SB Nation

Ed Komenda | September 24, 2014

Life in the Fastest Lane

At the finish line with drag racing legend Don 'Big Daddy' Garlits

Don "Big Daddy" Garlits crawls under the dash of his 1966 Chrysler speedboat and prods for the problem.

Big Daddy spent the next 50 years smashing record after record and becoming drag racing's most storied and fearless pioneer. garlits Don Garlits in 1967. (Getty Images)

The vessel was a gift from the car company to the famed drag racer not long after he became the first man to officially top 200 miles per hour on a quarter-mile strip. That was back in August 1964, at a track in Great Meadows, N.J., when his latest experiment  the sleek Swamp Rat 6B  shot down the track in a smoking cloud of burned rubber amid the roar of one of Chrysler's "Hemi" engines. Clocking 201.34 miles per hour in an elapsed time (E.T.) of 7.78 seconds, Garlits set a new National Hot Rod Association speed record. That was just the beginning. Big Daddy spent the next 50 years smashing record after record and becoming drag racing's most storied and fearless pioneer.

Now, on a humid and cloudless Saturday in July, at Garlits' personal garage about 90 miles north of Tampa in the sleepy retirement community of Ocala, Fla., Big Daddy is under the boat's dash to measure the length of wire he'll need to repair a busted horn.

The job stemmed from an amateur mistake: Someone in the shop, the one across the parking lot where Garlits restores cars on the side, rigged the horn to a fuse. When Big Daddy took the boat out a day earlier to cruise a nearby lake with his girlfriend and her nieces  "the girls," he calls them  and he bopped the horn, the fuse blew out. Now Big Daddy needs to fix a problem he believes should have never happened at all. Big Daddy doesn't complain. He gets straight to fixing. That's why the boat, which spent 19 years in storage before Garlits pulled it out, rebuilt the engine and started cruising, still works all these years later.

Measurements in hand, the white-headed, 82-year-old, bearded racer slowly maneuvers his way out of the boat and heads to "Don's Garage," a man cave that's the stuff of any mechanic's dreams: a warehouse full of tools, engine parts and budding race cars a bicycle ride away from home.

"Twenty inches," Garlits says is what he'll need to fix the horn.

He unlocks and swings open the garage's metal door. Inside, the smell of fuel and oiled metal permeates the air and pinches the throat. Bins filled with car parts from every era of Big Daddy's career line the walls, organized and labeled so the king can find what he's looking for.

Garlits doesn't let many people into this domain. When it comes down to it, he doesn't trust anyone but himself.

Daddy walks through the silence of the shop, where he has been rebuilding Swamp Rat 11, a dragster he first built with two buddies in 72 hours back in 1967. The car got Garlits over a slump he suffered while driving Swamp Rat 10. During that sour stretch on the drag strip, fellow racers said he was washed up, done. But when he entered the U.S. Nationals in 1967, he had something to prove:

He was far from through.

"Don Garlits has arrived at the nationals as a decided underdog," an NHRA announcer declared into the microphone. "Some experts are saying he's gone over the hill, citing the fact that he's been unable to break the 7-second elapsed time barrier." Earlier in the season, Garlits had vowed not to shave until he did so.

This time Garlits swept the competition, clocking a time of 6.77 seconds, again the fastest time ever recorded on the quarter-mile track. His win finally in the books, Big Daddy then ran to the starting line, lathered his face with shaving cream and shaved the black stubble from his face in front of dozens of cameras and a thousand screaming fans spilling from the stands.

Standing in the winner's circle with a local newsman, Garlits sported a boyish smirk.

"It was just fantastic the reception I got, and I can't put it into words exactly how I felt, but I'll say it was wonderful. It was one of the greatest moments of my entire life," Garlits said at the time. "We're going to go home. We learned a lot from this race. This car has been great, but I think it's just a start on a certain design. As you can tell, the car doesn't look exactly like the other cars. We're gonna go on with this design and some improvements, and I think the next one will even be faster."

Before Garlits was Big Daddy, he was a mechanically inclined Eagle Scout from the swamps of western Florida who fell into drag racing by accident. When he graduated high school, Garlits traded his Blue 1940 Ford Tudor sedan for a 1940 Ford convertible stocked with a 1941 Mercury engine. That's the car he'd take to an Army Air Corps landing strip used for training pilots in Zephyrhills, Fla., for his first official race. By the 1950s, when Garlits got his first taste of victory on a quarter-mile strip, the public viewed drag racing as less of a sport and more of a pastime for outlaws in black leather jackets.

Garlits' drive later helped him build a résumé that's unmatched in drag racing. He was the first racer to top nearly every speed record:

First it was 170.

Then 180.

The big one was 200.

Then 240 and 250 and 260.

Then 270.

Between those record runs, Big Daddy landed on Car Craft Magazine's All-Star team as its Top Fuel Driver of the Year eight times between 1969 and 1979. In 2001, the year he returned from retirement and drove a dragster 303.37 mph in 4.72 seconds, the NHRA voted him the best drag racer for the last 50 years. The next year, in 2002, he entered the U.S. Nationals and drove 318.54 mph in 4.76 seconds.

Now, almost half a century later, Garlits has grown another beard, his first since that glorious win in 1967. His hair lost its color long ago, and his whiskers are white. He reenacted the shave in August at the 2014 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

At his workbench, Big Daddy pulls out a heat gun and solder. He slides open a drawer full of wires, snagging a long, yellow piece. Garlits cuts the wire to the length he needs, and strips each end of its rubber coating to expose the copper. His hands, a collection of oiled and chipped fingernails surrounded with calluses, move methodically, tapping into muscle memory built decades ago. He slides a metal connector over each end, and, with a dab of molten solder, there's a sizzle and puff of smoke. That's today's magic in Don's Garage. That's the sound of a sealed connection. Garlits sprays the completed side with brake cleaner and repeats the process on the opposite end. Garlits rolls the wire in his fingers, admires his work:

"See what a nice connection that makes? They don't make it that way anymore. It's just ‘Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am'."

Big Daddy uses a heat gun to shrink a piece of black rubber around the connectors of his wire. "It ain't supposed to work longer than 90 days," he says. "It's ‘See you again soon!' Modern society just sucks."

He drops the wire on the bench, where it lands with a solid thud.

garlitsDon Garlits, far left, with his wife Patricia and the rest of the Don's Speed Shop crew at a 1958 race in Texas. (Getty Images)

* * *

Surgeons wanted to amputate his hands, but Garlits refused to accept the doctor's orders. garlits Don Garlits' dragster is pushed to the line before a 1972 race in Tulsa. (Getty Images)

A day earlier, Don Garlits shuffles into his office, moving like there are never enough hours to go around. At 82, he's still spry, though his moves are more calculated these days.

Early film footage of Don Garlits shows a skinny, dark-haired kid with a spark in his eye, always turning a wrench or hoisting a trophy. Photographs show some of the scars. In 1959, driving Swamp Rat 1 in Chester, S.C., the car's manifold exploded and nearly burned Big Daddy to death. Surgeons wanted to amputate his hands, but Garlits refused to accept the doctor's orders. As the legend tells it, they soaked his hands in a saline solution and, weeks later, his hands recovered.

He's carried the scars with him for years: the long-faded circles around his eyes, where his goggles saved his eyeballs. The faint, white circle around his mouth, where the flames once licked away most of his lips.

Today, his family calls him "Papa Smurf," poking fun at his white beard he’s growing for his trip to Indianapolis. Garlits is strong; the muscular lines of his forearms looking like those of an athletic man much younger. He eats healthy foods, a habit carried over from his father, who, Big Daddy says, was an early pioneer in the health food industry after the Great Depression.

The legend's masculinity is contrasted by the two Yorkshire Terriers that trot behind him into his office. Terries have been the pet of choice for the Garlits family since 1978. He calls this pair Bonnie and Belle, his babies.

Standing outside a closet where he keeps safe holding valuable papers, Big Daddy looks down at Belle and plays a bit.

"You've gotta be fast," he says, telling the dog there's a rat inside.

Belle gets excited to get the rat. Big Daddy smiles and opens the door. Belle runs in the room. Garlits laughs, because there ain't no rat.

On the walls of his office hang framed pictures from the winner's circles of famed races, plaques from major wins. There's a picture of Big Daddy shaking hands with President Richard Nixon, one of his heroes. A picture of his other hero hangs on the wall across the room: Chuck Yeager.

Above the flying legend's signature reads: "Good luck." Garlits always looked up to Yeager, he says because "He's brave. He got into those planes, dropped them at 50,000 feet and flew the speed of sound," Garlits says.

Whenever he straps himself into a dragster, Garlits channels courage from men like Yeager and accepts the danger of the unknown. "You have to be brave to get in these cars," Garlits says. "You don't know what it's gonna do."

On his desk sit stacks of little-known health and wellness books and extraterrestrial memorabilia: a green, big-eyed alien doll, and a cream-colored alien in a jar of formaldehyde.

After squaring up his accounts for the week, Garlits sits down at his desk and talks about his latest quest: to become the first man in the history of drag racing to drive 200 mph in a battery-powered car.

Dubbed Swamp Rat 37, the electric dragster resulted from a gift to a friend. Back in 2011, Las Vegas-based contractor and car nut Mike Gerry rolled out two mini-dragsters that ran on DieHard batteries so Garlits could race long-time rival Darrell Gwynn, who suffered a racing injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The two raced at the NHRA Gatornationals, buzzing down the track at up to 30 mph. The experience got Big Daddy thinking about the future, a place Garlits dwells most of the time.

his latest quest: to become the first man in drag racing to drive 200 mph in a battery-powered car.

"Can we get to 200?" Garlits asked.

Yes, Gerry said. And they were off, assembling a team to put together a car that could change the future of drag racing.

Ask Garlits why he wants to set the example now  at this age  and you'll hear a story he often tells. Most of Big Daddy's stories sound like he's told them a hundred times before. He's got his talking points down: noise abatement, the danger of fuel, the evolution of how people watch drag races.

Electric dragsters are virtually silent when they shoot down the track.

That's one reason Big Daddy likes driving the electric dragster: they aren't noisy. The violent rumbling of Garlits' cars has permanently fixed a hearing aid to his right ear. His left ear is dead.

"It's destroyed my hearing," he says. "There's a lot worse things to lose ... But you don't want to lose your hearing. You just can't hear a lot of things. All the music is gone. It doesn't mean anything. Music is now noise. You can't hear all the notes."

Garlits can hear low notes, like a man's voice, but he has trouble hearing the higher pitched voices of women. "It's a constant battle," Garlits says, "Every day you struggle with it." Big Daddy knew what he was getting himself into. It was in the 1970s when his ears first began ringing.

The violence of drag racing also makes the prospect of an electric future attractive to Garlits. While the screaming fans love a good wreck, Garlits contends the trend is killing the sport.

"Looks really good on TV, but when they have a wreck, I walk away," Garlits says. "I don't want to see it. Because one of my friends might be getting killed. The spectator isn't real smart. He doesn't realize what's happening. He just knows he's not being entertained properly."

Garlits imagines the day when you flip on the television and see 32 electric dragsters with "all the big names on them," shooting down the quarter-mile line and backing up to start again. In Top-Fuel drags racing now, a significant amount of repairs have to go into engines between races.

"This electric thing could change everything," Garlits says, clipping his fingernails, because  the truth is  Garlits wouldn't race again if he didn't have to. But the future's on the line. The car is a distraction from a monumental change that recently swept through his life and shook the legend to his core.

garlitsDon Garlits wears a crown in the pit area during a 1964 race in Houston. (Getty Images)

* * *

Two days after his wife lost her long battle with Alzheimer's, in February of 2014, Don Garlits had to fix the stereo.

It was the same stereo he listened to with Patricia Garlits, his soulmate of 61 years who was the only person who could ever keep him under control. She was there with Don when he was a wide-eyed kid, dreaming of a big-time racing career. He was hooked on racing a month after they married 1953, when Pat and Don decided to picnic in Lake Wales, Fla. Driving along Highway 60 in the 1950 Ford Tudor, Garlits spotted a sign on the side of the road. It read "Drags Today" and an arrow that pointed down a dirt road.

