestate of Florida. He accomplished both with the sport's only successful streamlined car, Swamp Rat XXX, Garlits' third great accomplishment. On Oct. 20, 1987, his homebuilt artifact was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution, which also houses The Spirit of St. Louis and the first manned space capsule.

In 1987, after his second blowover (the term was invented to describe Garlits' overbackward wheelie in Swamp Rat XXX at the 1986 Summernationals) in two years in Spokane, Wash., Garlits retired yet again. He returned in 1992 with Swamp Rat 32, equipped with a monostrut rear wing, in an effort to become the first to exceed 300 mph, but he didn't debut the car until the Southern Nationals, one month after Kenny Bernstein ran the first 300-mph speed at the Gatornationals. Garlits had driven at a national event just once since 1992, when he competed at this year's U.S. Nationals in Gary Clapshaw's car. As he had done so many times over the years all over the country, Garlits brought a roaring crowd to its feet when he ran his much coveted first four-second e.t. and 300-mph speed in Sunday qualifying, 4.720 and 303.37 mph.

Afterward, Garlits, four months shy of his 70th birthday, announced his intention to find a sponsor and resume driving once again.

Call him what you will -- "Big Daddy," "Swamp Rat," "the Old Man" -- but with his status as the top driver in NHRA's first 50 years, call Don Garlits "the Best."

NHRA's Top 50 Drivers were unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season. Garlits was revealed as the No. 1 driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11. John Force was named the No. 2 driver in history. The top-50 drivers were selected by a panel of 37 drag racing journalists and historians of the sport.

As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.

50. Elmer Trett
49. Richard Tharp
48. Malcolm Durham
47. Billy Meyer
46. Ken Veney
45. Scotty Richardson
44. Dave Schultz
43. Frank Hawley
42. David Rampy
41. John Mulligan
40. Frank Manzo
39. Danny Ongais
38. James Warren
37. Edmond Richardson
36. Blaine Johnson
35. Terry Vance
34. Willie Borsch
33. Brad Anderson
32. Darrell Gwynn
31. Dick LaHaie
30. Chris Karamesines
29. Art Chrisman
28. George Montgomery
27. Jim Dunn
26. Gene Snow
25. Tommy Ivo
24. Gary Beck
23. Jack Chrisman
22. Pete Robinson
21. Connie Kalitta
20. Raymond Beadle
19. Ed McCulloch
18. Don Nicholson
17. Jim Liberman
16. Tom McEwen
15. Ronnie Sox
14. Eddie Hill
13. Pat Austin
12. Lee Shepherd
11. Mickey Thompson
10. Dale Armstrong
9. Joe Amato
8. Bill Jenkins
7. Warren Johnson
6. Kenny Bernstein
5. Shirley Muldowney
4. Bob Glidden
3. Don Prudhomme
2. John Force
1. Don Garlits



50th Anniversary "Breakfast of Champions" transcript

Dodge Then & Now 11-14-01