Don Garlits lives 14 miles east of Tampa, Fla., in Seffner, an area so chockablock with retirement villages and cemeteries that it is known in undertaking circles as God's Little Waiting Room. Old women with blue hair sit on park benches feeding pigeons; old men who are gnarled like briars play checkers. Don Garlits has lived in this area for 47 years, all of his life, and it has affected his feelings: Garlits refuses to believe that he is an old man, in fact the Old Man. Some people, of course, will tell you that such a denial is a sign of senility.
While it is true that in the strictest sense Garlits did not invent drag racing (Louis Armstrong did not invent jazz, either, but without him we might all still be listening to A Bicycle Built for Two), in 29 years of racing he has surely had more to do with the sport's emergence and survival than anyone. Fifteen years ago, when Garlits was a stripling of 32, he was canonized in a book as drag racing's Big Daddy because of his prominence in the sport. The name had a certain ring, and it has stuck. Half a dozen times Garlits has retired, or threatened to, and each time he has returned, more competitive than before. Big Daddyhood is not something you just walk away from. "In 20 years they'll be rolling him up to that car in a wheelchair and dropping him in," says driver Don Prudhomme, the only true rival Garlits has ever had. "He'll never quit."
And why should he? In nearly three decades of hurtling down quarter-mile asphalt strips, Garlits has earned more than $4 million, won every event of consequence at least once, set every speed record that meant anything and engineered almost every design innovation that brought the long, spidery dragsters to their present top speeds of 250 mph. "There isn't one bit of engineering on these cars that didn't come from something I did first," says Garlits, characteristically immodest. "Damn straight."
All of this pioneering has taken its toll. From time to time little pieces of Big Daddy have been left out there. Part of a finger once, another time half of his right foot and very nearly both of his lips. But what is the loss of a few fleshy parts to a man who has carried an entire sport around on his back for more than two decades?
Physically, Garlits may now be at the peak of his career. "He may be older than most of us," says driver Tom McEwen, "but his reflexes at the starting line are phenomenal. Nobody leaves first on the Old Man. He may be the quickest in the lights I've ever seen." Prudhomme, who has turned being blasè into an entertaining art form, admits that he often sneaks up to the starting line when Garlits is racing, just to watch him at work.
If, indeed, the years have affected Garlits in any way, it is that whereas he once was merely strange, now he is weird. "The man has made an awful lot of trips down that quarter-mile," says Shirley Muldowney, the 1977 National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel driving champion, and, as we shall see, Garlits' great nemesis. "I think it's made him funny in the head."
Muldowney, who was likely playing hopscotch when Big Daddy was well down the road to drag racing stardom, has come late to this opinion. Garlits has always been regarded as something of an oddball. A believer in extraterrestrial beings, Garlits has been suspected of being on a first-name basis with the kind of people who know how to produce a bit of eye-of-newt on short notice. "He always did have an interest in unusual things," says Bernie Partridge, Division 7 director of the NHRA, the California-based organization that promotes and sanctions the most prestigious drag racing in the United States.
In 1970, when Garlits was involved in a serious accident in Long Beach, Calif.—the one that cost him half of his right foot—McEwen spent hours at his hospital bedside. "He can talk about anything," says McEwen, "politics, religion, racing—he can go on for hours. His eyes get real big when he's talking; it's kind of scary. He's so intelligent that sometimes he borders on being insane. The strange thing is that he believes in all that outer-space stuff. Garlits thinks Albert Einstein was brought from another planet by aliens, then taken back when he died."
Stories of Garlits' dealings with the spirits gained such widespread acceptance among the drivers he raced against that at the 1973 Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., Carl Olson, a rival driver in the Top Fuel class, decided to fight it out with totems at 20 paces. Olson, who is now an NHRA executive, strapped on an ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol of life, figuring in his own fevered way that it would ward off whatever evil spirits Garlits might be invoking. "Garlits likes to mess with other drivers' minds in very subtle ways," Olson says. "Usually he does something that makes you so mad you forget what you ought to be doing to try to beat him." Ankh or no ankh, Olson was evidently distracted enough to get eliminated in the semifinals. Garlits won.
Prudhomme, who began his career in the "rail" dragsters Garlits drives but then switched to Funny Cars, says he was once startled to see Big Daddy stop what he was doing in the pits between rounds, look to the heavens and suddenly bleat the name of the driver he would have to face in the next round well before it was determined who that unfortunate soul would be. It was also Garlits' custom to hang animal teeth from a leather thong in the cab of his tow truck, teeth he believed were invested with magical powers. Another friend recalls seeing him rub the teeth vigorously before a particularly crucial race, then suddenly freeze in the midst of this rite. "Better not rub too hard," Garlits reportedly said, ominously. "Somebody could get hurt out there."
The most recent manifestation of Garlits' otherworldliness—it seems fair to call it that—is the GOD IS LOVE sign he has had painted through the outline of a cross on his dragster. As a rule that space is reserved for sponsors' decals. Because Garlits is a notorious pinchpenny, his gesture has been dismissed by cynics as an attempt to "put the arm on God for a new motor." Garlits says that though this is the first time the big Big Daddy has gotten billing on his car, his faith is neither new nor of the born-again variety. "I just decided to go public," he says.
There are times when it is difficult to square Garlits' piety with his instinctive combativeness, which often flares up like a pit-viper someone has just mistaken for a jump rope. His battles with opponents both real and imagined are legendary. "He needs all the controversies to keep him going," says McEwen. "He thrives on that stuff."
Another racer who has watched Garlits for years suspects there is a good reason the Old Man still travels hundreds of long hours with his race car each year, a drudgery Garlits could afford to skip by flying from one stop to another. "He does it to make himself mad at the world," the racer says. "When Big Daddy hies himself out of that truck after a long haul, he's like a wild animal that's just gotten loose from its cage. He wants to go race until he's beaten everybody, as if they were all personally responsible for making his life rough."
In fact, Garlits has tried several times to remove himself from the constant grind of driving his race car, but he is like an old war-horse who cannot be out of the traces long before he begins to miss them. During his periodic retirements he has turned his cars over to a hapless succession of so-called "shoes," as in hotshoes, whose only responsibility was to listen when Big Daddy whispered meaningfully in their ears, then to go out and mash the accelerator. These experiments brought mixed results. That is to say, sometimes the drivers quit in a huff, sometimes Garlits fired them. "I tried to tell them what I wanted," Big Daddy says, "but I found out I could talk all I wanted, and just as soon as they had won a few races they all got strange ideas in their heads. They think they've got some kind of magic. Well, they haven't.
"This sport got gross ['gross' is one of Garlits' favorite words, a relic from his street-racing days in the '50s] about three years ago. We've got people in drag racing now who don't know a thing about these cars. Most of the fun I've gotten out of racing has come from trying something new with an engine, and seeing it work a few minutes later in a race. It's a kind of immediate gratification that you can't get in any other kind of racing.
"This might surprise some people, but I don't drive real well. It doesn't take that much ability to drive one of these cars, anyway. The driving isn't a big thing with me. I wouldn't do it at all if I could find somebody else who knew how. What I'd like to see someday is a race where they put all the top drivers in a garage with nothing but a bunch of torn-down engines. The first one to put all the pieces together and win a race with it would be crowned the world champion. That would separate the boys from the girls."
The "girl" that Garlits would especially like to separate himself from is the aforementioned Muldowney. Muldowney is the pluperfect "shoe"—even if it's likely to be a pointy-toed satin pump with a three-inch spike heel—and for the past two years she's been stepping on Garlits' ego. Muldowney is only a slightly better-than-average driver with little mechanical aptitude. When she won the NHRA Top Fuel points championship in 1976, a title that Big Daddy himself had won in 1975, she got under Garlits' skin in a way most other drivers only dream about. In his museum near his home in Seffner, Garlits has a dartboard with a large photograph of Muldowney's face affixed to it. Most of Muldowney's darts have been verbal ones—from time to time she has reportedly called Garlits "a creep," "a cheapskate" and, most memorably, "the old fool."
Garlits was incredulous when Muldowney laid claim to what amounted to Big Mommyhood after her championship, and he has had her lined up in his cross hairs ever since. "Not to be a male chauvinist," says Garlits, about to be precisely that, "but women are definitely the weaker of the sexes and need to be protected by men while they're carrying the babies. I don't understand these women like Muldowney who want to prove they're as good as men. I wouldn't want my wife sticking her hands down in an engine to change red-hot pistons, getting her fingers all cut up and dirty. How can a woman expose herself to that, and all the rough talk around a racetrack, and still be feminine?
"Now, Shirley has done a remarkable thing, and she's gotten a lot of publicity for it. But I think she's begun to believe her own press releases. I resent her sitting in the cab of that truck filing her nails while those turncoat men flog her car for her. Meanwhile, all the other drivers—all those big strong men—have given in to her. Somebody has got to stop Muldowney, and right now it looks like I'm the only one standing between her and glory."
In December of 1971 Garlits was invited to a cocktail party at the White House along with several other celebrities who had entertained the troops in Vietnam. During the reception he got a chance to meet Richard Nixon, and found him to be "a wonderful person." It must have been quite a moment, the President of the United States clasping hands and chatting in a casual sort of way with an unrepentant hot rodder, a guy who once wore a leather jacket black enough to match the oil crescents under his fingernails and who was known in certain circles as Don Garbage.
"Garbage" was not really a reference to Garlits' personal appearance but rather a taunting reminder from the guys in California that the Easterner ran cars that looked as if they were put together by a junkyard reclamation service. Out in California, where boys were men and where cars were presents from Mom and Dad ("Hey, bitchin' wheels, Mom and Dad!") for mowing the lawn, the dragsters were built to look like sparkling jewels. The best of them had hand-rubbed lacquer finishes and a glittering bindweed of chrome piping. They were so bitchin'. And the boys who built and drove these wonderwagons were so bitchin'. And to them. Don Garlits seemed like such a, well, greaser. Not a bitchin' guy at all. No way.
For his part, Garlits was enraged by the smug superiority of the Californians, but he had neither the money nor the inclination to turn his dragster into a multi-hued, candy-coated road rocket, so he painted it jet black and called it the Swamp Rat. He might have called it the Swamp Fox, or even the Everglade Eagle, but Garlits chose to identify himself with a rodent. Moreover, he has added a roman numeral to each successive car, his last being Swamp Rat VI.
In 1950 when he was just getting started in drag racing, Garlits was an 18-year-old mechanical prodigy whose mother wanted him to become a bookkeeper but who had an itch to go fast and the ability to make it happen. What Garlits didn't have was a lot of money. He built the pioneer cars of the sport with leftover scraps of junkers, and though his designs tended to have a quilted look, they enabled him to beat more experienced racers in early races on an abandoned airstrip in Zephyrhills, Fla.
Garlits always raced anywhere he could get a booking, and as the sport got on its feet he was racing more dates than anyone. The real frontier years of drag racing were in the late '50s, when the technology and equipment began to catch up to the racers' imaginations. Those were years in which the quarter-mile speed record was sometimes bettered by 10 or 15 mph at a crack. From that point and on through the '60s, Garlits was almost always a full tenth of a second quicker than anyone else, a decisive edge in a sport whose victories are now calibrated in milliseconds. "Garlits always raced at so many bad tracks," says McEwen, "that when he got on a good surface he was nearly impossible to beat."
Swamp Rat I went 180 mph in 1958, but the car shook so badly that Garlits was often bruised by being thrown against the sides of the cockpit. Now he is restoring the car for the drag-racing museum he is building on his property in Seffner. With luck, Garlits hopes to be able to drive it in exhibitions, though his longtime mechanic and friend Tommy Lemons says skeptically, "I'd rather sit in the electric chair."
The museum is Garlits' special brainchild, and when it is built he hopes it will stand as a monument not only to his own achievements but also to drag racing itself. All of his old cars will be on exhibit, including a couple that were sold to racers in England and Australia. It will have the first dragster ever to run 200 mph (Garlits did it in 1964), the first dragster to run 240 mph (Garlits, '68), the first to make back-to-back elapsed-time runs in the sub-six-second range (Garlits, '73) and the first dragster to break 250 mph (Garlits, '75). Also on display will be the first workable rear-engine dragster, which Garlits designed from his hospital bed while recovering from injuries he sustained when a transmission blew up between his legs in 1970. It was the same accident that cost Garlits half of his right foot. Photographs taken just as Garlits hammered the throttle that day show his transmission exploding like a fragmentation bomb and the frame of his car buckling so hideously that the roll bar behind Garlits' head actually touched the engine in front of him. The accident was very nearly fatal and kept Big Daddy off the track for four months. "I have all the pieces of that transmission," he says, "and when the museum opens, I'm going to put them in a special exhibit under glass."
Among the hundreds of trophies in his museum will be a battered statuette that may have more historical ramifications than all the others combined. In 1957 Big Daddy decided to defy the NHRA's ban on nitromethane fuel. While most other racers accepted the prohibition and raced on pump gasoline, Garlits continued to press for more horsepower with the volatile nitro. This undoubtedly annoyed Wally Parks, director of the NHRA. When Garlits showed up in 1960 at the "gas only" Winternationals in Daytona Beach, few were surprised that he was disqualified on a technicality. This was after Garlits had set the top speed of the meet and at the presentation ceremony for that accomplishment he took the opportunity to tell the NHRA what he thought of it.
"I just stood there on the track and smashed their trophy on the ground," the Old Man says. "Then I called them all a bunch of names. People don't forget a thing like that, and it took Wally Parks a long time to forgive me. I suppose some of those old wounds never have healed completely."
The healing process might have been a lot quicker if Garlits hadn't kept twisting the knife. In 1972 he started a rival sanctioning body called the Professional Racers' Association (later called the Professional Racers Organization, or PRO) and scheduled its showcase race for the same holiday weekend as the U.S. Nationals, the NHRA's biggest event. Garlits says he did it because the winner of the Top Fuel division of the '71 Nationals, Steve Carbone, had claimed he had collected only $6,100 of the $6,300 he won in purses. "I told Wally a race like that should pay $25,000," Garlits says. "He told me drag racing was still in its infancy and that it would be a long time before anybody would pay $25,000."
Garlits, of course, recognizes a gauntlet when one hits the track in front of him, and he set out to prove the NHRA was wrong by offering $25,000 top prize money in the professional divisions of the PRA Challenge. The first PRA race was run in Tulsa from the Thursday through the Sunday before Labor Day. The flaw in Garlits' plan to disrupt the Indianapolis Nationals was that the NHRA ran its finals on Labor Day, Monday. "A lot of racers qualified at Indy on Thursday," Garlits says, "raced in Tulsa, then went back to Indy for their finals on Monday. That really hurt me. I was trying to prove that the racers deserved championship money for a championship race, and here were these guys playing both ends against the middle. We had a gross gate of $225,000 at the PRA, of which we turned 40% back to the racers, and we still lost $11,000. My wife Pat and I worked night and day for months promoting that race, and the winners took home more non-contingency prize money than at any other race in the history of the sport."
In 1972 the NHRA raised the purses for the U.S. Nationals, and Top Fuel winner Gary Beck won $18,000. But Don Moody in Top Fuel and McEwen in Funny Car each carted off $38,000 in winnings that year from the PRA.
A good example of the kind of day-to-day relationships Big Daddy has maintained over the years with other drivers is his curious friendship with Prudhomme. Garlits has won 18 NHRA national titles in his career, but Prudhomme, who is 10 years younger, has won 27. That doesn't seem to bother Garlits as much as the fact that Prudhomme was among the drivers who raced at both Indianapolis and Tulsa in 1972. Big Daddy admires Prudhomme's skills enormously, but he has never quite forgiven him that breach of faith. "Prudhomme was the name driver the NHRA used in all its promotional advertising for the race," Garlits says, "and he was the one driver with the drawing power to save them from taking a bath on the deal."
If Garlits made drag racing a sport, Prudhomme was largely responsible for making that sport a business by attracting lucrative sponsors. Consequently, Prudhomme views the PRA race a bit differently. "The thing he didn't understand," Prudhomme says, "was that most of us have commitments to sponsors that we have no choice but to honor, Garlits can do whatever he wants because he's Garlits and because he doesn't have to answer to anybody but himself."
Even trying to torpedo the NHRA's biggest race might not have made the Old Man a lifelong enemy of the organization, because the PRA Challenge flopped in 1977 when the racers abandoned it. In fact, in 1975 Garlits won the NHRA points championship, which, like him or not, endeared Big Daddy to the sugar daddies who pay sponsorship money.
In October 1975, after he won the championship at the World Finals in Ontario, Calif., Garlits took the podium at the awards banquet and embarked upon an hour-long speech recounting all his great moments in drag racing. Many of the racers who were in the audience that night recall it as a powerfully moving moment. They interpreted it as a sort of abdication address, a king admitting that he could no longer keep up with the competition and ending his reign. "He practically had me in tears," says Prudhomme with no trace of cynicism.
By late December of that year, however, word was beginning to go around that Garlits had signed a lucrative contract to run exclusively in national events sanctioned by the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), an aspiring rival to the NHRA. Garlits contends that he had meant all along that he was retiring only from the NHRA, not from drag racing altogether. But even with Garlits, the IHRA did not become a serious challenge to the NHRA and by 1977 Garlits was back on the NHRA circuit, as unrepentant as ever.
Parks has always tried to minimize the feud, and last year, in an interview in Popular Hot Rodding, the NHRA director went so far as to pretend it didn't exist. "There never was a feud," he said. "Garlits has very cleverly promoted his own notoriety, some of which I must admire because it is good showmanship. Some of it is regrettable, because he doesn't care who else gets hurt along the line. By and large he is still the top name in drag racing, and he will always be the Muhammad Ali of the sport."
Big Daddy seems uncertain of just what his next move in this chess game should be. "They've done some pretty gross things to me," he says, "but I've done some pretty gross things to them. I'd say it's just about even. I'm just a little too independent to always do exactly what the NHRA wants me to." One moment he seems ready to kiss and make up. "Wally Parks is the one who took a bunch of guys who were outlaws to society and turned the thing into a million-dollar sport," he says. Then in the next breath Garlits mentions a deal he considered making with an anti-smoking organization. The plan, he says, was for him to compete in the NHRA points series, which is sponsored by Winston cigarettes, win the championship, then announce that he would be unable to accept the prize money because he didn't support smoking. "That would curl their hair, wouldn't it?" he says diabolically.
If ever there were a fundamental statement of attitude, that would be Big Daddy's. All he has ever really wanted to do was curl people's hair, and show them they were fools for underestimating him. To do that it has often been necessary for him to fail spectacularly. When Muldowney was winning everything in 1977, the only thing that seemed important was that she was beating Garlits, and of course it was Garlits who was the architect of his own humiliation by thumping his chest and screaming, "Look at me! Getting beaten by a girl!" When Muldowney's gifted chief mechanic, Connie Kalitta (a man), left her crew late last year, Muldowney virtually dropped out of sight. And Garlits, with a fine sense of theater, returned to his former eminence by winning the Gatornationals in March 1978 and the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis in September.
It was the fifth time Garlits had won the Nationals, and it was vintage Big Daddy. He qualified fifth, with an elapsed time of 5,939 seconds. Then, in Sunday's opening round of 32 cars, he dusted off a challenger named Lou Novelli, who was eight years old when Garlits started racing. Big Daddy's time of 6.049 wasn't bad, but it was more than a tenth of a second slower than No. 1 qualifier Dave Uyehara's 5.924. After some adjustments back in the pit area, however, Garlits turned in the fastest time of the day in the second round of eliminations, 5.867.
In Round 3 he was paired against Uyehara, who had snapped off a 5.919 in his second-round win. It was a fine moment, the kind that gives drag racing its special side-by-side, let's-settle-this-thing-right-now appeal. At idle, the 1,700-hp. engine of a Top Fuel dragster crackles like bacon being cooked on a grill. The engine produces such incredible amounts of power so suddenly that if you ran one at full throttle for 10 seconds it would weld itself together and explode. First Garlits, then Uyehara moved the front wheels of their cars into the beams of the electronic "staging" lights. As the 16 tortured pistons throbbed and the cars seemed to struggle to be released, a yellow light flickered on; then, barely behind, came a green. In the nearly imperceptible moment between the two, while an electrical impulse was racing from the yellow bulb to the green, Garlits' big angry engine began to surge. Uyehara, who had the faster car, was frozen in the lights for a millisecond, then his car, too, reared back on its rubbery haunches. Uyehara covered the quarter-mile in 5.888 seconds, with a speed of 243.90 mph, which was faster than Garlits' 5.916/242.58 mph; but Garlits, on the strength of his astonishing reflexes, got to the finish line first, and that is all that counts in a drag race.
Following that, Garlits disposed of Larry Dixon and moved into the finals against Rob Bruins. It was not to be the nerve-wrenching battle he had had with Uyehara, but it was good enough. Garlits flashed down the track in 5.903 seconds.
After he had won and made a mental note to make room for one more vehicle in his museum, Garlits did not go out and celebrate with the drivers he travels with all year. No, Big Daddy began loading his truck for its long trip back to the 17-acre spread in Seffner, with the 65 citrus trees, and the alligator in the lake which sometimes suns himself on Big Daddy's beach, and the office with piped-in stereo and Pat and the two kids—at least until the end of this month, when he will load up tow truck and trailer and head out to Pomona for the Winternationals.
"I've seen him walk on water," says one driver. "There just isn't anybody else who could do all the things he's done. Drag racing is his whole life; that and his family are the only things that have ever had any meaning to him. When he's out on the road, Garlits' idea of a real big time is to go out to a 7-Eleven and load up on baloney and cheese, then go back to his room at the motel, fix himself a sandwich and talk about cars. You get him away from pistons and spark plugs and oil and he's about as much fun as dirt in a punch bowl."
When Garlits first came out of the Florida swamps and headed for California, he disdained the fancy paint jobs that were all the rage and called his black AAI Fueler the Swamp Rat. Its successor has a splash of white, goes 250 mph and bears testimony to Big Daddy's convictions.
At his home, Garlits arranges his schedule amid a clutter created by a few of his trophies.