Chatting with an Automotive Icon

Our conversation with Big Daddy Don Garlits

Photo by Lisa Crigar

Partly inspired by the mechanical ingenuity that helped decide the outcome of the 2nd world war, many young people who were just getting behind the wheel in the late 1940’s began to develop a fascination with pushing the limits of automobile performance. Among this group of visionaries was the man who would come to be known as the father of drag racing, Don “Big Daddy” Garlits. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the Tampa icon for the inaugural issue of CCWCF…

CCWCF: What is your earliest memory of wanting to build cars and race?


Garlits: It was September, 1949… I just got my first car. I was driving it around and this kid pulled up beside me in a brand new ‘49 Chevrolet. His dad was in construction and had a lot of money. We didn’t. I saved $350 for my car. It was an old ’40 Ford. Worn out. He (the challenger) said, “Let’s Race!” We were sitting at the stoplight on Florida Avenue. I said, “race?” He (the challenger) said, “Yeah. when the light turns green go as hard as it’ll go!” So when the light turned green we stepped on it. We only went maybe 50-60 feet, you know? The Chevrolet just shot right out in front of me, but it was exciting, and I knew right then I wanted to race.


CCWCF: Did you build that car?


Garlits: That car? I just bought that car off of a car lot. It was a ’40 Ford from World War II. Worn Out. They probably never changed the oil the whole duration of the war!


CCWCF: Do you think young people now think about cars the same way you and I did in the 50’s and 60’s?


Garlits: No. There are a few enthusiasts, but I think most people think of cars as just a means to get from point A to point B.


CCWCF: So, do you think the collecting of cars and racing of cars is in danger of going away?


Garlits: It’s not going to go away. There are always going to be people that like cars. There are always going to be people who want to look at them. We get a lot of young people here and they love it in the old car museum. The cars had personality then which they do not have now. Remember the two guys who made rockets, Goddard and Von Braun? They never saw each other, and they didn’t know about each other until after the war. When they got together and they looked at the rockets, they were exactly the same. Goddard’s was a little smaller and Von Braun’s was bigger because he (Von Braun) was designing rockets to deliver bombs… Goddard was just experimenting. Goddard said to Von Braun, “How can this be? The two rockets are almost identical!” Von Braun said, (Garlits does a pretty spot on impression of Von Braun here) “That is because there is only one way to make a rocket!” That is what we’re going to see here… there’s only going to be one way to make an automobile for it to be most efficient, aerodynamic, comfort for the passengers… A lot of that is dictated by the government now. You just don’t make a car. There are federal standards. It’s the same in the NHRA. A lot of the top fuel-

dragsters look just alike, because that’s what the rules say! There is only one way to have a top fuel-dragster.


CCWCF: I know a while back you set a record with an EV (electric vehicle) dragster. I saw that the Australians have come up with a 5000 horsepow—


Garlits: Not that much horsepower, 3000. I went 185.6 (Mph) on batteries in 7.05 seconds. I’m trying to go 200. I have built a new car, Swamprat 38 which has only made one shakedown test-run. We’ve got to get back to the track. It’s ready to go now.


CCWCF: Do you think that EV-dragsters and fuel-dragsters will compete against each other or do you think they’ll remain separate classes?


Garlits: No, it’ll be separate. The EV-dragster will be more for the guy who wants to race but doesn’t have a lot of money. It’ll be an inexpensive class. We don’t ever want them to go 300 miles an hour though. That’s a problem now for top fuel-dragsters. They are becoming uninteresting. They don’t even run a quarter mile anymore. They just run 1000 feet and it just takes 3 and some tenths of a second to do it. It’s not really fun to watch. If there wasn’t for the big burnout there wouldn’t be anything to watch! We’d like to keep the EV dragsters well under 250 miles an hour where they can always have to run a quarter of a mile and wouldn’t have to be completely rebuilt every run. They just go. One of my record runs was made when I had one run I didn’t like and could just go around and around until I got it!


CCWCF: You were instrumental in redesigning the engine placement on fuel-dragsters. Can you tell me about your involvement in changing that design?


Garlits: We did it that in my shop. Me and Connie Swingle and Tom Lemons, we built that car from scratch. It took three months of testing to get it to go straight. It was a hard thing to do. In fact, we gave up on it once and the wife got me back on the program… she got after me and said “You shouldn’t get back in those cars [front engine placement], they’re too dangerous. So we got back on it, we figured it out, and the rest is history. Not only did it change top fuel, it changed all of them. If you go to the drags you don’t see any cars with the guys sitting in the back.


CCWCF: Back in March you hosted the banquet for the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Can you tell me about that?


Garlits: Well that was our 29 th year, coming up on 30 which is a big deal for us.


CCWCF: And I know your late wife, Pat was instrumental in much of your career. Am I correct that you have an award that you bestow each year in her honor?


Garlits: Yeah we have the Pat Garlits award, which what you’re talking about. Every year we give the award to a different woman in the sport who has made some sort of a contribution. It doesn’t have to be racing.


CCWCF: Who was the winner this year?


Garlits: Lynne Prudhomme. She is one of the ladies that helped form DRAW, The Drag Racing Association of Women. DRAW has helped so many of the families of racers that got hurt or killed.


CCWCF: 144 Open Events, 17 National Championships, is there anything you think that is left to do in your career or anything you’d like to finish up?


Garlits: I want to go 200 [Mph] in my electric dragster. That’s it. If I do that, I’m burnin’ the gloves.


CCWCF: Do you think you’re close to that?


Garlits: I’m real close. I think next time we go to the track I’ll probably do. This new car is good. It’s light. It went fast the last time. It went 182 but it was weaving around… so we’ll put a nice wing on it, with a rudder to keep it straight and I think it’ll stay good enough to go 200.

Visit to learn more about Don Garlits's storied career.