Don Garlits: Drag Racing’s Golden Icon

When you look at drag racing and its history, there is one name that stands out among any other, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. He’s probably one of the most recognized heroes in the sport of drag racing.

Through his trials and tribulations, he has become a legend, and is one of the major influences that carved the sport into what it is today. Don Garlits started drag racing way back before there were timing towers and Christmas trees.

Known to everyone as “Big Daddy,” the father of modern drag racing, his interest in drag racing began in 1950, and his first victory came in 1955 when the National Hot Rod Association held its first meet at an airfield near Great Bend, Kansas. From then on he never looked back, and his career moved forward in leaps and bounds.

In 1959, Garlits traveled to Bakersfield; California for the March meet, back then it was called the US Fuel and Gas Championship. He attended the West Coast meet to prove to the racers out there that the elapsed times he was running were legit.

Don Garlits, being from Florida, was something of an outsider. In the early days, he was known as the Floridian, before adopting the name “Swamp Rat” as his permanent nickname. Swamp Rat also became the name he placed on a series of 34 hands fabricated dragsters that netted him 144 National Event wins in his career.

It was in 1971 that Don Garlits contributed one of his biggest innovations to the sport. In early 1970, while driving “Swamp Rat 13,” one of his early front engine slingshot dragsters, Garlits experienced a tragic catastrophe. The transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded violently resulting in the loss of part of his foot, and keeping him out for the remainder of the season.

Due to an accident that nearly cost Garlits his foot, 'Big Daddy' reinvented the dragster.

For safety reasons Don decided to change the way dragsters were built. He knew it was dangerous to sit behind an engine that could spray hot oil and fuel over the driver. And he knew it was only a matter of time before other racers experienced injuries due to the cars’ design flaws.

Back at his speed shop, High-Performance World, based out of Seffner Florida, which also served as home base for his race team, he began work on a new chassis design.

He teamed up with TC Lemons and Connie Swingle in an effort to design a new rear engine dragster chassis. Garlits admits that the design required a lot of work and fine-tuning.

One of the biggest problems was the steering ratio, with the engine now in the rear, the steering became ultra sensitive and it was almost impossible to get the car to go straight down the track.

Garlits designed a new Pitman arm and steering box that corrected the over steer problem. The new chassis design worked great, and it changed drag racing forever.

The front engine dragster was now a thing of the past. Don’s shop was pumping out the rear engine dragster chassis at a tune of one per month at a cost of $1500 each. This new chassis design got him labeled as chassis builder of the year in the top fuel category by Car Craft Magazine’s All-Star team, in 1970 and ’71.

Don’s list of accomplishments is astounding.  He literally has received hundreds of awards throughout his career, everything from setting national speed and ET records, to numerous inductions into various motor sports Hall of Fame’s. Don was also the first to break the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260, and 270 MPH barrier in a dragster.

Don Garlits has become a living legend,  and an icon to others in the drag racing world. Of all his accomplishments, one really stands out. His record-breaking dragster “Swamp Rat XXX” has been enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

High on his list of accomplishments, is the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing History. It houses over 200 quarter-mile drag cars, along with tons of drag racing memorabilia.

Some of the famous cars that are present there like Bill Maverick’s famous wheel standing “Little Red Wagon.” Many of his original “Swamp Rat” dragsters are on display in the museum.

The museum is located in Ocala, Florida, right next to Don’s house. On any given day, you can see Don in his yard spending time with his wife Pat, who was also his high school sweetheart.

The museum is not just a tourist attraction. It’s a whole conglomeration of Don’s life, his accomplishments, and a huge collection of historical drag racing cars, and artifacts, that define how the sport has evolved into what it is today.

If you’re ever in Florida, be sure to stop in and see this one-of-a-kind Museum. It truly tells the story about the evolution of drag racing history.

About the author

Scott Barlick

Opened my first speed shop in the mid 80s eventually starting up my auto machine shop business (Flo-Tech Racing & Machine) in 93 building engines ,specializing in porting and flow testing cylinder heads, along with many restorations and hot rod builds under my belt. Always having a passion for car stories I'm finally getting my feet wet with the online news contribution sector of the hobby.
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