Curious, the newlyweds followed the arrow. As Garlits tells the story — and he's told it many times, in person and in his own writing — a guy at the front gate wanted 50 cents to watch and another 50 cents to enter a race.

Garlits entered the stock class and won, collecting his first trophy. From that day forward, Pat supported Don through every race.Don Garlits talking about Pat earlier this year.

Garlits entered the stock class and won, collecting his first trophy, which Big Daddy still keeps in his office to this day. From that day forward, Pat supported Don through every race.

They often embraced after a record-shattering performance — like the first time Garlits became the fastest drag racer on the planet, clocking 176.4 mph in 8.78 seconds on Nov. 10, 1957 — the camera snapping around them, the claps and hollers making it impossible to hear a sound.

On the night he had to fix the stereo after Pat died, Garlits put on some Frank Sinatra, his favorite Rat Pack crooner. When Ol' Blue Eyes started singing "Night and Day," and Garlits got in bed with his two Yorkies, something supernatural happened.

"He's singing, and this cocoon starts forming over me. I'm being enveloped in this thing. I didn't see anything, but I imagined it was golden and it was glowing," Garlits said. "That was the impression that I got. It started covering my body. It was just full of love and it was just incredible."

His heart began to race.

Buh-Buh, Buh-Buh, Buh-Buh, Buh-Buh, Buh-Buh.

Big Daddy thought it was high blood pressure. Maybe a stroke. But that didn't matter.

"It was coming up over me, and it just felt so good," said Garlits, who thought he may have been dying and began to struggle. "I said: ‘I've got these two little Yorkies I've got to look after, and my daughter's got this business now, and she still needs help with it. I really can't go over there right now."

Garlits struggled and struggled, he recalls, until he finally got out of bed and flipped the stereo's switch.

"The minute I did that I just got deathly sick."

Feeling nauseous, Garlits ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet. Cleaned up but exhausted, Garlits went back to bed, where his Yorkies waited for him. It was about 10 p.m. when Garlits dozed off and fell into a vision he'd never seen before.

"I'm looking down into this big area. It's like I'm an observer from overhead. And there she is: my wife, as a little 6-year-old girl in the first grade, sitting at her little wooden desk at school, and she's got some crayons and she's making little stick men," Garlits said.

Patricia has beautiful black hair. From above, Don follows her through the day: school activities, hula dance lessons, ballet lessons.

Then she's in the backseat of the old Ford, moving with the family from Kentucky to Tampa.

And finally she's in high school.

"But I'm never in the scene," Garlits said. "I'm just watching. I never see me meet her, and then I wake up."

By now it's 2 a.m., and Garlits is startled by what he just saw. Today, he describes it as a "four-hour video trip" that revealed to him just what's waiting for him on the other side.

“Whoever got over to the other side first, we'd send a message to let the other one know it was great."
Don and Pat Garlits in 2005. (Getty Images)

"She's saying: ‘Here, Don. This is the kind of stuff they have up here. Every moment of our lives is recorded and we can go look at it any time we want'. Think of the implications of that," Garlits says. "Like the old black man told me when I was little boy. They were our neighbors. And he says, ‘I don't ever want to do anything that makes it hard on me when I get on the other side.'"

Garlits couldn't get back to sleep, so he went to his computer and checked his emails. By 4 a.m., Big Daddy was drowsy enough to get some shut-eye. The next morning, he felt a little better.

"I guess they bent a few rules and let her show me that," Garlits said. "It was unreal."

He still gets choked up. Like the time not long after Pat passed away and Don had to take a trip to Alabama. It was the first time he had to pack his own luggage. It took him three tries and three separate lists before he could pack away everything he needed. Or the time he sat at his desk in his office, facing a wall full of family photos and telling a reporter about the electric dragster campaign.

"They watch us," Garlits said. "I told my wife. We had a pact you know: whoever got over to the other side first, we'd send a message to let the other one know it was great over there."

Then he got up and pointed to the pictures.

"This is when I met her ..."

"This is when I took her to her graduation dance ... She's 16."

"We went fishing in 1993 ..."

"This is where I got the name Big Daddy. I had them at the Nationals, and they were making fun of me. I wasn't running real good. We set the record, and the announcers said, ‘We have to call him Big Daddy from now on.'"

"I was 27 here ... She'd be 25 ..."

"It doesn't look like she's too happy about the wedding. She was getting a little nervous ..."

"This is when we opened the high performance shop in Tampa ..."

"My girls are getting bigger here ..."

Faced with his deepest memories and a life without the woman who helped him through his toughest hurdles, Big Daddy says he doesn't dwell on the thought of dying. He's simply not ready to go.

"I've come through that deal. I'll be there soon enough," Garlits said. "I've got lots to do here yet. I would really love to see that electric dragster thing take off so other people will get interested in it and build some."

garlits Don Garlits performing his signature "fire burnout" during a 1973 race in Arizona. (Getty Images)

* * *

Big Daddy tells stories like he's told them a thousand times. His cadence keeps you interested, his pitch lets you know if you should be listening closely for a bit of wisdom he's about to share, or if you should be just as outraged or amused as he is. His tales often sound like parables.

The story of his upbringing, as Big Daddy tells it, is one of overcoming adversity and impressing a father who did not dole out his love very often.

One story Big Daddy likes to tell happened in March 1934, when he was a pinch over 2 years old. The family had moved to Florida in 1927 to start a life. Edward Garlits, a Westinghouse engineer credited with helping build the first electric iron, made a living growing oranges for a while, but he lost his business to a crumbling economy the year Don Garlits was born. Then, in March of 1932, a fire destroyed the Garlits' home and nearly killed baby Big Daddy before his father ran inside and saved him from the flames. His father started to rebuild the house from scratch, and two years later was preparing to build a fireplace.

"This truck dropped off a load of bricks," Big Daddy said of the day he believes he became a man. "[My father] wanted him to drop off the bricks where the fireplace was gonna be."

It was a wet day, and the man with bricks refused to drive the load up to the house. He dumped them in the dirt driveway while Garlits mother, Helen, hollered and hollered.

"She's only 22 and in a sack dress and no shoes," Garlits said. "Heart of the Depression: '34"

Then Ed Garlits came home from work and went ballistic.

"He was ranting and raving and all of a sudden he got this bright idea," Garlits said. "He said: ‘The boy can move the bricks."

And boy, did Don like that. But his mother piped up: "The baby can't move the bricks, Bill!" Helen yelled. She called Ed "Bill" because of his middle name. "It's cruel!"

"It's not cruel," Ed said. "He can do it!"

For the first time, Baby Don felt like a contributing adult. His mother said he couldn't do something, but his father, a strong but often abusive man, said he could. He wanted to make his father proud.

I'm already gearing up to do it. My dad said I could do it. My mother said I couldn't do it.

"I thought to myself: ‘What the hell is she talking about? Who's the baby? You're holding the baby!" Garlits said of his little brother Ed, who had been born earlier that year.

Big Daddy's father went out to the dirt road and got out his engineer's slide rule. He walked up to Don's little red wagon and put five bricks in. He then looked at his pocket watch.

He did some math, and said, "The boy can move the bricks in seven days, if he starts when I drive out this driveway in the morning at daylight and he stops when my truck comes in at dark."

Helen screamed and screamed: "The baby!" Garlits recalls. "Every other word was baby."

As it turned out, Garlits said, the baby moved the bricks in five days and became a man.

Helen and Ed divorced in 1943. Don and Ed grew up with a stepfather named Alex Weir, who raised cows for a living. It wasn't until Don was a senior at Hillsborough High School that he picked up his first car, a 1940 Ford sedan. It was around this time that Don enrolled in a metal shop class and began reading Hot Rod magazine.

After a short stint in the accounting department of the Mass Brothers department store in downtown Tampa, Don decided he hated the work. On the advice of his stepfather to pursue his dreams as a mechanic, Don quit his job.

He got another one at a body shop.

* * *

garlits Don Garlits' dragster explodes at the starting line during a 1970 race. (Getty Images)

The picture is one of the most famous in the history of drag racing. If not for its starkly beautiful composition, then for the horror it captured.

One look at the image and the thought is bound to cross your mind: Most guys would've quit after an accident like this.

It happened on March 8, 1970 at the Grand American Series of Professional Drag Racing, at the Lion's Drag Strip, a once-popular track near Long Beach, Calif. More than 20,000 fans had showed up for the sunny Sunday races. Don Garlits arrived ready to smoke the competition, rolling out the sharp-nosed Swamp Rat 13, his fastest car yet, equipped with a brand new Quartermaster two-speed transmission.

After a few lopsided races, with Big Daddy blowing past the finish line first, the legend found himself in the finals against Richard Tharp, a top racer out of Tulsa.

Before the final race, Garlits performed one of his famous "fire burnouts." His building partner, Tommy "Top Cat" Lemons poured gasoline on the strip, and Big Daddy spun his tires, throwing the fuel's vapors into the exhaust headers of his 426 CI Hemi engine. Flames burst into the air. Thousands of heads turned toward the action on the Strip: It was time to race.

Tharp inched his dragster to the starting line. Garlits followed, hoping to get into Tharp's head and freeze him at the green light. The race lights began their dance:

Yellow ... Yellow ...

Big Daddy helplessly rolled down the track. Blood covered his helmet and goggles. He felt the warm liquid covering his body.

On green, Big Daddy pulled his foot from the clutch. Everything went black until he realized his car had exploded into pieces. Garlits thought he had made it halfway down the track. But the car had only traveled a few feet.

Swamp Rat 13's brand new transmission had exploded, cutting the dragster in half and sending a shards of steel from the clutch through Garlits' right foot and into the stands, where they severed a fan's arm. Metal shot into the sky and rained on the track.

Trapped in the driver's seat, Big Daddy helplessly rolled down the track. Blood covered his helmet and goggles. He felt the warm liquid covering his body.

When help arrived, Garlits landed in the back of an ambulance, where a medic accidentally slammed his severed foot in the door. He writhed, screaming in pain, until the medic realized what he had done and opened the door, freeing his foot.

At Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, Garlits had to wait for the operating room to open. Inside, Tim Ditt, the unsuspecting fan hit by the shrapnel of Swamp Rat 13, awaited surgery.

Doctors had to amputate Big Daddy's toes and put him on morphine. He was back racing less than a year later.

Today, walking through his museum in Ocala, Big Daddy still feels the pain throbbing in his right foot. He can't stand for too long.

"I feel the pain every day," Garlits said. "The pain never went away."

To Big Daddy, the accident was worth the agony. "I survived all my accidents," he said, "and from that I was able to make it better and safer for the next guy."

Garlits hopes to eliminate horrific crashes from the sport altogether.

Standing near Swamp Rat 13 in his museum – where surprised fans are now following the legend and inching closer with their cameras – Garlits points to a poster board pasted with pictures of a shot-by-shot of a recent tragic crash. A placard told the story at the bottom of the poster:


Garlits walks up to the poster.

"This is what's wrong with the sport today. Look at the carnage," he says.

"There's a half million [dollars] leaving the line. There it is down there. There's nothing left ... It's Benny the Bomb. They're all so proud of all this ... It gives them spectacular coverage on TV."

Benny the Bomb is the nickname of famed Florida stuntman Benjamin J. Koske, who blows up cars with explosives — while he's in the driver's seat.

Today, if you're a drag racer and you want to use nitromethane, the racer's fuel of choice, a volatile and dangerous compound, you have to register with the Department of Homeland Security. If Garlits has his way, nitromethane would go away. In its place? Electric.

"It's too dangerous. Look at these explosions. Somebody can hurt people with this," Garlits said. "We don't care about these drivers, but what about if a guy builds one of these bombs and takes it into a stadium or something?"

