NHRA Drag Racing Royalty: Don Garlits

— “Big Daddy” Don Garlits was the first drag racer to officially surpass the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250 and 270 mile per hour marks in the 1/4-mile
— Garlits’ most important contribution to drag racing was his creation of a successful rear-engine Top Fuel car
— He is considered the all-time patriarch of Top Fuel drag racing

Born in 1932, Donald Glenn Garlits’ first real exposure to the world of hot-rodding, modifying cars for increased speed, was when he was going to high school in his home state of Florida, and taking a General Metals course. The shop teacher had brought in one of the earliest editions of Hot Rod magazine and after Don had the chance to thumb through the pages, he became “hooked” on high-performance! “He was the first adult I ever heard to defend ‘hot-rodding,’ and proved to be sincerely interested in channeling our growing interest in cars towards doing something constructive,” said Garlits, “We wore the pages out of it looking at it.”

In early 1957, the editorial offices of Hot Rod magazine received this letter from 25-year-old Don: “Dear Sirs: Enclosed is a picture of my Chrysler-powered dragster, which consistently runs below 10.5 seconds and always over 135 mph.” Garlits was making his way into serious drag racing and was making waves and getting noticed nationwide. He ventured out of the state of Florida and went up against the top names in the sport of the time. In 1958, he was starting to get calls from drag strips around the country to come and race, and to pay him money to come and race, and he was winning. It was a Michigan racer named Serop “Setto” Postoian who placed an ad in Drag News challenging him, and calling him “a swamp rat” as an insult. But Garlits grew to like the name and used it as a promotional tool!


The 1958 Swamp Rat ran a 1957 Chrysler FirePower HEMI® engine with Jahns pistons, Isky cam and valve gear, Scintilla magneto, Weiand log manifold, Schiefer clutch and flywheel, direct drive and 3.23:1 rear gears. An early shot with Don and wife Pat, with brother Ed (center), along with a crew member with the car prior to going to California in 1959 where it received a GMC supercharger.

In March of ’59, Garlits had towed out to California for that race; these West Coast meets presented the opportunity for him to race the best from California, the big guns! When Don showed up, he was immediately outclassed as the California drag cars had superchargers and superior drag slicks from M&H, and the Swamp Rat was in no position to win. The Bakersfield fans were not exactly welcoming to Don Garlits, calling him names such as “Garbage Don” and “Tampa Dan”, plus the crowd was throwing stuff at him. He left Bakersfield dejected to say the very least.


However, he quickly saved face by getting his car updated with the GMC 6-71 supercharger, plus a more powerful engine assembly (displacing 454-cid) was built using the best equipment available: Forged True pistons, a C-T Automotive stroker crank and boxed connecting rods. The decision was made to stick with the six Stromberg carbs and all this was done with help from Ed Iskendarian. Don then went over to Arizona, won the event at Kingdon, and on to Chandler, Arizona, running an 8.45 beating the Howard Cams car in the finals. That trip turned out to be a real success. After adding that supercharger to his car, Swamp Rat I, he never looked back. The HEMI engine and the new forced induction system was a major force to be reckoned with for certain. Even when Chevrolet and Ford came knocking with fistfuls of dollars, Big Daddy stood firm. “I like my Chryslers,” he said. “Money wasn’t always everything.”

In 1959, a 6-71 GMC blower sat atop that HEMI engine, and the Strombergs are gone! On March 22, Garlits dominated the competition at Chandler, Arizona, running an 8.43 elapsed time. Later, Art Malone drove that dragster for Garlits (burnt after a terrible blower explosion). Pictured is a shot of the two of them posing for the camera, note the short headers that came after the longer “weed-burners.” The Isky camshaft logo was no longer on the body of the car, as Ray Giovannoni offered Garlits $10,000 in 1960 to run one of his camshafts and markings on the body!


In April of 1962, Dodge released their “Max Wedge” 413-cid Ramcharger (with cross-ram 2×4 intake) and Don Garlits was one of the first to get one, shown here receiving the keys. The factory man in charge of racing was Frank Wylie, and he wanted Garlits to be involved in the division’s street type cars besides the dragster (which ran a HEMI engine that was not available in Dodge cars at that time). After receiving the car, Don and his wife drove it to Green Valley, Texas, for a race and it was running 3.31:1 highway gears (a set of 4.89:1 drag strip gears were brought along to be changed in Texas). A fast street car!


1962 was the year that the “Big Daddy” identification was brought into the picture, as NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge called him that name, and the Indianapolis Star newspaper picked it up. It just took off from there with great popularity!  The origins of the name came as the result of he and his wife Pat having two young girls during this time, Gay Lyn, born in 1959, with Donna coming along in 1961. 


