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DRAG RACERS…
TOP FUEL DRAGSTER
NHRA LEGEND

SIGNATURE PROFILES
© 1999-2001 Dwight Drum

DON GARLITS


"It goes up, and it goes on."

Part 2

Story and questions by Dwight Drum
Photos (c) by Gary Larsen and Dwight Drum
Internet Scheme by Gary Larsen

What drives you? (What's different about you?)

"What drives me is drive. I have drive. I would rather have drive than have an education, of course, an education is helpful, but an education is worthless without drive. No matter if you win, lose, or draw…you have to stay with it. Just keep coming back. Determination. I call that drive."

Can you identify the traits that propelled you to champion and legend status?

"Drive. I used my head. I thought for myself. That's why I know so much about aliens. I thought for myself. I didn't pay attention to what somebody told me. The human race is in denial on that subject. My wife who saw a space ship with me at 10:30 in the morning knows she saw a space ship, but to this day she says…Did I really see that? We wrote it all down, but she doesn't want to believe it."

A nearby fan (Steve Stevenson) asked…who's your favorite driver of all time?

"A.J.Foyt."

Swamp Rat was a derogatory reference when it first came out...who came up with Swamp Rat? Why?

"Setto Postoian. He called me the swamp rat because he was trying to get match-racing stuff. I was getting all the match races. He was from Detroit, and he felt he was better than I was, and there were times when he was faster, but he didn't stay on it like I did. …See? So they were starting to talk more about me than him. He put words in 'Drag News', "No wonder they call you the swamp rat." That was the sixties. I got mad about it it, but a friend told me…no. That's good. Let's draw one. He had an artist draw that mouse you see on every Big Daddy thing."

What about racing gives you the biggest rush…the burst within you?

"The launch off the line. The launch! It's awesome. You're sitting there in this chair and in less than one tenth of a second, you're sixty feet out there running a hundred miles an hour. It's like being shot out of a cannon."

Are you a curious person? Do you have to know?

"Absolutely! My wife says,' Why do you want to know all this stuff?' I want to know everything there is to know. She says, 'I don't.' She admits it."

What's your biggest gripe about life, a modern existence, in general?

"My biggest gripe about life, the human race, especially in this country is the waste, the landfills. Whole civilizations could live on what we put in landfills. It's criminal. I was taught to waste not, want not."

Most people cringe at the thought of driving a machine over 200 mph. You raced above these speeds routinely. What's different about you?

"I grew up with it. I didn't go out there and go over 200 mph. I went a 100, then 125, and on up. All of my racing machines were built by me, and I knew what they were. I really recognized that when I drove Gary Clapshaw's car over 300 mph, because here was a machine I was very apprehensive about getting into it. I didn't know anything about it and I was fixing to turn this monster loose."

Your best win…Can you put that feeling into words?

"1984 in the NHRA US Nationals. I had been out of racing a couple of years and Art Malone said to me 'Let's go to Indianapolis'. It was the summer I was moving from Tampa to the museum grounds in Ocala. I told Art, I'd love to go to Indy, let's get some tickets. Art said, ' No. I mean get a car.' I told him I didn't have anything to compete with these guys. Art said, 'Pick one out of your museum. I'll buy a new motor for it, and we'll go to Indy. I got the 81 car out, and we took it to Indy. We had painted Garlits/Malone on it, but when we got it out of the trailer those guys laid on the ground and laughed…'Two old dinosaurs with a car out of a museum…what do you think they are here for?' We responded…To win!

Second run, we had the top speed of the meet and we won the event. Malone said, 'Let's go to Pomona. We got another engine, and went to Pomona, and won Pomona. Art said, ' It wasn't a fluke, was it? We out ran them. What are you doing retired? You need a sponsorship.' We got a sponsorship, Wynn's and Super Shops, and we won the 85 and 86 NHRA World Championships, and I became the first driver to win back to back championships. That 84 race at Indy was my biggest win."

When did you know you wanted to race?

"When I took my 40 Ford Convertible to a Zephyrhills meet, and I was the first guy in line. In those days you got a number when you arrived, and since I was first, they painted a big number one on my door! Isn't that amazing? The first number I ever received was the number one. I didn't win, but I just loved it. I have pictures of the same track in 1952. My girlfriend took pictures, and I didn't know she was doing it. I found those pictures in a scrap box when my wife and I were moving out of Seffner to Ocala. I had never seen those pictures. The cars moved to the line, a guy threw his hand down, and we ran. No Christmas tree. No clocks. I knew I wanted to race after then."

Have you ever doubted your abilities?

"No. My father told me when I was real little when I'd help him out in the shop …like three years old. He told me, Don, 'You'll be able to do anything you want to do. The only thing that will stop you is if you don't want to do it'. That started because of a funny story. We lived in a house about 150 feet from the road, and my dad was going to build a fireplace on our house. He ordered a dump truck load of used bricks. He got them cheaper that way, but he'd have to chip the mortar off the bricks. We're talking hard times, 1934 or 35. The access was low in my dad's truck farm, and the dump truck driver worried about having to pay to get towed out, didn't want to go much past the road to dump the bricks, so he dumped the brick just off the road. My dad came home that night and he was furious, because he believed the driver could have used the high side of the driveway.

Dad said, 'Boy, I wan t you to get your wagon and move all those bricks over here to the house, where I'm going to build this fireplace.'

