Thrills, triumphs and tragedies by the Drag Racing legend and
MyBestYears.com eColumnist "Big Daddy" Don Garlits
(Limited Quantity...Inaugural Printing)
The volatile, acrid-smelling combination of exploding fuel and pungent rubber sweeps
through the spot-lit starting area of the Nationals dragstrip. My nostrils twitch even at such
an old familiar odor.
I'm strapped into my "Swamp Rat" Top Fuel Pro Dragster. My mind, racing with adrenalin,
seems to shift everything into a deliberate, slow-motion sequence.
All of my senses focus on the race. A crew member ignites the engine wiht a portable
starter motor, and it's as if the powerful, throbbing Dodge "Hemi" electrifies ever cell
throughout my seated, crouched body.
Few people realize the high pressure involved. The power of
concentration is all-important.
My insides are churning—have been all week. Now the moment has
arrived. I've won each race this weekend until now. But that's all
forgotten. This race decides the championship. This is it. I must win!
From up in the grandstands, my dragster looks like a sleek, low-
slung machine—extending from the needle-nose front to the huge
seventeen-inch-wide rear tires and inverted four-foot-wide wing
stanchioned over the massive engine.
This is what the crowd came to see, all the denim-clad
guys and T-shirted blondes and sunburnt kids and Ivy-
Some of them are yelling "Big Daddy! Go, Big Daddy!"
Some are screaming my competitor's name. All of them
have risen. But I don't see them. I don't hear them.
I have but one chance. This is it!
I ease the rumbling monster forward into the "bleach box" area just
behind the starting line. Ordinary water poured into the concreat
"dip" helps spin and smoke my tires during the "burn-out."
Then, like an anxious fighter shadow boxing in a steamy, crowd-
surrounded ring, I jerk my clutch foot out and jam the throttle for an
instant. For 200 feet my dragster is surrounded in a billowing cloud
of crowd-pleasing smoke and shrieking orange-red tongues of
I might have made a good boxer if I hadn't become a
drag racer. there are a lot of similarities.
I always liked Muhammed Ali. He was the brash young
Cassius Clay standing up in front of the television
cameras telling everybody what he was going to do,
then the skinny kid stepped into the ring against the
mammoth Sonny Liston and decked him.
As a more experienced boxer, he proved to the world
that he was a champion by standing toe-to-toe with
"Smokin'" Joe Frazier.
The difference between Ali and a lot of "also-rans" is
that he backed up what he said. And he kept backing it
Just as with the fighter's deft jabs and stage antics, my now-famous
burn-out is more than mere showmanship. The screaming tires lay
a path of burnt rubber on the high-traction track surface.
With a crew member guiding me, I back the dragster as nearly as
possible along the swarthy path of rubber particles created by my
smoky burn-out. When I do roar down the track for real in a
moment, the soft tire surface and gummy track deposits will stick
together like a bonded, resinous glue.
Everything, every intricate detail, is a precise science for a top fuel
dragster. Even adding that extra little bite at the starting line can
mean the difference between winning thousands or losing
thousands (or more, especially in terms of sponsorships).
What makes a champion like Muhammad Ali? What
about the other sports, too? What has set apart "Dr. J"
or Michael Jordan in basketball? What made "King
Richard" Petty or Dale Earnhardt such winners in
NASCAR racing? Or A. J. Foyt and the Unsers in Indy-
Has it always been raw talent or polished skill? Brashness or just better goal-setting? That "extra
something" or just extra work?
What makes the difference between a "Big Daddy" who wins more than a hundred national and
world championships and another dragracer who loses with almost identical equipment?
I inch toward the starting line. My opponent and I exchange helmeted glances. I make a final check of my gauges. oil...
tranny pressure...water temperature...
It's like being in the eye of the hurricane. No one can describe the moment of total concentration as my engine
pulsates, poised for the explosive streak down the narrow black strip.
I sit revvying the "hemi," keeping the plugs clear. My tense, trigger-like impatience grows.
I've seen pictures of myself at the starting line—closeups of the final micro-seconds as the
Christmas-tree starting lights flicker.
That moment of confrontation on the dragstrip starting line is like the scene from Rocky III when
Sylvester Stallone stands jaw to jaw with the glowering "Mr. T," then without blinking, he bellows his
gravelly taunt, "GO FOR IT!"
That moment in the movies gives me chills. That's exactly what I've been doing for decades.
In a fight, in a race, there are no soft alternatives. It's face to face. One must win before it's all over,
and one must go down in disgusting defeat.
The start! It's that awfu mini-fraction of a second when—still in slow motion—all my nerves and muscles are plunged
In what seems like an hour, my feet thrust down on the throttle and off the clutch.
In those pictures of me at the starting line, I appear to be grimacing as I'm enveloped by a screaming
machine and smothered by charcoal thunderclouds.
It's not fear. If I were afraid, I'd certainly not get out there pinned by a three "G," twenty-five hundred
horsepower thrust that catapults me in just a few seconds to over three hundred miles an hour.
