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Original Issue


In an eerie world of smoke, noise and rocketing speed, Don Garlits has become the first man to break hot rodding's 200-mph barrier. His reward: renown, money—and haunting fear

For doctors and lawyers and engineers and people like that, drag racing is release, and one day a week on a ribbon of black asphalt in a field somewhere on the perimeter of a town is like a day spent under a billow of sail. For the others, the ones with that Rock Around the Clock gleam in their eyes and combs forever swishing through their hair, it is "full of kicks, man." For spectators, who pay for the privilege of inhaling exhaust fumes and having their ears buffeted by painful, unceasing noise, it is the promise of the macabre and the vicarious thrill of speed. But for a slight 32-year-old Floridian named Don Garlits, who has driven the recognized quarter mile faster than anyone ever before, it is sweet misery: a $70,000 income, mushrooming business prospects, recognition and a deep longing to be someone else, somewhere else. All from a sport associated in the public mind with the psychologically scarred.

"Mention drag racing," says Garlits, "and right away people look at you kind of queer, and you know what they're thinking: 'Poor boy. He was promised a pony one year for Christmas, and he didn't get it.' "

As king of the hot rodders, Garlits disdains such sympathy, which is misguided anyway. Far from being chief freak in a realm of misfits, he is almost flagrantly normal—if that term can be applied to a man who weekly exposes himself to the danger of death. Garlits is a reflection of all that drag racing is rapidly coming to be: big business, expensive courting of stars by the motor companies and parts manufacturers, a glut of flourishing publications which dispense technical expertise to an astonishing number of readers, an estimated nationwide attendance of five million a year.

"Garlits is an Establishment man," says Ed Roth, the Crazy Painter from California, who is celebrated in hot rod-ding for his creation of the Weirdo shirt (SI, April 24, 1961). On the West Coast, where the James Dean sect of hot rod-ding is entrenched, Garlits is regarded as a square, a carpetbagger and agent of the suspect East. But nobody calls him Don Garbage anymore, an opprobrium imposed when he first appeared in California with a dragster built from junkyard parts. "They were used to those glittering, chrome-plated, technically perfect dragsters of wealthy guys," Don says. "They took one look at my nightmare, and they like to rolled over laughing. They would shout something like, 'Go home, you Florida hick.' Actually, they didn't get much of a laugh out of it. I cleaned up on them out there, and they went home shaking their heads."

Although he professes to hate and fear speed, Garlits certainly has not shrunk from it. Not long ago in the tiny hamlet of Great Meadows, N.J. he performed a feat that is to drag racing what Roger Bannister's first four-minute mile is to track—he broke the sport's 200-mph barrier twice in one afternoon. (The previous week in Detroit, Garlits had become the first man ever to exceed 200 mph at the end of a quarter-mile drag strip, but that single performance might have been criticized as a fluke and possibly another among many questionable claims to 200-mph runs.)

Garlits arrived early at the New Jersey drag strip, began tinkering with the latest of his creations, which he calls The Swamp Rat, and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of the curious. Another, smaller crowd clustered about Garlits' chief rival, Chicagoan Chris Karamesines, a mustached, sleepy-eyed man who looks like a character out of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and is known on the drag-racing circuit simply as "The Greek." "Hey there, Big Daddy Don," someone yelled. "Did ya hear about The Greek? His chute? Didn't open in a test run. He crashed through a wire fence and stopped right next to a railroad track. Didn't faze 'im. Walked away from it jest cool, man. Jest cooool."

"Jest cooool," Garlits mumbled, mimicking the informer. "What the hell, now. He [The Greek] must be hopped up, or he's crazy." Garlits turned back to his dragster. His hands moved quickly and confidently over its sleek body. Beads of sweat dropped from his forehead. The crowd, mostly drivers from the pit areas, pushed in on him, and he had only a few feet of working space. "Can't somebody get these people back?" he asked, almost shouting. Silent, entranced, they just stared at the machinery before them as a group of men might gaze at a pretty girl. Now and then a stock car, driven by a kid with a dirt-smeared, pockmarked face and a glint in his eyes, would screech up to the group. The kid would whip his engine three or four times, look over at Garlits and then pull away. Garlits, annoyed, would slowly look up. "That kid's a bit sick," he finally said. "He's what they call Hot Shoes. You see how he keeps coming around. He's trying to tell me something. He's trying to tell me what a killer he is, and, oh, how he'd like to take me on if he had machinery like mine. Deep down they all think they're killers."

Afternoon faded toward evening in Great Meadows, a scorched, shadeless place in a valley between the Piedmont Plateau and the Appalachians. Garlits finished his preparations. Quiet, like the stillness of a cathedral on a summer afternoon, enveloped the area. People were now standing in the frail bleachers. At the starting line, Garlits and The Greek nodded to each other. And then everything seemed to explode. Noise ripped at the ears until they began to hurt. The ground shook. Big bales of white smoke, shrouding the faces of the drivers, rolled out over the strip. The smell of burning rubber and nitro was sharp and nauseating. In a moment the dragsters were gone, and all there was to be seen was a stream of smoke flying down the straightaway.

