“So the kid sticks his head out the window and there was a silver disc over the car, maybe two- or three-hundred feet up–just a glowing, great big silver disc,” says Don Garlits. “And the kid says, ‘It’s a saucer! It’s a flying saucer!’”
It’s a midsummer day, an hour or so before lunch, and “Big” is in the passenger seat of a late-model, Hemi-powered Chrysler 300, riding north along I-75 with his new wife, Lisa, by his side, heading toward Gainesville and the airport nearest his Ocala, Florida, home. Garlits is dressed drag strip casual, in a white ringer tee emblazoned with his legendary checkered-flag-waving “Swamp Rat” mascot, tucked into a pair of black Wrangler jeans. He wears a hat–it bears his name, not surprisingly, touting his famed Museum of Drag Racing–and it’s pulled midway down his forehead, just above a pair of black Aviators. A fringe of short silver-white hair sticks out from under either side of the cap, matching the goatee that frames his playful grin.
In the 58 years since he turned the drag racing world upside down with an 8.79-second, 176.40-mph run in Brooksville, Florida, behind the wheel of his carbureted, nitro methane-burning “Don’s Speed Shop” dragster, Garlits–now 83 years old–has cemented his legacy as the greatest drag racer of all time. His latest project–Swamp Rat 37–is a considerable departure from the hot rods that line the halls of his museum, but far enough off the beaten path that it makes perfect sense. Powered by four 300-cell, lithium-polymer batteries producing a maximum of 420 volts with a current of 3,600 amps and capable of generating over 2,000-horsepower, Garlits is prepared to culminate his six decades in the business with one more milestone. Despite the considerable challenge it has been thus far, Garlits is committed to being the first person to take an electric dragster to 200 mph in the quarter-mile.
It’s unlikely, though, that Garlits electric antics will ever eclipse the renown of his explosion onto the drag racing scene in the 1950s, which transformed him into something of a mythical creature of the times. But then, Garlits doesn’t need it to. In 2001, following a career that produced 17 world championships, 8 national titles and a total of 144 national event wins, NHRA placed “Big Daddy” number-one on its list of the 50 greatest drivers in the sport’s history. Donald Glenn Garlits is drag racing’s truest outlier; his innovative spirit, mechanical expertise, character, talent and work ethic combined to make him the most transcendent figure the drag strip has ever known.
The quarter-mile, however, is not the only place that Garlits stands alone, or at least in small groups. His outspoken, nonconformist nature, strong political and economic beliefs and personal brushes with extraterrestrial life forms, amidst a plethora of individuality, are what truly separate him from all others. “Listen, I don’t believe in aliens,” Garlits says. “I know about them. I’ve seen the sons of bitches.”
So the flying saucer was right above the truck?
Yes. Marvin Schwartz was driving, it was the middle of the night in New Mexico, headed toward Bakersfield. Marvin said, ‘Boy, that’s the brightest light I have ever seen; it’s almost like daylight out there.’ Being a nut about all that kind of stuff, Marvin pulls right off the road immediately and gets out to look up at it. This helper kid that was along looks up at it and just runs off out in the desert. He was scared to death they were going to get him or something. Then it just zoomed away. But it did cut the truck off when it got that close. The engine in the vehicle did stall.
You’ve taken more than a little bit of heat for stories like this, tales of alien encounters. Does that bother you?
I’ve told you before that it’d be pretty arrogant to think that life on earth is all there is in the universe. There’s no doubt about it. I believe I’ll have the last laugh. I had my first alien encounter when I was 12 years old; when I was a little boy I saw a flying saucer and I’ve been fascinated ever since. I’ve seen plenty of them since then, and always with a witness–that’s important. Out the window of airplanes on two occasions, out on the road; there’s no question, we’re not alone. T.C. [Lemons] and I saw one in broad daylight, about four o’clock in the afternoon, outside Dayton, Ohio, on I-70 in 1969.
I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of interesting things, besides just unidentified flying objects, having spent so many years on the road. I know you and T.C. had a lot of wild rides, but is there one specifically crazy trip that stands out in your mind?
I remember one time T.C. and I, we had a race on Wednesday night at Capital Raceway Park. They had this one race every year. We didn’t win it. We blew an engine in the semifinal, so I got on the plane and headed home to get spare parts. We didn’t have any left because we’d been having some engine trouble. I was trying to use some kind of other oil, which will remain nameless, but anyway, I flew home to get parts. I needed lots of stuff. A block, the whole bit. So I flew home to get that and take it as baggage back. And the next–listen to this–the next race was that Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And it’s Wednesday night and Tommy is by himself in our Dodge truck with a little pull-along trailer; a little tagalong, we called them.