I'm not distrustful of my machine, even though I'm honest enough to know that at any moment I could
be locked into a chain-of-events death ride. It has happened too many times not to know the
Mostly, I am oblivious to everything except the slow motion sequence being unfolded inside my
personal "eye of the hurricane."
About two hundred feet out, less than a second from the start, I nail the accelerator, always listening acutely for any
shakes. If I must abort, I have a kill switch to instantly cut off the magneto.
But not this time.
I punch my shift button at 600 hundred feet, and the semi-automatic, two-speed transmission shifts like metalized
lightning. By the time, my rail "fueler" has become an eerie, sword-like rocket. The inverted wing exerts a downward air
pressure of fifteen-hundred pounds near the end of the quarter-mile.
I guess many people think that all it takes to be a perennial world champion drag racer is to "Go for
it" and grit my teeth for just a few seconds.
It's a little more complicated than that. It always has been.
Suddenly, it's all over!
I pop the Simpson parachute, then hit the kill switch and fuel shutoff.
Just as turbulent as the take-off, I'm hit with a four "G" force as the chute opens. There's a difference, of course. A
tremendous release floods through my mind and body as I push the dual disc brakes. It takes almost as much distance
to stop as the quarter-mile I've raced.
There's so much more to it than smoking tires, driving a straight line for four-hundred and forty
years, releasing the parachute, and coasting to a stop.
Low ET (Elapsed Time) and top speed again. Nothing tastes as sweet as the heady thrill of winning the big ones.
I've often wondered what people would think of me if they knew the real story, not just the great
awards and worldwide attention.
Sure, I've had some of the most incredible, exhilarating moments in this wild sport of drag racing.
Ah! Now the big moment approaches. A crew member hooks the cable from the Dodge tow truck to the front of my
dragster. I know that it will be a slow ride to the pit area. Too many people are mililng about the truck and my "Swamp
Rat," yelling "`Way to go, Big Daddy!"
I wave back and struggle to slide my helmet off. The victory speeches and trophy presentations can waith. I want to
savor the moment with people bustling around.
It's always been that way. Victory is intoxicating and exciting to me. I never get tired of knowing that
It was that way even back in 1953 when I built the `27 T dragster and finally edged my nemesis,
"King" Hogan, the hottest driver in Florida. And that same year I won the National Hot Road
Association-sanctioned "Drag Safari" in Lake City, Florida. Wow! I knew there could be no greater
I was wrong.
There would be so many "firsts"—my first world record in 1957, the first drag driver to break the 200
MPH barrier in 1964, and more.
I could never forget one of the most beautiful, cocky moments of my life, the 1967 victory when I won
my second NHRA Indy "Nationals" title and cracked the magical six-seconds barrier (I'd earlier made
the proclamation not to shave until I broke the "six"). The crowd had gone wild, breaking down
fences and surging around to touch the dragster. In the pandemonium that broke loose, the fans
stole the Christmas tree starting lights (as a football crowd might haul off the goalposts after a
championship game). Then, before a national television audience, I jumped up onto the hood of the
tow truck, grabbed an offered can of shaving cream, squirted the white foam on my face, called for a
razor, and deliberately began shaving off that then-famous beard. The crowd went crazy, roaring
Moments like that only come once in a lifetime.
But there have been other incredible experiences, too, like when I was named the "Drag Racer of
the Decade" by Popular Hot Rodding Magazine in 1971, and when I was selected for entry into the
Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.
Other moments have been just as exciting. That same year when I made the Hall of Fame, I was also
picked to race "Cha Cha" Muldowney in a Top Fuel showdown on the CBS "Challenge of the Sexes."
The Orange County International Dragway reverberated as the challenge rose to a tense pitch, but I
beat her in the best-of-three series.
Every year since then has brought new exciting moments, new victories, new opportunities.
I'm back at the pit area. The Nationals trophy presentation is just ahead. I'm joined by Pat, my pretty brunette wife for
over four decades. The crowd swells around us.
But among those incredible moments, there have been the horrible, grisly, lethal times, too.
There have been so many times when I should have quit, when I should have died, when I should
have been just another faceless statistic underneath a crumpled blanket alongside the asphalt.
The trophy has the same shiny gleam as so many others I've received. The speeches are pretty much the same each
time. The cheers resound around the stand like before. All of my senses are assaulted by the pleasant familiarity of
But I never, never get over the indescribable thrill of winning. I never want to forget where I came from, or the arduous
trail I've had to trek to become a champion. I never want the incredible moments to end.
People see "Big Daddy" as "The King of the Drag Racers" smashing speed barriers and holding up
shimmering trophies in front of cheering audiences.
I guess it's time that they see the other parts, too.
The real story is that I've lived in a topsy-turvy world filled with more grand moments than most. But
I've also been through an abnormal, chilling number of close calls, too.
And those near-fatal times began long before I ever heard of drag racing, long before anyone had
ever heard of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.
Even more than the victories, it has always been the close calls that I've remembered most.
Really, the close calls are more my story than the victories. And there have been plenty...