Controversial statements are nothing new to Big Daddy. He seems to thrive on them, trading nasty words with everyone from fellow drivers to shop mechanics to the highest-ranking officials in the NHRA. He doesn't care; Big Daddy's word is golden. But his confidence with words sometimes gets him in trouble, like when he ran for Congress and lost back in 1994 and made barbed statements regarding homosexuality and minorities that seemed anachronistic. Today, he steers clear of those topics, focusing his mind on building engines and cars.

It was April 30, 2014, when Big Daddy and his team first rolled out Swamp Rat 37 at the Bradenton Motorsports Park for testing.

It took seven runs for Garlits to get comfortable behind the wheel. When the lights turned green and Big Daddy hit the gas, Swamp Rat shot up to 184 mph.

Getting out of the car, the team waited for what Big Daddy had to say.

"Straight as a string ... Just needs more power," Garlits said. "Put the nitro in it."

The crowd around the legend laughed wildly. Garlits smirked and took off his black racing jacket, done for the day.

At the car’s second test run, Swamp Rat 37’s engine failed after two runs. When Big Daddy drove down the track for a test run on August 9, he topped 185.60 mph in 7.274 seconds, the fastest time ever recorded in an electric dragster.

In an email to a friend, Garlits recapped the experience:

"We have reached the limit with what we have. Need to make some changes for 200 mph."

* * *

If Big Daddy had his way, he would never drive, a sentiment he's shared with sportswriters in every decade of his career. Given the choice, Garlits would keep his engines behind glass.

In the 1990s, when Big Daddy drove Swamp Rat 34 — his fastest car, topping 323 mph — the pioneer had four engines just in case one failed. Over the two years he drove the car, he only used one of the motors.

"I still have the original four engines and the heads to go with them. I only qualified once," Garlits said. "I never put oil on the drag strip. That speaks volumes. I knew the limitations of my own motors."

With an engine on the stand, Garlits often spent long nights becoming a feast for mosquitos and fine-tuning his motors and.

"The things are like jewelry," Garlits said of the engines. "And when you actually physically do that, and you set the timing of the cam within a degree and every bearing is perfect and you're practically in one of them white suits like they have at NASA, you don't wanna throw it on the drag strip for one fucking round or one qualifying run. That's why I ain't in it, because I ain't gonna do that. That's why that electric car is over there."

After Pat Garlits' health began to deteriorate, Big Daddy began building old engines, and putting them on stands in his garage, not to race, just to fire up and admire.

He's got the engine of a 1932 Ford truck, one of his favorites. Big Daddy sometimes gives tours of the room where he keeps his engine stands, revving them up to show off their raw power.

"Imagine grandma taking this down to the grocery to get scraps for the chickens," Garlits says, grinning a big one.

He dips his hand over the exhaust and revs the engine.

"That's pushing some air," he says.

* * *

garlits Don Garlits' office at his home in Florida. (Ed Komenda)

The people closest to Big Daddy often offer sage advice to those who have never met him: Don't get him started on aliens. But it's hard not to. He has his beliefs.

"They found this planet millions of years ago," he said, "and it had no life on it."

Don't get him started on aliens. But it's hard not to. He has his beliefs. “They found this planet millions of years ago." garlits (Ed Komenda)

Take a walk through his office, and you'll find extraterrestrial dolls, and glass jars that appear to hold cosmic specimens suspended in goo. Big Daddy's affinity with space budded long ago, through his love of science. Garlits even credits his wealth of knowledge about building and racing cars to supernatural powers given to humans by aliens. Really. Ask him to explain, and take a seat — this might take a while:

"[The Earth] was coming to a cooling stage, where it would support certain kinds of life, and, of course, they seeded it," Garlits says. "They've been in charge for probably billions of years. Maybe forever. This system goes and comes. We've got galaxies colliding, we've got stars gone nova. When ours does that, this whole system will be burned right up. We have new ones forming and over time, these beings have the ability to transform time, space and matter to their liking. They're gods for all practical purposes, as we would think. They probably seeded this planet with primitive crustaceans and things, and they came back and put the dinosaurs here, and they gave us all our oil. At one time, this was just one continent. They know that here and will actually teach that in school, if you go to the right one."

