Rare is the person who can be the first to reach the same milestone twice, much less three times.
Then again, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits is a drag racing pioneer unlike any other.
The patriarch of Top Fuel dragster competition and the inventor of the rear-engine entry, Garlits was the first in his class to reach speeds of 170, 180, 200, 250, 260 and 270 mph, and the first to 200 in the eighth-mile.
Already the first to reach 200 twice, Garlits on Saturday will attempt to become a three-time barrier breaker of that number. Already the record holder at 185.60 mph, Garlits set to make the first “squirt,” as he called it, at 3:30 p.m. EDT at Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter, Fla.
“The new car is 800 pounds lighter than the old car, but it’s smaller. We also have a wing on it, a high wing, and a rudder like the mono-wing car,” said the 87-year-old, a member of multiple halls of fame and the driver voted No. 1 in drag racing’s first 50 years.
“This is a whole different system with different motor, different batteries, and it’s much lighter. The car down course is trying to accelerate so fast it was spinning the tires and fishtailing all around. So I put the rudder on it, and on top of that, I put a small wing off of my car from 1985 that went 268 mph. That should give me enough downpressure to hold the car on the track.
“We don’t have the luxury of the zoomie headers on the electric motors, so there’s nothing to hold it down with. The faster you run, the harder it is to get traction. Air gets underneath the tires. Even the tires at 200 mph want to hydroplane on the air like tires hydroplane on the water — same type of deal.”
Garlits had hoped to break 200 in March at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. And everything seemed to be in place for that to happen — and then didn’t for reasons he explained at length.
“NHRA called me and said, ‘We’d like to have a car at Gainesville. We’d like to certify it so you can run it at NHRA tracks,’ because we’d been running at the Bradenton track, which was IHRA,” Garlits said. “It’d be so much nicer to run it at Gainesville, which is an hour closer and a lot of shutoff area and smoother.
“We carried it to Gainesville and they were supposed to send me a certificate that said it was OK for me to run. I didn’t get anything, didn’t get anything, and I called them and they said there were some things that still had to be done, some minor things that had to be done. So we did that and sent them photographs; still no sticker.
“Then I got word through the grapevine — I have friends out there at the (NHRA) main office; after 60 years, you’re bound to have somebody out there who likes you — that they were never going to let the car run because they were afraid of it on their dragstrips.”
Garlits continued, “Then I did get this note from them that said, ‘Yes, you can run the dragster but this is what you have to do,’ and they had a list of about 15 kinds of personnel, all kinds of specialists, that had to be there, and a big special forklift, a big special team for medical. It would cost $100,000 to set the track up to use it, and of course, I can’t do that.
“So I contacted the Electric Drag Racing Association and asked them if they had any suggestions. They said, ‘Why don’t you see what IHRA says?’ And in the meantime, NHRA took control of the Bradenton track, so at any of their tracks I would run would have to have all this personnel and equipment there. So I called IHRA, which has their offices at Palm Beach International, and they said, ‘Oh, we’d just love it, come on down to our place.’ And the EDRA said that would be fine, too, so that’s where we’re going Saturday.”
Garlits’ latest dragster, which he estimates is Swamp Rat 55, is not a recycled Top Fuel chassis, it’s one built from scratch in his shop in Ocala, Fla. It is powered by a battery pack of 2,000-plus iPhone-like batteries wired in series that was “built by a guy in south Florida.” Garlits said the battery pack generates 4,000 watts and 400 volts of juice. The motor, which originally powered a sawmill in the 1940s, has been reconfigured “by a guy in Thailand who is an expert on motors to make them run faster and accept more voltage.” Garlits has since acquired “an even better motor,” and if the current one doesn’t push him past 200, the new one will be installed in the chassis once the car gets the back-halving necessary to accommodate it.
Garlits’ interest in electric-powered dragsters dates to an association with Las Vegas resident Mike Gerry and both men’s desire to see Darrell Gwynn, a quadriplegic from a Top Fuel crash, back on the track. The only way to accomplish that was to build Gwynn a scale-model dragster that was equipped with a joystick-like device for steering similar to what Gwynn uses to guide his wheelchair.
Gwynn returned to the strip in 2011 at the U.S. Nationals in that car. Garlits and Gwynn then competed the following year in match races in a pair of battery-powered dragsters that topped out at about 30 mph due to the limitations of Gwynn’s “wobblestick,” as Garlits called it. Those runs were part of the NHRA’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2011 and were used to raise money for spinal injury research. The cars were later auctioned at Barrett-Jackson for another charitable quarter-million dollars, Garlits said.
Those races stimulated Garlits’ unmatched curiosity, and he asked Gerry, “How fast do you think we could go if we took the gloves off?” Gerry’s response was that “we might go 200 miles an hour — the record’s 156.”
The predecessor to the new dragster officially covered the quarter-mile in 7.25 seconds, and Garlits said it’s unofficially run 7.05. The new dragster, he forecast, “will run in the sixes at over 200.”
“That’s one reason I like this electric dragster,” he said. “I can do whatever I want because there are no rules. It keeps my mind active, keeps me working in the shop every day, and that’s the key. I’m 87 and I feel just as good as I was when I was 50. I work every day, I keep my mind active, and I don’t watch TV from the couch. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.”
Garlits won 17 Top Fuel championships on nitro — 10 with AHRA, four with IHRA and three in NHRA — and 144 national-event crowns. He’s not racing for those kinds of rewards anymore to honor a request by his late wife, Pat, and because of the expense involved in fielding a team.
And he’s OK with focusing his energy and passion on advancements with the electric dragster. While they obviously are still figuring out what makes the vehicle tick, there’s a massive upside to the configuration: Instant feedback.
“When I set the record at 184, I didn’t let the chute out on the run before and just drove it back to the line and made another run,” he said. “You can run it a couple of times on a battery charge, but we like to spend 15-20 minutes looking at the thing and charging it. In real life, once we get this thing going, you can return right back to the starting line with a little plug-in to charge the batteries. You could turn these cars around in 10 minutes easy.
“The only downside of this whole thing is there’s no noise. I call it ‘the Quiet One.” It’s very weird when you’re used to all the pounding of a Top Fuel car. With this thing, they can actually walk up and talk to me just before I run.
“It’s just weird.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019