|When you visit the DON
GARLITS MUSEUM OF
DRAG RACING near
beautiful Ocala, Florida,
be sure to let the fine
staff know that you saw
the museum featured on
THE CALIFORNIA CHALLENGE, Part 1
...Showdown in Houston!
I was just getting over the kudos from my "Drag Safari" win when I was shocked by the news from Great
Bend, Kansas. At the NHRA National Championships held there that year, Calvin Rice drove his J.E. Riley's
streamlined, aluminum-body slingshot to top honors with an amazing 142.95 MPH and 10.30 ET.
That did it. I was so far off the pace that I had to put-up or shut up. I knew that if I was to be competitive with
the "big boys," I had to make some major decisions.
For starters, I sold the yellow '27 T in early 1956 to Art Malone
(a childhood friend from the airplane model and bicycle repair
shop days) who was gaining a reputation as a charging stock
Then I started building my new dragster from scratch. With the
$500 Art paid me for the old car, I bought a '31 Chevy frame
and a '54 Chrysler Firepower V-8.
My brother Ed was just home from the Marines, so he joined
me as we worked furiously for fourteen days putting the new
The basic design for the rail was inspired by Calvin Rice's
championship slingshot dragster. Ours came out looking
very original, down to the purple paint job and ugly, pointed,
anteater-looking nose piece.
We made our first runs with the car at Ft. Myers. The performance was everything we had hoped for. Confident,
we began hitting events all over Florida. The car was a champion. A growing collection of glossy trophies proved it.
Another decision. More than anything, I wanted to race full time, so I decided to open my own high performance
garage in Tampa. I opened it at a ramshackle service station at 12828 Nebraska Avenue in Tampa. I was proud as
a peacock of that simple sign outside: "Don's Garage."
I had gained enough reputation as a hot-rodder to bring in lots of business from aspiring racers, but my main goal
was involved with that car that held the place of honor inside the garage, my rail. Almost all my spare time was
spent tinkering with the car (painted black by then).
FIRST WORLD RECORD
The years of 1956 and 1957 were spent solidifying my fledgling garage business and adding to my trophy
collection. I won the Florida State Championship in ' 56, and the next year whipped the famous Emery Cook! Cliff
Bedwell West Coast fuel dragster (the car that was considered unbeatable) at the prestigious World Series of
Drag Racing held near Cordova, and I set my first World Record, a blazing speed of 176.4 MPH at Brookville,
Being the first dragster in the world to crack the 170 MPH barrier and set a new world record would have meant
more, but the West Coast people dismissed it as a fluke set by a Florida nobody.
Still, the response to my world record was immediate and widespread - from coast to coast. Weiand (manifolds),
Iskenderian (racing camshafts), and Bruce (tires) all featured my dragster in advertisements which proclaimed the
role of their products in my world record run. I even got page one in some of the racing periodicals.
Then I topped the 170 MPH mark again while winning the "Top Eliminator" purse at the big International Timing
Association meet held at Chester, South Carolina—one of the richest in the nation. Besides coming away with all
the "gold," I had proven conclusively to the Californians that I was a force to be reckoned with. I still hadn't met
most of those front runners face to face, but the showdown was becoming inevitable. It was too perfect for the
promoters to ignore.
I was already developing a reputation as a winner, and as a loser (some said that when I lost I had the worst
temper in the business - a dubious distinction that I probably deserved; I always hated losing!). As I continued to
run, mostly in the Southeast, I got plenty of opportunities to both savor winning moments and express my more
I ended the incredible 1957 season with a humiliating loss at Kissimmee. That just made Ed and me work even
more diligently during the off-time. We both had a feeling that we would have to be extremely well-prepared for the
SHOWDOWN IN HOUSTON
We were right. I ran the rail at several early meetings
(including a momentous one in Wichita Falls where I
edged the big Texas star, Bobby Langley).
Still, the Californians guffawed when my name was
I knew that the time was getting ripe for the moment of
truth. I hoped that I was ready.
I didn't have to wait long. A letter arrived in July from a
promoter of the Freeway drag strip near Houston, Texas.
It contained an invitation to the one chance I had been
waiting for. The words I read made my temperature rise:
"A group of the West Coast fuel drag racers are doubting
the times you've been setting there in the East, so
everybody is figuring that it's time for a real showdown.
Well, because our strip is about halfway between
California and Florida, we'd like to invite both groups to
see who really is the fastest drag racer. In fact, we've
also invited some Texans, to boot. Would you be willing
to take them on?"
My acceptance was in the return mail. Work on everything else in my Nebraska Avenue shop came to a grinding
halt. I had to put all my efforts into making the dragster ready, extra ready.
Word had already begun filtering in about the stiff opposition I would face in
the touted "California/Florida Challenge," lots of famous names with fabulous
dragsters: Pete Ogden from Oakland in Romeo Palamides' new streamlined
car; Jack Ewell driving "Big Jim" Kamboors' Jado Special ("Big Jim" was a
wealthy Los Angeles caterer); and Red Case in his radical little Cagle and
Callahan car. The Texas delegation was going to be led by Bobby Langley
in his much-improved "Scorpion II."
It was going to be the biggest thing to ever hit the drag racing world, more
like a wrestling" grudge" match—the big guys against the little hotshot with
the big mouth.
The word was out; Ewell, Case, and Ogden weren't as concerned with
winning the meet as with getting Garlits. If they could return to California
with the news that they had put this Florida wise guy in his "place," it didn't
make a speck of difference to them which one of the three ended up being
And even though he didn't care about the California/Florida issue, Bobby
Langley had his Texas pride at stake. He made it clear that there was
nothing he would rather do than send both Garlits and the Californians back
home in defeat. Plus, he was particularly incensed about my win over him
the year before at Wichita Falls in front of his ardent fans.
Anyway it came down, it was Garlits against the field. Put up or shut-up time.
|1955's J.E. Reily Special driven by Calvin Rice
Current Owner: Greg Sharp/NHRA Museum
|1958...(above) Don Garlits Prepares for the Big
Showdown at the Garden State Timing
Association Drags near Mongomery, NY
(below) Arriving in Houston for the Showdown
(above) Bobby Langley's Scorpion II
(below) Jack Ewell's Jado Special