‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits heading to Canada to be race grand marshal — and he’s bringing Swamp Rat with him

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It’s a well-known fact that many Canadians like to come to Florida for vacation.

Well, one of Florida’s best-known treasures will be heading north of the border soon.

Octogenarian “Big Daddy” Don Garlits – one of the most legendary names in drag racing history – will serve as Grand Marshal of the International Hot Rod Association Mopar Nitro Jam Nationals, June 20-22 at Grand Bend Motorplex (about 110 miles northeast of Detroit).

Garlits, who owns the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., has earned 17 world championships across three sanctioning bodies in his six-decade career, including four Top Fuel titles in the IHRA. He also has 144 national event wins and became the first drag racer to break several speed barriers, including 170 mph, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260 and 270 in a dragster.

“I loved racing with the IHRA. They were always really good to me,” Garlits said. “(IHRA founder) Larry Carrier was always one of my favorite guys. In fact, the largest contract I ever signed in drag racing was signed with the IHRA and Larry when I inked a contract worth $100,000. It was a great time with a lot of memories. It is really a wonderful organization and I am looking forward to being back.”

Although he likely won’t race it, Garlits is bringing one of his fabled “Swamp Rat” dragsters — he’ll likely fire it up for fans to hear its earth-pounding power and sound — with him to Grand Bend to be displayed. He’ll also be on hand to sign autographs and pose for pictures, in addition to his other Grand Marshal duties.

“I am really looking forward to the trip to Canada,” Garlits said. “It has been a long time since I have been up there and I think it will be a great event and a great time for everyone involved.”

While other drag racers his age have been long-retired, the 82-year-old Garlits continues to challenge the pavement. He recently set a world record at Bradenton (Fla.) Motorsports Park by taking his battery-powered dragster down the track at 7.258 seconds at 184.01 mph.

Garlits is hoping to break the 200 mph barrier in a lithium battery-powered car in the coming months during more test attempts. If he does smash that mark, it would come on the 50th anniversary of Garlits becoming the first driver in drag racing history to hit 200 mph in a fuel car.

“This barrier is very important to me,” Garlits said in an IHRA media release. “It has been 50 years since I broke the 200 barrier in Top Fuel and I would like to do that again this year, hopefully before the 50-year reunion celebration of that run in August.

“But more importantly, it is important to me to show the world that there is another avenue that drag racing can take that is cleaner and much less expensive allowing more people to get involved.”

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Valiant efforts from Hunter-Reay, Dixon come up just short at Road America

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Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon drove about as hard as they possibly could during Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, and they both drove nearly perfect races.

Hunter-Reay took advantage of Will Power’s engine issues on the start to immediately jump into second, and stalked pole sitter and leader Josef Newgarden from there, often staying within only a couple car lengths of his gearbox.

Dixon, meanwhile, had a tougher chore after qualifying a disappointing 12th. Further, he was starting in the same lane as Will Power, and when Power had engine issues when the green flag waved, Dixon was one of several drivers who was swamped in the aftermath.

Scott Dixon had to come from deep in the field on Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

However, as is his style, he quietly worked his way forward, running sixth after the opening round of pit stops, and then working his way up to third after the second round of stops.

It all meant that, after Lap 30, Newgarden, Hunter-Reay, and Dixon were nose-to-tail at the front, with the latter two in position to challenge for the win.

Yet, neither was able to do so. Hunter-Reay never got close enough to try to pass Newgarden, while Dixon couldn’t do so on either Hunter-Reay or Newgarden. And, neither driver went longer in their final stint – Dixon was actually the first of that group to pit, doing so on Lap 43, with Hunter-Reay and Newgarden pitting together one lap later.

And Newgarden pulled away in the final stint, winning by over three seconds, leaving Hunter-Reay and Dixon to finish second and third.

It was a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, with Hunter-Reay noting that he felt like he had enough to challenge for a win.

“I felt like we had the pace for (Newgarden), especially in the first two stints,” he asserted. “I really felt like it was going to be a really good race between us. Whether it be first, second, third, fourth stint – I didn’t know when it was going to come.”

He added that, if he could do it over again, he would have been more aggressive and tried to pass Newgarden in the opening stint.

“In hindsight, I should have pressured him a bit more in the first stint,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “We were focused on a fuel number at the time. Unfortunately that Penske fuel number comes into play, can’t really go hard.”

Dixon, meanwhile, expressed more disappointment in the result, asserting that qualifying better would have put him in a possibly race-winning position.

“I think had we started a little further up, we could have had a good shot at trying to fight for the win today,” he expressed.

The disappointment for Dixon also stems from the knowledge that his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda had the pace to win, especially longer into a run.

“The car was pretty good on the long stint,” he asserted. “I think for us the saving grace was probably the black tire stint two. We closed a hefty gap there. We were able to save fuel early in the first stint, which enabled us to go a lap longer than everybody, had the overcut for the rest of the race.

“I think speed-wise we were right there. Had a bit of a crack at Hunter-Reay on his out lap on the last stint there, but cooked it too much going into (Turn 14), got a bit loose, lost momentum. That would have been really the only chance of passing him.”

Dixon remains in the championship lead, however, by 45 points, while Hunter-Reay moved up to second, tied with Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi.