‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, comes out of retirement to set another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

4 Comments

Even though he’s now 82 years old, legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits can still wheel a dragster.

Garlits on Wednesday came out of retirement to add yet another national record to the long list of accomplishments – including 17 national championships and 144 career wins – that he’s achieved in a nearly seven-decade drag racing career.

And of course, it was in the latest in a long series of Garlits’ fabled Swamp Rat dragsters – this version being Swamp Rat 37.

The first driver to break the 200 mph barrier in a gas-powered dragster (as well as 150 and 250 mph marks) in 1964, Garlits on Wednesday set the national record for an electric-powered dragster, covering the 1,000-foot racing surface at Bradenton (Fla.) Motorsports Park in 7.26 seconds at 184.01 mph.

The previous mark for an electronic car on a dragstrip was 7.95 seconds and 156.00 mph, according to National Hot Rod Association records.

Had it not been for a parachute malfunction on the record-setting run, Garlits and the rest of the Devastation Motorsports team had hoped to break the 200 mph and six-second barriers that day, according to DragRacingOnline.com.

“The team will do a teardown like any other dragster and check the motors, drivetrain, and safety equipment. We all learned a lot,” SR-37 creator, co-owner and former NHRA crew chief Mike Gerry told DragRacingOnline.com. “I think we’ll tinker with the gearing and be looking for more power control to the motors so that we have full current delivery.

“We hope we can turn it around soon for another test and record attempt. We should get 200 next time out and I think we can break into the sixes.”

What made Garlits’ efforts even more notable is this was the first time that Swamp Rat 37 – in development for two years – had ever made a complete run down a dragstrip.

Garlits’ first time behind the wheel since 2009 was to shake off the rust, covering the length of the track in 10.90 seconds at 129 mph.

The next run, Garlits proved to be even more comfortable, with a run of 8.75 seconds at 151 mph, which was followed by two runs that were aborted due to fuse issues.

On his fifth run, hitting 0-to-60 mph in less than one second, Garlits motored on to break the existing national record of 7.956 seconds at 158.85 mph with a run of 7.53 seconds at 178.42 mph.

But he still wasn’t done yet, as his final run in the 1,500 kilowatt machine (close to 2,000 horsepower) left him just 16 mph short of the 200-mph milestone.

It may not have been the 8,000 horses and sub-four second runs that are commonplace in drag racing today, but it was definitely an impressive start.

Garlits had not driven a dragster in more than a decade. He runs the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne