Don Garlits

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Don  Garlits

The very mention of drag racing brings to mind the career and accomplishments of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Not only do his wins and speed records speak for themselves, Garlits, over the course of five decades, was himself largely responsible for the evolution of the sport and its popularity with spectators.

Donald Glenn Garlits grew up poor in Tampa, Florida, and honed his mechanical skills repairing bicycles and farm equipment. His future was uncertain until a high school teacher introduced him to a new publication called Hot Rod Magazine. The young Garlits was hooked, and at the age of 17, bought his first car, a blue 1940 Ford sedan, for $345. Don Garlits married his high school sweetheart, Pat, a year after she graduated. Don and Pat decided to settle down – until a Sunday drive took them past a drag strip. On a whim, Garlits entered the family sedan, a 1950 Ford. After capturing the class win and a trophy, Garlits knew that drag racing was his future. Garlits was obsessed with driving the fastest car in Florida, and once achieved, set his sights on being the fastest in the world. He created a business, Don’s Garage – later called Garlits Automotive – to support his racing activities and to provide engineering resources.

By the late ‘50s, Garlits, a fan favorite, was making a name for himself with a car nicknamed “Swamp Rat” and some race promoters were even paying him guaranteed appearance fees just to show up. With Pat carrying their first child, disaster struck in 1959. An engine exploded in Garlits’ car, causing near fatal burns. A decade later, a transmission exploded, which severed his right foot and broke his left leg. Those incidents prompted Garlits to become involved with two safety innovations: he was the first driver to wear a full-body, fire resistant suit and was the first to engineer a dragster with the engine mounted behind the driver. With a career that utilized a series of 34 black Swamp Rat racecars, one of which now resides in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Garlits achieved 144 national event wins and 17 World Championship titles. He was the first driver ever to surpass 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260 and 270 miles per hour from a standing start in the quarter mile. In 2001, at the age of 69, and after 14 years of retirement from competition, Garlits borrowed a Top Fuel car and drove it to over 303 mph in just 4.72 seconds.

Still a popular figure at drag racing events, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits can usually be found at his Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. In 2004, at the age of 72, he took Swamp Rat 34 out of his museum a final time and drove it to a career best: 323.04 mph.

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