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|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 CHESTER INFERNO, Part 1
...Leather Jacket and Charred Hands!
After our big 1958 wins and my first world record (read more about the big California showdown), we
spent perfecting equipment and working with new fuel mixes.
Everything seemed to be working well, and I set another world record at Brooksville, Florida, while
becoming the first to break the 180 MPH barrier!
Funny thing, the uproar started all over again with the California guys who were convinced that the 180
mark was even more phony than the 170s I had been hitting.
I knew that I'd have to keep proving myself by backing my runs with more 180s at different strips, so we spent the
winter months preparing for the 1959 campaign. We spent some of my winnings by moving into a larger shop at
12200 Nebraska Street, just down the avenue from my first Tampa shop.
We added a monstrous 454-cubic inch powerplant, installed a GMC blower, and added huge M&H Racemaker tires.
I was learning that drag racing was becoming such a fierce, competitive business, and even a few months' delay in
implementing new designs or equipment could be disastrous and costly. It was that way with the new superchargers,
so as soon as they came out, a lot of people made the mad rush to install them. I did. The potential was incredible.
Another addition was Pat's idea.
One day she handed me a
"Here," she said. "I think you'd
better start using this."
I opened the parcel. It was a
new leather jacket.
"What's this all about?" I asked.
"Don," she answered forcefully,
"the car is going so fast now.
Those t-shirts you've been
wearing aren't any protection at
all. If you crashed, you'd have
every bit of skin scraped off on
I shrugged. In those days a helmet and goggles were the only protective pieces of gear anyone ever used. A leather
jacket? I knew it would draw a lot of attention and disdain, but I also knew instinctively that what Pat was saying made
a lot of sense. Even as she was talking, I was thinking about Gary Cagle's violent crash at Great Bend, Kansas. He
had almost died.
"Awright, Honey," I laughed. "It's a deal. I'll wear the jacket and you stop worrying!"
Neither of us knew just how valuable that layer of cowhide would be.
BEGINNING THE 1959 CAMPAIGN
Pat was always involved in my career, even way back in the early days. She had continued traveling with me most of
the time, but as we started the 1959 "wars," we found out that she was pregnant. Our obstetrician recommended
that Pat stay in Tampa in order not to risk a miscarriage (as she had experienced once before).
We said our goodbyes, and off I went to Chester, South Carolina. I was looking forward to a resumption of my
current rivalry with Kansas City's pride, Bobby Sullivan, and his Chet Herbert's Chrysler-powered "Pandemonium."
The date we hit Chester, June 29, is one that I will always remember, no matter how hard I've tried to forget.
"I think I can run 180," I cracked to my new mechanic as we prepared for a practice run on the Chester strip. "So let's
tip the can and see if we can't crack out some real speed."
What I meant by tipping the can was that I wanted to add a bigger charge of "pop" (Nitro). With the new blower, all
we dared mix was 70% "pop" with the alcohol and benzine.
I remember the smell of my new leather jacket as I pulled it on. It reminded me of Pat, and I made a mental note to
call her that evening.
I climbed into the cockpit. Fred Yeager (my mechanic) and Ralph Haggerman (our helper) pushed me to the line. I
wanted 180 MPH clocking in the worst way and felt we could have it.
Clutch out! Trottle down! I flew down the strip in a cloud of smoke and deafening noise. I knew it was going to be a
Suddenly I heard a loud explosion. Flames were everywhere, all over me! It seemed like a slow motion, macabre
nightmare. The dragster was still rolling down the strip at 170 MPH, and I was completely engulfed in an inferno of
searing heat. I wanted it to be just a horrible sensation, but it wouldn't go away.
My supercharger had blown a hole in the manifold. The gaping rupture was less than the length of a yardstick from
my face. Flames were belching all over me like I was sitting behind a gigantic, spewing blow torch. The pain was
Stunned, I kept my right foot pushing down on the throttle, keeping the fuel-injector wide open, so raw fuel continued
pumping into what was becoming an incredible, moving holocaust.
I tried desperately to keep my bare left hand on the hand-brake. My other hand was also exposed to the crackling
blaze, but I knew I had to hang onto the steering wheel.
Then I lapsed into semi-consciousness. My whole life flashed across my mind...childhood, Mom and Dad, playing
with my brother, God, everything...just like I had heard. I knew I was going to die, but i made no difference by then. I
just wanted the pain to stop.
As I lost control with reality, my foot slipped off the throttle. With its source of fuel cut off, the fire stopped instantly. I
came to. I thought I had been unconscious for hours. I was surrounded by an unearthly silence.
Then I noticed the metallic rumble of my dragster as it bounced and flexed along the pavement. I could hear the
swishing of the big Racemaster slicks. It seemed unreal, but was still moving almost 100 miles per hour, and I could
see that I was veering toward my right.
The fire had not been an imaginary nightmare as I wished. I cold see the gaping, burnt hole in my supercharger.
Those charred hands were mine!
|1959...Big Daddy drives his first supercharged Swamp Rat in Kingdom,
California. This picture was taken a few weeks before the fateful drag race
in Chester, South Carolina.