Don Garlits – The Big Daddy of Drag Racing
Every month, Goodguys Gazette editor Damon Lee and I kick around ideas on who will be our next Legend of Hot Rodding. This month, we agreed: Don Garlits. We were both flabbergasted that to date he had eluded our attention. It would be like a skipping Michael Jordan as a legendary hoopster or Tom Brady as a legendary QB.
It’s time to make amends. When it comes to hot rodders, Garlits’ status as a quarter-mile superhero is on par with the fame afforded Jordan and Brady in their respective sports. Yes, he is the G.O.A.T. of drag racing.
Donald Glenn Garlits was born in Tampa, Florida in 1932. He father had been an electrical engineer in Pittsburg in the 1920s before moving to Tampa due to failing health. There, Edward engineered a healthier lifestyle by opening a health food store. It was into this sunny, wholesome environment that Garlits grew up.
Like so many of our legends, Don began fiddling with cars as a teenager. By 14 he had yanked out his first engine. After graduating high school, he scored a job in a bookkeeping office. But Garlits’ life ledger had no entry for bookkeeper. He quit after only six months.
The lure of automotive mechanics proved irresistible, which led to jobs at body and radiator shops. When he got a chance to work on a friend’s race car, his personal Christmas tree light went out and Garlits launched himself into the world of drag racing.
It began innocently enough with a hot-rodded 1927 Model T, and later a maroon 1940 Ford convertible with a Cadillac V8. Street racing came first – along with a pile of speeding tickets. One Sunday drive, with his new bride Pat riding shotgun, changed everything. Garlits happened upon the Lake Wales Drag Strip. While promising Pat he would only spectate, he ended up making a pass or two in the coupe, winning his first trophy.
That’s all it took. Garlits soon entered legal drag races in the Tampa area and winning followed shortly after. By the late 1950s Garlits pulled together his first dragster, the Swamp Rat I, using parts discarded from his competitors. No matter. His dragster soon bested any competitor and broke records, racing a quarter mile in 12.1 seconds at 108.17mph and in 1957 at a record speed of 176.4mph.
It wasn’t long before Garlits ruled the East Coast quarter-mile scene. When he set a record of 180mph in 8.90 seconds in 1958, he caught the attention of Left Coast racers, who previously had poo-poo’d his records, claiming that the “backwoods” tracks of the southeast used inaccurate timing. He proved them wrong in 1959 by winning both the Northern California and Arizona State championships.
In 1964 – with nitro finally legalized by the NHRA – he broke the 200-mph-speed barrier, not once but twice. By this point, the moniker “Big Daddy” had stuck. He remarkable dominance continued for nearly four decades.
To recount all of his technical innovations and on-track accomplishments would take a book – and there have been many. Here are a few highlights:
- 144 national event wins – 51 in AHRA, 26 in IHRA, and 35 in NHRA
- Won NHRA U.S. Nationals a record eight times (1964, 1967-1968, 1975, 1978 & 1984-1986)
- First driver ever to surpass 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260 and 270 miles per hour in the quarter mile
- First to top 200mph in the eighth mile
- In 2001, at age 69, and 14 years after retirement, he borrowed a Top Fuel car and went 303mph in just 4.72 seconds (right & below)
- Built 34 black Swamp Rat race cars; #30 resides in the Smithsonian
- In 2004, at age 72, he took Swamp Rat 34 out of his museum and set a career best 323.04mph
- Ranked No. 1 on the NHRA’s list of Top-50 Drivers
His contributions to safety were equally noteworthy. At Lions Drag Strip in 1970, a transmission explosion in his front-engine Swap Rat and blew off part of his right foot. While recovering, Garlits designed the first rear-engine Top Fuel car that positioned the engine and trans behind the driver, a design that remains the standard today. Over the years, Garlits also suffered various burns. He became an early proponent of the fire-resistant Nomex driving suit.
While he “retired” from active competition in 2003, Garlits just couldn’t stay away. In 2019 at age 87, he set a new quarter-mile EV record of 189.03mph with Swamp Rat 38, a 1,500-pound dragster with a 800hp electric motor.
Garlits is very aware of his place in drag racing history. He once remarked to Richard Parks (son of Wally), “Call me what you will, ‘Big Daddy,’ ‘Swamp Rat,’ ‘Old Man,’ but with my status as the top driver in NHRA’s first 50 years affirmed by the fans, you’d better call me ‘the Best,’ as well.”
A bit boastful? Definitely, but a claim no one could argue with.