So, Tommy heads west. I go home to get the parts. He decides to cross [the border] at a little crossing in Montana that’s not very hard to get across, except it’s the middle of the night. He gets there in the morning on Friday and he didn’t have any trouble on the American side, but the border customs guy from the Canadian side, he says ‘What you got in the trailer, bloke?’ And Tommy tells him: a dead elephant. Because it’s an elephant motor, right? That’s what we called them. And the border patrol guy says, ‘How long has it been since the beast expired?’ Tommy tells him Wednesday night. And, of course, it’s Friday morning–A.M.–and the guy says, ‘There must be quite the stench back there, wouldn’t you say?’ And Tommy says, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t been back there. I’ve been driving from the East Coast since she died. And the guy tells him that he’s got to have a look at it. So they opened up the trailer and all that was in there was an old dragster with some oil dripping out of it. The guy got really mad–really mad. Tommy tried to explain to him that we refer to those engines as elephant motors and he was sleepy and tired, not trying to be funny or anything. And anyway, the guy let him go.
So then, Tommy gets to this car show that we had to appear at on Friday night before the race on Saturday. Tommy tells the promoter, ‘Hey, we can’t be in this show. I’ve got to take this all apart so when the old man gets here, we’ll be able to put it right back together.’ And the guys says, ‘No, you’re advertised for this show. You’re going to have to be in it. We’ll just bring the whole truck and trailer right in the show, rope it off and the people can watch you work.’ It was the funniest thing I ever saw. They even sent a truck to the airport to get me because they knew I was bringing the block, crank, heads and everything.
So, anyway, I get to the show and we’ve got this great big roped off section in the center of this great big hall. Tommy’s got parts scattered all over the place and oil and stuff everywhere. The entire spectator crowd is standing around the ropes watching us work, ignoring all these beautiful custom cars sitting around. The exhibitors were mad as hornets.
What kind of experience was it bringing all that stuff through the airport?
No trouble at all. We carried guns in those days. I always had my pistol in my briefcase.
You’ve never been shy with your thoughts on the direction drag racing is headed at any certain time, and if anyone has ever earned the right to speak his piece it’s you, so what would you do differently with the sport if you were put in charge?
I would never put a drop of spray (traction compound) on the track again. That’s the first thing. I would tell them, ‘In 2016, there’ll be no more sprayed tracks. You boys are going to run on what you got. And so you’re just going to have to figure it out, you crew chiefs, because that’s what it’s going to be.’ No more sprayed tracks. That way, when the tires spin, the race ain’t over.
It ain’t over because the cars–the tires will still accelerate on the pavement if it ain’t got spray on it and they’re spinning. And, of course, they will end up developing a little different tire that could stand more of that. That’s the first thing I’d do.
The second thing I would do is mandate that the engine you qualify with is the engine you will run in the race. In other words, you can take the engine all apart after that last qualifying run and you can go through it, but the block will be sealed into the chassis with one of them little special wires. You can take it apart and mess with it, change bearings and all that kind of stuff, but you ain’t going to change the block. That’s the block that’s going to be in the car on race day. When the race starts, all you can do is change the oil and screw spark plugs in it and set valves. You cannot take it apart. You cannot. I don’t want to see no blowers coming off of it. I don’t want to see no pans dropping off of it. None of that. And you run the break rule: if you beat a guy and your car is hurt–you didn’t beat him.
See with that, we could go to live TV. And if you put any oil on the drag strip that can’t be wiped up with just a common little shop rag, you’re out. No oil on the drag strip. And the diapers come off. No diapers. In other words, I don’t want these engines blowing up.
Well, that would surely cure this never-ending speed problem we have in nitro racing. Shorten the track to slow the cars and lessen engine explosions and crew chiefs have just turned up the wick enough to do it in a shorter distance.
What this would do–and this is why it ain’t going to happen–is level the playing field so dramatically that everybody would have a chance. All of a sudden, the rich guys’ advantage of the destruction of parts would go away. You understand, these engines have to be cut way back because I’ve always said there’s no place in any kind of auto racing where there’s more than one car on the track to have eight- or 10-thousand horsepower. It’s ridiculous. These engines would have to be cut back maybe as much as to 5,000 horse. I don’t know, maybe more. They’d soon figure it out when they couldn’t get down the non-sprayed track. And then, that would make everybody competitive.
I don’t think track prep has ever been a bigger deal in drag racing. There’s a whole segment of the sport that expect tracks to be absolutely perfect, prepped to death, and then there’s this street racing movement that prefer to race on tracks with little to no prep.
Well, yeah, the guys have to accept that you can’t always run full power. Listen to this; from 1975 back, I never ran full power. Never. It was very seldom that I ever got to 86 percent. I stayed with 85 most of the time. I had it dead tuned on that and I knew that I could just set the jet just a little smaller and put the 86 in there, but I was taking a chance because it might spin. And so I had to be careful about that, but if it was a really good track and it was a final … I will never forget, we had a chance to win a race and we put more power in. A friend told me one time he’d rather have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. And what we did, we backpedaled them in those days. We had the brake. We did all kinds of things. And so it had a little extra power sometimes. It might help you win, but most of the time it caused you to lose.
