IF I HAD TO PICK ONE RACING MOMENT
I’ve spent most of my life drag racing. On the surface, it’s pretty simple. Two drivers
race go from a standing start to a finish line one-quarter of a mile away.
Drag racing is pure, unadulterated All-American. It grew out of the gasoline-soaked
garages and alleyways of postwar 1940s and early 1950s as young people who
“souped up” their cars, then wanted to find a way to show off how fast their “hot rods”
|Don Garlits and the crew
prepare for a 1955 drag race
near Lake City, Florida
Racing on an oval track had been around for some time, but tracks weren’t always
available. Every community had a straight stretch of deserted highway, however, and these
places became testosterone-fueled hang-outs were young men could fulfill fantasies of
driving fast cars and winning the admiration of young ladies.
The quarter-mile quickly spread around the country as the race of choice, probably
because there were many places that didn’t have a longer straightaway that was safe from
the eyes of the law.
Some used airstrips like the one my buddies and I used near the City of Zephyrhills,
Florida. For us, the old airstrip was much safer than deserted streets and desolate roads,
but the strip was 26 hair-raising miles away from where I lived, and the trips to the airstrip
were often more exciting (and definitely more dangerous) than the runs we made down the
A LIFETIME OF THRILLS
By the time I caught the racing fever, drag racing was already
hitting its stride. It was popularized in such mass market novels
as Henry Gregor Felson’s Hot Rod, the classic1950 book. The
phenomenon grew with the wildly-received drag racing scene
in Rebel Without a Cause, the landmark teen flick featuring
Hot Rod Magazine fanned the flames of popularity, and soon
kids from Tacoma to Tampa were talking a common language
of “racing slicks” and “blowers” that transcended most cultural
and geographical barriers.
More drag-racing strips were being built by the 1950s, partly
to avoid the teens-in-those-killer-cars danger that led to such
rock `n roll hits as Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” and Ray
Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her.”
For relatively little money, enterprising businessmen who
wanted to keep his own kids from racing on back roads would
lay down two lanes of asphalt on a pasture on the outskirts of
town, add some makeshift bleachers, sometimes put up
\“Christmas tree” lights and timers, and build a nifty business
income while providing a safer, legal place to race. It provided
a boon for people like me who got hooked on the sport and
could never let it go.
It appealed to young people like me—two drivers, side by side,
not bumping into each other, matching skill against skill and
power against power to see who could drive the fastest, most powerful racer down the
quarter-mile strip. I was hooked for life!
A lot has changed since then. I was blessed to be part of many of those changes.
WINNING THE RACE, exclusively on MyBestYears.com, gives me the unique opportunity
to tell you what really happened and the amazing racers and racing machines who turned
this post-war past-time into the huge commercial success it has become.
There have been many unforgettable times that I will share with you.
THE GREATEST MOMENT
Considering all the changes and the many, many great memories, people often ask me
what was the greatest moment in all of my experiences during a half-century of racing.
That’s like picking a favorite child. Every win and every experience was very special to me,
from the first to the last. And I still get excited about all of the great things that are
happening to me and the Museum of Drag Racing.
But if I had to pick one…what would it be?
Winning my first golden-winged trophy (a small, cheap thing, but worth a million bucks to
me!) during 1953 at the Lake Wales drag strip in my stock `50 Ford was amazing. I learned
quickly that victory was intoxicating for me, and I never got tired of knowing that churning
feeling of crossing the finish line first!
Building the first successful rear-engine top fuel dragster in 1971 has to be near the top.
Being the first to win three NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) national titles and three
world championships has to be up there, too, along with being named the “Drag Racer of
the Decade” in that year’s Popular Hot Rodding Magazine that same year.
Of course, breaking some of the “impossible” barriers, including 170, 180, 200, 240, 250,
260, and 270 have to be some of my favorite memories.
Induction in 1989 inaugural Motorsports Hall of Fame (with the likes of such racers as
NASCAR’s Richard Petty, air racing’s Jimmy Doolittle, Indy racer A. J. Foyt and powerboat
speedster Bill Muncey) as the sole representative of drag racing has to be near the top of
Beating rival Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney in the 1977 best-of-three Top Fuel showdown
on the highly publicized and wildly popular CBS “Challenge of the Sexes” at the Orange
Country International Dragway rates pretty high.
Being selected for the Racing Hall of Fame in 1977, the International Motorsports Hall of
Fame in 1997 and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2005 were all extremely exciting, as well.
And I can’t imagine too many greater joys than when I discovered that I was ranked
Number 1 on the 1951-2000 National Hot Rod Association Top 50 Drivers.
But if I had to pick one racing thrill out of a lifetime, it would have to be October 20, 1987,
when my record-breaking Swamp Rat XXX was enshrined in The Smithsonian’s National
Museum of American History in Washington, DC, near Charles Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of
St. Louis” and NASA’s first manned space capsule.
This was the Swamp Rat XXX that won the National Hot Rod Association championship in
1986 with a quarter-mile speed of 272.55 miles an hour, then crashed later during a race
in Spokane, Washington, effectively retiring both me and the dragster (at least for awhile).
I had so many memories flooding through me at the Smithsonian placement. During the
press conference, one last time for old time’s sake, we fired up the powerful engine on the
dragster, then the old warrior that took me down so many drag strips all over the country
took its much-deserved restful place among our nation’s most prized historical artifacts!
There were no checkered flags or trophies that October day back in 1987, but it would be
tough for me to imagine another racing moment better than the Smithsonian enshrinement?
|The Swamp Rat XXX
roars one last time!