Seconds later two chutes popped open. The race was over. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, Big Daddy," someone bellowed from the stands. Superlatives rang from the announcer's booth. Coming back down the strip, Garlits smiled and waved his arm in a slow pirouette that seemed more like a long sigh than a gesture. When the afternoon finally died, Garlits had beaten The Greek twice, accelerating to a speed of 200.44 mph at the end of the quarter mile in one run, and 200.89 mph in the other. It was the breakthrough drag racing men had awaited and the millennium in the life of Don Garlits.

Garlits was born and raised in Tampa. His father, who died when Don was 10, was a farmer-dairyman with a knack for fixing things. His mother ran the farm for a while after her husband's death but now devotes all her time to horticulture. "Once I had an opportunity to go into the big-time dairy business," she says, "but I knew Don, even though he was very good at milking cows, didn't have the temperament for a slow-moving job. I did hope that he would eventually go into white-collar work. I'm bitterly opposed to his racing. Especially after seeing him in a hospital after he was badly burned. I didn't even know it was Don. But when I try to talk about it, he always replies, 'Mother, when your number's up, your number is up. You can get killed on a highway or in a bathtub.' "

Don was a frail boy, too small for other sports. "When he was 14," his mother says, "Don erected a tripod in the backyard and pulled motors out of old cars and worked on them unceasingly. Many nights at 2 a.m. I had to force Don and his friends to quit before neighbors called police." Yet when Garlits graduated from high school, where his grades were good, he took a position in a bookkeeping office. He worked there only six months. "I began to feel like a figure," he says. "I'd walk into the office, look around and I'd get depressed. I thought there must be more to life than this. One day I walked in, turned around and walked out."

After that, there was a succession of jobs in body shops, then a radiator shop. Then Garlits caught on as a racing mechanic. Still, he seemed only to drift into drag racing. In Tampa it was the thing to do so Garlits raced—but at first with no great enthusiasm. His wife was not aware that he raced at all and that he was nurturing a passion for it until he began collecting speeding tickets for dragging on vacant roads. Even then she dismissed it all with a boys-will-be-boys smile. The smile rapidly disappeared when he showed up one day with a "$29 camshaft that he was going to put into our new Ford."

Today drag racing is to Garlits a means, a ladder on which to climb to a less violent life. Once it stimulated him—and it still does to a degree—but now it has become haunting and filled with drudgery and terror. Now it is a life on wheels with all the problems of such a life: two small daughters who have to sleep on a shelf of the truck Garlits uses as transportation; a wife trying to make a home on the road; short, frantic visits to places like Half Moon Bay and Yellow Belly and Cicero and Oswego; road maps and strong coffee and restless sleep at roadside. His wife acts as navigator, keeps the records and now and then writes verse ("it would be perfect for the Beach Boys," she says), some of which tells of a shiny black rail with a blower on top, a cool cat behind a big Dodge engine that likes to drink pop, and concludes:

In staging the crew give the heads a feel,
Then signal to Don to make it unreal.
He rolls up to the line and cleans his pipes
The bulbs start flashing on the Christmas tree lights.
He's gone and the announcer says 7.88!
Yea Big Daddy
You really, really turned it on!

Except for his physical features, which would blend perfectly with a black jacket, tight pants and black boots, Garlits is the antithesis of the hero of that verse and of the hot-rodding stereotype. Only a few hot rodders make more than nickels and dimes. Most of them seem to glory in the indescribable noise at a drag strip, but it gives Garlits headaches, has partially impaired his hearing and extracts a steady stream of expletives from him. He has been known to cite a Swedish scientist's study of noise in relation to insanity.

Garlits is genuinely confused by the erotic love for hot rods expressed by so many in the sport, and he describes his own dragster as "just a piece of junk." The esoteric jabber (for instance: "if you were a big wienie at the strip you certainly wouldn't drive a rat, you'd probably drive a gasser that gobbles and take the bash") is foreign to his own speech, which flows slowly and lucidly. And the interminable yakking about blowers and cylinder heads and cams and slush pumps, which bombards his ears every time he gets near a drag strip, bores him. When not working he much prefers to talk about other things, perhaps Goldwater, civil rights or the kingdom of the ant, three subjects which always make his eyes shine and his face glow with animation. Yet, besieged by spectators or novices, he will answer without flippancy a hundred technical questions. To promoters he is a "nice fella" and "the only guy in drag racing who can pack a place to capacity."

Psychologists could undoubtedly discover in Garlits a love-hate conflict—probably a normal one. He has a lust for competition and he delights in producing better and faster cars than anyone else, but most of all he is drawn to it by the money—anywhere from $750 to $2,000 an appearance. But now the fear of death has begun to follow him like another man's shadow. The torment is acute. He has begun to speak of "this madness of speed."

"I can't take any more days like this," he said, leaving Great Meadows. "This is the day I've been shooting for. I can't keep going faster and faster. If I do, it will be just a matter of time." He left unsaid, "until I am killed."

"I feel like I'm pushing my luck every time out. It's agony, but then I get the money and it suddenly becomes real sweet. For a while."

To understand what gnaws at Garlits, it is necessary first to understand the awesome capability of his dragster and to relate an incident and the aftermath of a day at Chester, S.C.

First, consider the dragster itself: The Swamp Rat (also called Wynn's Jammer to publicize a commercial sponsor), which Garlits built in 10 days at a cost of $4,000 and 16 hours of work each day, is capable of producing 1,350 hp. It is powered by a 396-cubic-inch Dodge engine which is supercharged and fuel-injected. The Swamp Rat is 15 feet long, has fat, slick tires of special racing rubber behind and motorcycle wheels in front. It is designed for no other task than straight-line acceleration. To its rear is attached a parachute which helps slow the car. It carries only 3½ gallons of fuel, which is usually referred to as "exotic." The fuel consists of, say, 90% nitro-methane for power, 6% alcohol for cooling and 4% benzine as an aid to ignition. The percentages vary often, and Garlits is widely recognized for his touch with fuel. Bending over old Army water containers, his hands jumping from can to can, he reminds one of Bela Lugosi in a laboratory of smoking test tubes.

"I used to mix the fuel right at the strip," he says, "but there are too many spies around trying to find out what I'm doing with it. Now I mix it privately. It's all quite complex for anyone outside the sport. Even people in the sport don't know what I've done to reach 200. Oh, they say they know, but they don't. For instance, the fuel. They don't know how I'm getting the proper balance. Actually, the big thing is imagination. You see, there are six major factors: the supercharger, the pistons, the camshafts, the gear ratio, the tires and the fuel. It's the combinations you use. For each factor there are, say, 25 different combinations. I interpret all this as just imagination."

The sensation of driving one of these bullets is described by Garlits as "unreal," and he himself looks unreal as he sits in the dragster before takeoff, dressed in an asbestos suit, a face mask and ear plugs, glued in position by a shoulder harness and safety belt. It is one thing to say 200 mph in less than eight seconds, but it is quite another thing to see the dragster roaring and smoking at the starting line, look away for a moment, and then turn back to see it a quarter of a mile away. It is an impressive and frightening sight. "One-tenth of a second is nothing to most people," Garlits says. "Just a blinking of the eye. But at the far end of the run, that's four car lengths. A dragster at top speed can cover 275 feet per second. Divide that by 10, one-tenth of a second can mean more than 27 feet. And when you finally stop the car at the end it's like having a great weight pulled off you. At the start of the race you feel like you're going straight up. As the race goes on, you feel like the car is out of control. There is no time to think or savor the thrill of speed. And as you go down that strip, you don't see anything. It is a no-man's land. There is just the blur of the landscape, a swirling pattern of grays and blacks, and the strip is sort of like a little black pencil mark.

"When the chute opens your body goes forward, and then you have the force of the opening chute pulling at you. It crushed three of my vertebrae once. Stopping the car is a reflex action. I've practiced it so much I do it in my sleep. I pull the chute release cord, turn the fuel off and pull the hand brake. It takes one second, sometimes a little less. I try not to think of all the things that can happen, like the chute not opening or the car flipping. That's the worst thing. Just one little slip and it's all over. When I climb out of that little cockpit I feel like I've been in a boxing ring. You can't let the fear get the best of you, and I have to light it all the time. After the accident in Chester I used to find myself going down the strip with my foot only halfway on the throttle. I was dazed with fear."

The incident in Chester would have frightened most people into a totally sedentary life. Garlits remembers most vividly the face of a doctor and his first words, which seemed to come from an echo chamber: "My God! We can't do anything for this man."

"The supercharger exploded," Garlits says, "and only my leather jacket saved me. It all happened in four seconds. I had swallowed some of the fire, and later I almost caught pneumonia. My condition was similar to that of Fireball Roberts, the stock-car driver who died this year. I had third-degree burns; flesh, especially on my hands, was just hanging off."

Even now you can see pale white rings around his eyes where the goggles were, and his hands are ghostly white from the wrists down. His lips, practically burned away, are thin and white.

"But one of the worst things about the accident was the convalescence. They had socked a lot of morphine into me to kill the pain; in fact, I used to count the minutes waiting for the shots. Well, when I went home, I was hooked on the stuff. I could never sleep, and then there was this terrible gnawing inside. For days I had to go for long walks. I used to walk until 4 o'clock in the morning, until I was too tired to walk anymore. I kicked it eventually, but it was one of the worst trials of my life. When I was burned again, not as seriously, I wouldn't take any of that stuff. The whole thing was a nightmare. I still dream about it now and then—those four seconds that seemed like four years. All I could think of at the time was why? Why did I get into drag racing? I still wonder."