Garlits was the winner of the 1963 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, with his Swamp Rat V-A making the cover of the Hot Rod May issue. The car featured a fiberglass wing over the engine, designed and fitted at the urging of San Diego’s Bruce Crower. He set low E.T. of the meet with an 8.11-second run.


For 1963, Don was sent an aluminum-front-end car, the stripped-down Dodge “330” model, equipped with the Max Wedge Ramcharger 426-cid powerplant and TorqueFlite® transmission. It was set up for Super Stock racing. A side project for him, however, his real focus was the fuel dragster.


“Garlits Tells All!” Spread out over 10 pages was a complete tear-down of the Garlits’ dragster in the November 1964 issue of Hot Rod. When editor Ray Brock asked Don why he’d be willing to show all his speed secrets, he responded: “It’s no fun seeing a guy in the next lane lose because he blows his engine halfway down the strip. It’s worse if the engine catches on fire and somebody gets burned. I’ve been burned badly myself and I know. I think I have the answers on how to eliminate this and I want everyone to have the message.”

The very next month, Car Craft magazine featured Garlits’ winning E.T. from INDY: 7.67. Low E.T. Big Daddy was a media superstar!

It was at Great Meadows, New Jersey, where NHRA clocks timed Garlits going 201.34 mph, and with a time of 7.78 seconds, officially the first run over 200! At Indy, he bested the competition with a final round win at 7.67 seconds at 198.22 mph. 

In 1964, the Garlits family traveled to the UK and pictured is wife Pat and young daughters Donna and Gay Lyn. The event was a joint effort between NHRA’s Wally Parks and Sydney Allard, representing the newly formed British Drag Racing Association, to produce the International Drag Festival to show British car enthusiasts what American fuel dragster racing was all about. 


Eager to always keep the Dodge factory rep happy, Garlits took on another side project in the way of Dodge Dart drag cars, one with the HEMI engine located in the rear seat area! This was circa 1965-66, with Emery Cook driving both versions. The topless Dart was in reality a Top Fuel dragster with an 18-foot fiberglass body hung on the 120-inch wheelbase chassis, fully-built blown and injected HEMI engine. It ran 200.44 mph!


“Dodge Powered” markings on the red-hued Wynn’s Charger dragster, a full-bodied car and with the new 426 HEMI engine (which had taken Don some track time in determining what that engine wanted for ignition timing as compared to the 392 Chrysler). It was Swamp Rat 10 and was campaigned in 1966, with Emery Cook driving it in ’67. Here’s what the Wynn’s press release stated: “Don Garlits, unquestioned ‘King of the Drag Strip” hopes to keep increasing top end speeds through keener driving techniques and improved mechanical performance.” 


September 2, 1968 saw Big Daddy win the NHRA U.S. Nationals, the biggest drag race of the year, beating Steve Carbone in the finals. Here Garlits is being congratulated by Hurst’s Miss Golden Shifter, Linda Vaughn, during the trophy presentation.

Tommy T.C. Lemons was Garlits’ right-hand man starting in 1968, and it was customary for him to watch Big Daddy make a run and then the two of them discussed on the top end what he saw. This was way before computers! 

TV personality Dick Smothers had become involved with drag racing and for 1969 he put together the “Smothers Brothers Racing Team” which included sponsoring Don Garlits. Here’s the car and it was much more detailed in appearance than normal for Big Daddy!   


Fram Filters ran color ads offering posters of this rendering of Swamp Rat with full-page magazine ads, $1.50 while supplies last! 

The Wynn’s “Friction Proofing” oil additive promoted Don Garlits’ dragster in national advertising campaigns in leading car publications. The name Wynn’s Charger tied in nicely with his Dodge sponsorship.

$57.50 got you a Crower Monarch racing camshaft back in 1969; and to promote this, Crower Cams & Equipment featured the 1969 Dodge Charger 500 belonging to Don Garlits, who had installed one (M-280H) in his 440-cid wedge-equipped daily driver.


March 8, 1970 was the date of this freak accident that severed part of Don’s right foot at Lion’s Drag Strip located in Long Beach, California. The car itself, Swamp Rat XIII, was built in early 1969 and was the first to successfully employ a planetary two-speed transmission. Unfortunately, the experimental ‘Garlitsdrive” transmission at that time wasn’t completely filled with lubricating oil as he was being rushed to the line, and as a result, it blew apart and nearly cut the car in half. A truly terrible day for Don Garlits and a 17-year-old boy, Tim Ditt, who was injured in the stands. Laying in the hospital bed, Garlits got busy drawing and designing a dragster with the engine located behind him!

Upcoming in Part II: For 1971, Garlits debuts his revolutionary rear-engined dragster!

Listen to this video where Don recaps some of his career highlights:

Author: James Maxwell