|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 2
..."There isn't anything we can do for that man!"
The date we hit Chester, June 29, is one that I will always remember, no matter how hard I've tried
As described in The Chester Inferno, Part 1, suddenly I heard a loud explosion. Flames were
everywhere, and the dragster was still rolling down the strip at 170 MPH. 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 everywhere!
I gripped the wheel and strained to correct the slide. Straight again! The
handbrake! Finally I coasted to a stop on the edge of the strip.
Now the pain was assaulting every cell of my riddled body. Reeling from
shock, I stumbled out of the cockpit. I knew that I was walking around in a
daze, but seemed unable to stop. Then I heard the sound of voices and
automobiles. I could tell they were getting closer, but the noises seemed
almost in another world.
Voices...hands gripping me gently...an ambulance. They put me on a cot
and rolled me inside the metallic cavern, then we sped away. I could hear
the shrieking siren.
Something smelled horrible, like burnt hair. My own flesh! "It's my own
seared skin!" My stomach retched at the thought.
Then I remembered the leather jacket, Pat's gift, that I had been
wearing. I could see that it was still on me, but shrunk to a frazzle. I
felt unbearable pain in my face and hands, but there was no pain
underneath the jacket.
"Good ole Pat!" The thought ran zig-zagged through my mind.
"Pat!" The leather jacket reminded me of her. I knew I had to talk to
her. I had to keep her from becoming panicked. The unborn baby
inside of her was too important to both of us.
I was nearly delirious from the unending torment by the time the
ambulance backed up to the tiny Chester hospital. A doctor ran
toward me. He wanted to administer an injection of pain-killer and
sedative at once.
"No!" I screamed. "I've gotta call Pat. Get away from me!"
I knew the drugs would knock me out. I struggled to get to a telephone.
"I've gotta talk to her...Hello, Pat? Pat...I love you, an'...no...everything's
all right. I...just had a little accident at the strip, that's all...an' the doctor,
uh, he wants me to stay here a few days...it's not bad at all...but, can
you fly up here and join me? I wanna see you real bad...okay?"
I remember hanging up the phone. Then came the shot. What I also remember are the doctor's words as my mind
whirred into unconsciousness: "There isn't anything we can do for that man!"
By the next morning the newspapers were already carrying the story: "Don Garlits, a top drag racer from Tampa,
was burned last evening in a fiery accident near Chester, South Carolina!"
Pat arrived. She walked into my room expecting to see me bright and cheerful, just as I had tried to appear over the
telephone. Instead of being propped up reading Hot Rod or Sports Illustrated, I was a mess.
My wife almost went into shock. I had third degree burns on my face (except around my eyes where my goggles had
protected me), my neck, hands, legs and arms. I was soaked with ointment and completely swathed with bandages.
Only my nose was exposed, and it looked like a charred marshmallow. There were bottles of fluid tapped into my
bandaged arms, my burns were oozing fluid, and the entire room reeked with an unbelievably offensive smell.
When Pat regained her composure, she quickly called my mother, who quickly began the drive up from Tampa at
breakneck speed. By this time I was listed in critical condition. It was looking bleak.
There were no motels or hotels in Chester, so Pat had to make-do with a cot in my room until she found better
accommodations. When my mother arrived, both Mom and Pat found hospitable homes in which to stay.
The hospital was small and understaffed, so Pat and Mother were expected to take turns caring for me. They had to
make sure I drank liquids every hour, an almost impossible task since my lips were burnt away. They'd have to dip a
swab around my mouth to open up the cracked facial skin before I could take any liquid. Even then a spoon or straw
touching my mouth sent excruciating pain through my nerves.
The odor was the worst part of it, especially for Pat, since she was already suffering from daily bouts of morning
They couldn't wash me, so I smelled worse everyday, like putrid rottenness. The burns oozed fluids continually. It
was a nauseous, pathetic, unending mess.
But the greatest danger was unseen. The great overload of body waste gener-
ally handled by normal skin was diverted to my kidneys. For many, those
organs cannot handle the wastes and simply stop working. This often happens
even after the patient seems on the road to recovery. When the organs stop
working, death comes quickly. That is what happened in 1964 to Glenn
"Fireball" Roberts, the legendary stock car driver who grew up near my child-
hood home, and after a horrifying, fiery crash at the World 600 near Charlotte,
just miles away from my crash in Chester. In Fireball's case it looked as if the
athletic driver was going to beat all odds and pull through, but 36 days later,
the poisoning raced through his body and he slipped into a coma, never to
In addition to the potentially life-threatening problem with my kidneys and
poisons flowing through my body, the doctors were very considered about my
hands, especially the left one that had gripped the hand brake when the
flames exploded over me.
One morning my doctor walked into the room. By then some of the bandages
had been removed from my face, so at least I could see and mumble.
"Mr. Garlits," he began, "I've got some bad news for you."
Frankly, I couldn't help but wonder, "What could be bad news after all I've already been through?"
|1959...Big Daddy's new
supercharged Swamp Rat...
before the fateful drag race
in Chester, South Carolina.
|Fireball Roberts was NASCAR's
best-known driver in the 1950's
and '60's. A fiery crash at
Charlotte's 1964 World 600
tragically ended his career.