Because aliens put us here, Garlits says, it's no stretch to say they gave us all our knowledge about everything. If not for that knowledge, there wouldn't be drag racing. There wouldn't be Swamp Rat 1 or Swamp Rat 6 or Swamp Rat 11, the car in Garlits' shop right now.

"When you decide to do something, and you don't tell your mind you can't do it, and you say you can do it, but you don't know how to do it, and you just keep dwelling on it that you will do it, your mind communicates with other minds not even necessarily on this planet. But somewhere," Garlits says, sitting in a chair next to Swamp Rat 11. "And all this has been done before. Probably many times. Maybe millions of times. This exact car has probably been built somewhere in the universe that did the exactly the same thing this one does. May not have that writing on it, but basically, this ain't the first time this has ever been done."

From the day he picked up his first wrench, Garlits says he believed he could accomplish anything. It's advice he often doles out to budding racers and mechanics: Believe you can do anything.

"I learned how to do this at a young age, so what would happen: I would get these pictures in my mind of what I wanted to do, but you could never ever say you can't do it," Garlits says, "In fact, it's a really good thing when somebody says: 'This is all new bullshit, see? Everybody's doing so great.' It's better when they say: ‘You ain't worth a shit ... You're just a little, short weasel punk, and you'll never be nothing.' And you say: ‘You son of a bitch, what do you see when you look at me? I can do anything I want to do if I put my mind to it.'"

Lately, Garlits has been focused on moving forward, putting the last chapter of his life together the way he'd want the world to read it.

He's got a new girlfriend, a photographer who worked for the Ocala Star-Banner who coaxed Big Daddy out of the house to ride bicycles and take long walks when he was too depressed to leave the house after Pat's death. The relationship has helped take his mind off all the hurt that's welled up inside him.

"He has a girlfriend. It's a distraction, and I don't think it's anything serious," said Donna Garlits, Big Daddy's daughter and the woman in charge of the legend's museum. "It's just a distraction for him, but I think that everything he does and everything he's about now, he's always thinking about it with her [Patricia]. Even though she's not there, his thoughts are about her. If he goes somewhere and does something, [it's], ‘Oh, I remember your mother and I.' I hear this all the time. You never ever get over the loss of a loved one. You learn to keep living without them in your life. That's what he's doing."

And the electric car?

"It's a great distraction as well. It's a great adventure for him," Donna Garlits said. "It's like his last hurrah, and it's keeping him going and keeping him wanting to wake up in the morning. He's pretty much turned this place over to me, and I've got my son here helping me and I've got a great team. And everything is running smoothly. We're doing fine. I know he knows he doesn't have a whole lot to do here anymore. He's happy about that, because he can go out and get in the world."

And that's what Big Daddy does on this Saturday afternoon after fixing his boat's busted horn.

He stands next to his Blue Dodge Charger, another personalized gift from the famed car company. The company made 1,000 of them.

"This is number 723," Garlits said. "They gave it to me for my birthday."

Big Daddy's phone rings, and he answers. It's his girlfriend. They plan to drive down to Tampa to get a smaller RV — he doesn't like the one he has now, because it rattles too much rumbling down the highway.

"I'm just down at the shop," he says. "Getting my stuff out and getting ready to go. I'm all set ... I'll be right down."

Garlits hangs up, and offers a visiting writer some closing thoughts before his journey south.

"I've given you some advice that will make you successful," Garlits says. "Follow your dream. You do what you love. You don't pay no attention to what anybody else says about whether it's successful or whatever it is. If you feel it's right, you do it. Don't sleep in in the mornings. Get up. If you feel sleepy, you go to sleep, but if you don't feel sleepy, you work. That was a good rule. That was my father's rule."

Garlits gets in his Charger and starts it. The Hemi purrs, a much calmer sound than the Hemi that got him over 200 mph so many years ago.

And before you know it, the legend is out of sight, on his way out of town for a while, his mind far from racing, focused on the road ahead.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: J.R. Wilco | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Ed Komenda is a writer from Chicago’s south side. He holds an English degree from Western Illinois University. Since leaving the Midwest he has worked as a reporter for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Las Vegas Sun in Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter @ejkomenda.

Loading comments...