Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits is the greatest and most successful drag racer by most measures and has introduced many technological changes that have had a game-changing influence on the overall direction of the sport. His sheer hard work and determination has set him apart. He was part of the wildly successful US team to visit Britain for the 1964 Dragfest and subsequently raced in the UK in 1976 and 1977. These appearances were crucial to the success of the sport in the UK.
Born in Florida, Don possessed natural flair for both constructing racecars and competing in the sport at a level that has been an inspiration to countless others. After starting racing in 1950 he built his first of thirty seven Swamp Rat dragsters in 1955. He raced around the US and modified the car so that by the time he retired it in 1959, he had already become the first racer over 170mph in 1957 and over 180mph in 1958. He also suffered a serious fire but his car continued to compete with long-time crewman Art Malone in the driver’s seat.
During the NHRA ban on nitromethane from 1959 to 1963, Don continued to match race nationally. It was at the 1963 Winternationals, for which the ban was temporarily lifted, that he scored his first NHRA championship win with the first Top Fuel Dragster to have a wing mounted on it. When nitromethane was finally allowed at all NHRA events in 1964, he ran the first backed-up 200mph speed.
In September and October of 1964 the First British International Drag Festival took place organised by BDRA’s Sidney Allard and the NHRA’s Wally Parks. In a series of six events, Don match raced Tommy Ivo and won “The People” Challenge Trophy for the best aggregate performance by any car, running a string of low eights at over 190mph in front of huge crowds at Blackbushe and a series of RAF airfields.
With further success in the US, Don’s terminal speeds climbed to over 240mph. But an exploding transmission on the startline at Lions Drag Strip in 1970 cut his car in half and badly injured his right foot, leading to a layoff for the year. During this time away from the pressures of competition, he worked on the rear engine dragster design which others had tried unsuccessfully. His engineering skills came to the fore as he identified and solved the issues that prevented the design from working and on his return won the 1971 NHRA Winternationals and a string of races that year which resulted in the old slingshot style of dragsters becoming obsolete in the next couple of years.
The 1970s were highly successful for Don in racing. In that decade he won eleven championships in different sanctioning bodies, including 16 NHRA event wins, and in 1975 set a record for Top Fuel Dragsters of 5.637 and 250.69mph, which stood as records for more than six years. In 1976 he visited Santa Pod for its tenth anniversary, driving Swamp Rat 21, and inspired Peter Crane to run the first five second pass outside the US. Don returned the following year and won at the July International before returning his car, which in the meantime had been raced by Dennis Priddle, to the US for eventual display at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. After his visits, Don’s fellow racers could be easily enticed to race in the UK, furthering the boom in the sport in Britain in the late 1970s.
Don’s innovative skills came to the fore again in the 1980s, experimenting with different configurations of rear engine dragsters before reaching success with Swamp Rat 30, a streamlined car which brought him a third NHRA championship in 1986. A spectacular blowover in 1986 was followed by a second such incident in 1987, leading to an enforced retirement. In every appearance he has made since then, whether it has been running his own or borrowed cars he has been treated with adoration by thousands of drag racing fans.
2014 has been a year very mixed emotions for Don. He has succeeded in running over 180mph in his electric powered dragster Swamp Rat 37 which he has said is a clean, less-expensive-to-operate, sustainable and environmentally sound technology for the sport in the future. But he lost Pat, his wife of over 60 years and a constant companion of his at the track during his racing career, after caring for her in her final illnesses.
Overall Don’s success can be measured in 144 National Event wins and 17 Championships in his career. The innovation he has brought to drag racing is immense. But even more than these achievements, his influence on the sport has been inestimable and the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame is proud to be able to induct him in person this year.