And the other thing about my cars, because they had happy motors in them, they ran right out the back door like banshees. In fact, on the 223-mph run at Gainesville–and this is a fact–I drove the car another 150 feet past the end because I wanted to see how that mono strut wing was going to hold up at high speed–and I also wanted to see how the engine would respond. It was perfect. The car went 240 miles an hour, according to the front wheel drive computer speedometer, and there was nothing hurt.
There seems to still be a strong desire, at least amongst fans, to see nitro racing to the quarter-mile, and even some variation of reduced power, track prep, fuel volume, wing or whatever else it would take might help facilitate that, right? The 1,000-foot deal doesn’t seem to be working.
In defense of the NHRA, that was [supposed to be] just a piecemeal deal. I’ll never forget it. Tom Compton himself told me that they weren’t going to do this long, just going to finish the year out and then they’re going to get their ducks in a row, get all the crew chiefs together and cut these motors back and go back to a quarter-mile. Here it is, years later and it’s still that thousand foot.
The spectators just hate it. They need to just institute some rules that would allow them to go back to quarter-mile racing, but see, again, that would level the playing field. If you do anything to these engines to slow them down, they’re so good and the material is so nice that they wouldn’t destruct like they are now. And the minute they don’t get destruction–when you’ve got to make less power–the little guys stand a chance.
I go up in the stands a lot and just sit with the people and they just … oh, they piss and moan. But it’s the only show in town. What else are they going to go and see? But they could make it so much better and cause the sport to grow beyond this deal of 15, 16, 17 cars and we already know who’s going to win. There’s only two or three that can win. It ought to be that anybody could win the damn thing.
If it were like that, I’d have a car myself. But, first of all, I don’t like the destruction of the nice parts because–number one–I build my own motors. And so you have a certain affinity for them when you do that. When I came back in 2002 and resurrected Swamp Rat 34, I bought four complete engines–cranks, blocks, heads, everything. I still have all four engines and they’re all still good. One’s in the Swamp Rat 34, one’s in the engine room. One’s in Swamp Rat 28 as a cackle car, and one’s in the Shirley Muldowney car that I got when they sold me all their stuff and it’s in the museum in Missouri.
That’s pretty impressive. I think almost any other nitro-burning engine from a top-tier program can hardly survive a single pass down the drag strip, let alone still be in one piece after more than a decade.
But I only qualified at one NHRA event. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And I missed qualifying a lot of times by two- or three-thousandths of a second. Not hundredths; thousandths. But I knew the limitation of my motor. I knew what it would do and stay together and come back for the next round. And by God, that’s all I was going to do to it. In that two-year period, never once did I put oil on the drag strip.
Nice to see someone practice what they preach.
I’ll tell you, and this is a funny story, as well. On the 323-mph run, we come back from the run and I was just tickled pink. That was my fastest run ever. I screwed the plugs out of it, I said a few cylinders are a little rich, so I adjust port nozzles and stuff like that. And I also run in the trailer to tell Richard [Langson] that a couple of bearings were squished just a tiny little bit, but everything was fine. He says, ‘No, no, no; we got to put the boost to it, put that pulley back on there.’ And we never ran good again. It squished the bearings. It squished the rings. And it never even got close to 323 again. But I couldn’t convince him to detune it. You have no idea how many races I’ve won–big races–by detuning for the final round.
One common sentiment in drag racing these days, though I believe it to have been something of an ongoing conversation over the last several decades, is the ever-increasing costs associated. Some of the biggest names in the business have struggled in recent history to secure the sponsorship dollars necessary to compete at a high level. What was the sponsorship situation like in your heyday?
Well, the biggest sponsorship I ever had was after winning the world championship in ’85. I had about $600,000 up until that point, and then my match race money made up the difference. There was still a big match race circuit then. We were doing 40 to 50 dates a year–in the summer we’d run three nights a week in three different places. But, anyway, after winning the world championship and setting the national record–268.01 mph, something like that–we were able to get up to $950,000 for 1986. And that was just unbelievable money. I mean I could have anything I wanted.
But I still didn’t want to blow anything up; the engine did not come apart between rounds. You got that? I changed the oil. I would leak the engine with a leak down tester, and the only reason I would take it apart was if one cylinder didn’t leak right. Otherwise, we’d change the oil and go for the next round by setting the valves and torqueing the heads. And that’s as far as it should have ever been allowed to go. It was running good there–running 275, 276, pretty close to 280 miles an hour. And no clutch work between rounds either, because the two-speed transmission and the clutch would go the whole race.
Really? No cutting clutch discs, nothing?
Never took the clutch out during a race. Right. We would service the clutch when we got to the track in the morning, take it apart and make sure it was alright, put a spacer in it or maybe put a disc in it and it was good for the four rounds.
A lot has changed, eh?
Oh, my God, yes.