Donald Glenn "Don" Garlits, known as "Big Daddy" to drag racing fans, is considered by many as the father of drag racing and is the King of Top Fuel drag racing. Known not only as a driver but as an innovative automotive engineer, “Big Daddy” has made the sport faster and safer. For over six decades, Garlits has been setting records and is making no plans to slow down.
Garlits began his career in 1954, under a shade tree at his home in North Tampa. Using an electric welder and gas torch, he rebuilt an old 1927 Model “T” using a Mercury engine and a Ford transmission. This T-Bucket had a top speed of 93 mph and turned a quarter mile in 13.5 seconds. From this success, Garlits developed his first rail dragster. He removed the body, located the engine further back and moved the driver’s seat behind the rear axle. This car gave Garlits his first NHRA win. These variations gave the car a top speed of 108 mph with a time of 12.1 seconds.
Most of the top drag racers at the time were from California and Garlits was from Florida. Many of the other drivers took to calling him “Swamp Rat.” Instead of getting upset, Garlits adopted the name for his dragster. The name “Swamp Rat” became synonymous with Garlits, as every car he drove bore that name. In 1959, “Swamp Rat I” exploded nearly burning Garlits to death. The doctors wanted to amputate his hands, but Garlits would not allow them to proceed. It was not long before he was racing again. This incident led Garlits to become an early promoter of the full-body, fire-resistant driver’s suit, which is considered standard equipment today.
In 1970, while driving “Swamp Rat XIII,” the new transmission which Garlits was developing exploded, cutting the car in half and cutting off part of Don’s right foot. The ever imaginative Garlits did not slow down. While still in a wheelchair, he would go to the garage and cut out the parts for a new, safer dragster with the engine behind the driver. This car known as “Swamp Rat XIV” was so successful, that in 1971 Garlits won two Top Fuel titles with it. The rear engine design became the model for all future slingshot model dragsters.
During the course of his career, Don Garlits set several records and achieved success on an unprecedented scale. Garlits was the first drag racer to officially surpass the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, and 270 miles per hour marks in the quarter mile. He was also the first to top 200 in the 1/8 mile. Garlits has won ten American Hot Rod Association championships, four International Hot Rod Association championships and three National Hot Rod Association championships for a total of 17 World Championships. At the age of 54, he won the last championship. During his career, Don Garlits won a total of 144 national events. On October 20, 1987, Swamp Rat XXX, was enshrined in The Smithsonian’s, National Museum of American History, in Washington D.C.
After a short retirement, Garlits returned to racing in 2001 where he hit 303.37 mph in 4.72 seconds. At the 2002 U.S. Nationals, Garlits drove 318.54 mph in 4.76 seconds. In May 2014 at the age of 82, in an effort to make the sport safer and pushing to improve the technology, Garlits set a new record of 184 mph in an all-electric dragster. “Big Daddy” is not done yet, he is currently in pursuit of 200 mph in an all-electric car.
*Photo courtesy of public.resource.org at Flickr’s Creative Commons.