It’s been almost a half century since Florida native “Big Daddy” Don Garlits revolutionized drag racing by perfecting the rear engine design that today is employed universally by racers like two-time reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence, one of the favorites in this week’s pandemic-delayed 51st annual Amalie Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
Now, more than 34 years after he beat the late Dick LaHaie to win for the fourth and final time on his home track, Garlits is in a position to hoist another of the NHRA’s iconic Wally trophies thanks to Torrence and his Capco Contractors race team.
With a nod to history and the man who in 1991 was voted the No. 1 racer in the NHRA’s first 50 years, Torrence will compete this week in a dragster that bears an uncanny resemblance to the car Garlits designated “Swamp Rat 14” upon its debut in 1971, a design so successful that by 1973 it had rendered the front-engine dragster all but obsolete.
Producing a 2ist century version of the car that now sits in the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in nearby Ocala was a labor of love for a Capco team that has strong ties to the 88-year-old racing legend through crew chief Richard Hogan.
“There’s a longstanding history with Hogan and ‘Big,’ so we thought it would be something really cool to honor the guy,” Torrence told Phil Burgess of National DRAGSTER, the NHRA newsmagazine. “He’s such a legend in our sport and obviously there’s a connection between ‘Hoagie,’ who worked for Garlits for a long time, and ‘Hoagie’s’ dad and Garlits.”
Charlie “the King” Hogan was one of Garlits’ early rivals in the sport and one he credits with pushing him to be the best that he could be.
The seeds of the “Swamp Rat 14” project actually were planted 18 months ago, before the start of the 2019 Gatornationals, when Torrence crew members were taking a private tour of the museum with Garlits and Hogan as their celebrity guides.
“We were just looking at the cars and we thought it would be great to do a throwback car,” remembered Bobby Lagana Jr., Hogan’s facilitator on the 330 mile an hour Capco dragster. Although everyone had an opinion on which of Garlits’ many successful cars should be replicated, Hogan insisted that fellow Floridian and former Top Fuel rival Darrell Gwynn, himself a two-time Gatornationals’ champion (1989, 1990), make the final decision.
Garlits got his first look at the finished product last March when the team brought the car to the museum just days before the NHRA was forced to postpone the biggest drag race on the East Coast because of COVID-19 concerns. He even had the privilege of sitting in the cockpit when the crew fired the engine.
“It was just beautiful,” Garlits said. “It looked exactly like ‘Swamp Rat 14.’ The layout of the decals was exactly right. The job they did on the decals like Wynn’s Charger and Lee Eliminators and the way they scaled everything was amazing.”
One of the biggest issues in developing the graphics was the disparity in length between the real Swamp Rat 14 and the Capco version. The original had a wheelbase of only 215 inches but Torrence’s dragster stretches to 300 inches. Everything had to be scaled accordingly, a task capably handled by graphic designer Roderick Burke who, according to Lagana, had to physically recreate more than 30 percent of the decals because so many of the companies involved in the 1970s no longer exist.
The most talked about item on the vehicle, though, is one that really serves no purpose – the non-functional tachometer mounted on the cowl just as it was in 1971.
“We kept saying we could make some kind of carbon piece to make it look like that tachometer,” Lagana said, “but ‘Hoagie’ was 100% adamant that we had to do more than that, so we (did) some research and found an original one on eBay (that) we mounted on the body and wrapped with a little American flag like ‘Big Daddy’ had.”
“The tachometer on the cowl was really cool,” Garlits admitted. “I used to use that to monitor the engine on the burnout.”
Now, of course, comes Phase Two, which is hoisting that trophy at the Gatornationals, one of the few events in which Torrence has struggled over the course of his career. Winner of a phenomenal 30 races over the last four seasons including two of the six contested this year, Torrence never has started from the front nor reached the final round at the Gatornationals. In fact, Gainesville Raceway is the only track in the series on which the 37-year-old Texan has a losing record (8-10).
While the younger Torrence goes retro, dad Billy will fly the team’s traditional colors this weekend on the second Capco Contractors entry in the hope of winning his seventh NHRA tour event in the last three years, his second this season.