My mother had a hissy fit. I have a good memory. I remember before two years of age. I was in the room when my brother was born. They kept taking me out of the room, and I kept coming back, and that was December 30, 1933. I was born January 14, 1932. I remember things.

Anyway, my mom had a fit. She said, 'You're not going to let that baby carry those bricks are you?' My dad said, 'It'll be good for him. It will teach him something, it will teach him to work.' I was praying to God that he was going to win, because I wanted to move those bricks. I couldn't wait to get my wagon over there. I wore a trail, ruts in the ground, and in three days, I had all those bricks moved, all stacked up where my dad was going to build that fireplace."

What surprises you most about racing?

"That it can still continue at the obnoxious cost of doing it, and that goes for all of them, NASCAR, ASA, NHRA and all of Drag Racing. Every year, I say it can never continue to go on like this if it keeps going up. It goes up, and goes on."

A fan asked…Who is your favorite NHRA driver?

"John Force. He's done a lot for the sport. Now, if you ask who do I have the most respect for, I'd say Shirley Muldowney. She went against all odds. They didn't want her to race Top Fuel, the association, the racers, nobody…Just Shirley."

Are you a natural racer, or did you learn to race?

"I'm a natural racer. I raced bicycles. If it had wheels, I wanted to ride it against somebody."

About the past…if you regret anything what regret pangs you the most?

"Oh, I got a good one. I owned two fifty-five gallon drums full of US silver coins the day silver hit fifty dollars an ounce. The man at a coin shop in Tampa knew that. He called me and offered twenty five thousand dollars per thousand-dollar bag. I had taken them out of circulation at a dollar twenty-nine cents an ounce. I could have made so much money, and I thought because of my stupidity that it was even going higher. This was when the Hunts were trying top buy all the silver. The price went up so fast, and then it never went higher."

Life is complex. How do you explain that to a child?

"You can't explain that to a child. A child has to learn it, and most young people can't profit from your mistakes, when they've actually seen yours. My children prove that to me. You can't teach them. They have to live it. Of course, that sets them back. The few that profit by their parent's mistake are the ones who advance faster. If you keep going through it over and over again, that takes too long to get to the top. See?"

What's it like to be a living legend?

"I have the best of both worlds. I'm famous enough to demand good appearance money, and live the way I want to live. I don't have to live extravagantly, but I'm not so famous to be cooped up in a hotel room, and can't go outside. Elvis Presley had the most beautiful room on the top of the Hilton, and he couldn't leave. When he had to go out they had to park a limousine by a dumpster out back, and he had to go down the freight elevator to get out. That's no good. There's a fine line between being famous and not famous enough. I'm right I there, where it's just okay. I guess if you call that being a legend, it fits."

What are your plans for the future?

"I'm going to make more Top Fuel runs. I'm not going to be out of my fuel car for long periods of time like I was before. I'm going to keep up with the technology."

Was there any magic along the way that helped you become a legendary drag racer?

"Explain magic."

Was there something you have and others don't, that helped you along the way to become a legend?

"Timing. Timing is everything. The right spot at the right time. I was from the East, and the technology was getting ready to explode. I was on top of it. I understood that just being from Florida, and making a 176 mph run meant something. If I made that run in California, it would have been just another Californian raising the record, but who is this guy, the Swamp Rat?"

In a few words, how would you sum up…yourself?

"I'm a driven person. I get my mind set on something, and I can't get off of it. I start thinking. If I get an idea, something I want to do or something I want to accomplish. When I go to sleep at night and I wake up in the morning, and there's a good possibility I've dreamed about it at night. As lot of times, I do, not always, but a lot of times. Like my 300 mph run, I dreamed about going that fast over and over. I' be at the track in a new modern Top Fuel Car, making the run, the scoreboard. I'd see them plain as day. Never saw the 303, but I saw records, records for me after being out of it for so long."

Additional Comments?

"We've covered the whole thing here. We've done a good job. I don't know what I could add to that, other than this last comment… I get a lot of phone calls and letters from youngsters wanting to know what is my secret. I had one get on a plane and fly to my office, and set in my office and get out a little yellow pad, and said...'I have come here…Big Daddy…for your secret, and I'm willing to pay for it. I've got a checkbook here. If I think your secret is good enough, I'll write you ten thousand, because I want to be just like you.'

I said the secret is simple. It doesn't make any difference what profession or vocation you chose. You do this, and you'll be successful. He's ready. You go to work seven days a week, and you stay focused on your job. You gotta go do what you want to do, whether it's drag racing or to be an attorney, an accountant, whatever. You can start working for the other guy. You don't have to have your own business. You be there in the morning when the sun comes up, and you be there at night when the sun goes down. You stay there, and you do this job. They can't get you out of the building…two AM, they are liable to find you in the building, doing this job. The boss might come down late at night. You say I'm doing this work. I love this work. You get married, but you don't take vacations. My wife and I got married in 1953. We took our first vacation in 1974. Twenty one years! That's when you start thinking about a vacation, about twenty years into this profession…I guarantee you...you will be successful.

The kid cringed. 'That's no secret!' "

FINAL WORD

Big Daddy casts a big shadow down pit lanes…even sitting down, as he did in a Super Chevy Show at Gainesville. So how do I find one word for this legend with so many talents, so much durability and presence? It was simple. Only one word fits Don Garlits, and he already owns it. It's no secret to us, no secret to anyone…'Big Daddy' Don Garlits is...

BIG



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