All photos courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still chasing drag racing records, more innovation at 86

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At 86 years old, legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has found the fountain of youth:

Batteries.

No, we’re not talking about batteries for a heart pacemaker or the kind you put in your TV remote control.

Rather, the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history is still attacking the quarter-mile just like he did when he got into the sport more than six decades ago.

The difference for the Ocala, Florida, resident is rather than using nitromethane, which powers the Top Fuel dragsters he used to drive to countless wins and championships, Garlits is now piloting dragsters that are battery powered.

Or as many refer to them as “electric dragsters.”

Garlits has been working on electric dragsters for about four years now, and he’s just as competitive now as he was back in his hey-day.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is still going fast at the age of 86. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

He holds the world record for electric dragsters at 185.6 mph at 7.25 seconds. He actually has gone quicker – 7.05 seconds – but it was not recognized as a record.

Garlits has done all that with a former Top Fuel dragster that was converted to battery power. He calls it Swamp Rat 37, which continues the long line of innovations and technological advancements that Garlits has been know for his whole career.

“It’s all batteries now,” Garlits said when interviewed by MotorSportsTalk recently at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

MORE: ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, sets yet another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

The electric dragsters have definitely helped “Big Daddy” in many ways, but most notable is his look and demeanor. He could easily pass for early-to-mid 60s, and his drive and desire to be the best pioneer of the battery-powered cars is just like it was when he was racing in Top Fuel.

“I feel good, real good,” Garlits said. “Well, of course, developing the electric dragster has been a big part of that.

“A man doesn’t really go to seed, so to speak, until he has nothing to do. You’ve gotta have goals, no matter how old you are.

“It’s as important to exercise your mind as it is to exercise your body, because your mind can get stiff and out of whack, too.”

At an age where most individuals would be enjoying retirement to the fullest, Garlits refuses to retire. Instead, he keeps busy with a schedule that someone half his age would have a hard time keeping up with.

In addition to constant tinkering on his electric dragster – with the goal of becoming the first person to break the 200 mph barrier – he also spends every day (except when he’s traveling on business) at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, which he founded in 1976.

And then there’s his latest project.

“Now I’m building Swamp Rat 38 that is designed around all that I’ve learned about electronic dragsters over the last four years,” Garlits said. “My goal is to reach 200 mph on batteries and to have a car that’s consistent and simple to operate so that a group of people can have dragsters and not cost a fortune to do it. It’s not very expensive.

“It’s going to take about 1,300 to 1,400 horsepower in about a 1,500 pound car. And I have the electric motor to do that.”

Garlits’ milestones in drag racing history are truly legendary. He was the first Top Fuel racer to break speed barriers of 170 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph – all in the quarter-mile – as well as was the first driver to exceed 200 mph in the one-eighth-mile.

Each of those milestones came because Garlits has spent his entire life tinkering, tweaking and strategizing. He got his mechanical curiosity from his father, an engineer for Westinghouse, who was on a team that invented a number of significant appliances, including the electric fan and the electric iron.

“That’s one reason I’ve gotten so excited about this electric dragster is because those genes are coming out,” Garlits said with a laugh.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits back in the early stages of his drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

But seriously, innovation and the desire to never give up and always strive to be the best has been Garlits’ mantra since he first started drag racing in the late 1950s.

“The biggest difference in drag racing today vs. my era in Top Fuel is definitely the cost,” Garlits said. “I’ll never forget when I showed up at Bakersfield (California) with my car, Swamp Rat 1, in 1959 for the U.S. Fuel and Gas championships, the first real big drag race in the world.

“The total price of my car and the trailer it was on cost less than $1,000 to make. Nitro was $1.50 per gallon and it used less than a gallon per run. That’s all the cost there was. I ran a whole year on the same engine, same clutch, same tires, same everything. It was very inexpensive.

“That’s why drag racing appealed back then to so many youngsters because it was something they could dream about and actually do. Now, they’ve made this maybe as expensive as NASCAR and other types of racing.

The Swamp Rat that started it all for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Swamp Rat 1. Photo: Museum of Drag Racing.

“The biggest cost was the engine. It came out of a wrecking yard and out of a ’57 Chrysler. It cost $450 bucks. The chassis was out of a ’31 Chevrolet and I just used the side rails, that was $35. And then the rear end out of an old Ford was $10, and the transmission and front wheels, everything was out of wrecking yards – and you made it yourself.”

Electric dragsters today are among the least expensive vehicles in motorsports, Garlits said.

“It’s probably $150,000 to get to the track with the car and truck, but that’s the last of the big costs,” Garlits said. “It costs about 7 or 8 cents a run after that.

“That’s compared to some of the Top Fuel dragster runs today, where it can cost up to $25,000 per run. Nobody can afford that.”

Garlits was forced to retire from racing in 1992 – at the age of 60 – due to a detached retina in his eye. He made two brief comebacks in 1998 and again in 2003, attaining a personal best of 323 mph in 4.7 seconds (on a quarter-mile, before NHRA scaled back Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to 1,000-foot lanes).

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

While Top Fuel dragsters are routinely hitting 330 mph and faster these days, Garlits demurs when asked if he’d like to pilot one of the current nitro dragsters.

“I wouldn’t jump into one of the 300-plus mph cars today, it’s too hard on your body,” he said. “You get hit with 8 Gs when you step on it and that’s instant, and that hurts you when you get up to my age.”

But, he adds with a caveat and another smile on his face, “Our bones and joints are not as good as they used to be – but I’d love it if I could.”

There are only a handful of electric dragsters in competition today, but Garlits is optimistic that current numbers will continue to grow. While electric drag racing is overseen by the National Electric Drag Racing Association, Garlits has had talks with the National Hot Rod Association about potential exhibition runs in the future.

But that’s just part of it.

Even though he’ll turn 87 in January, Garlits wants to get back to racing competitively in a structured series or league. It’s just a matter of having more cars out there.

“Oh yeah, I’d get right back in it,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I’m pioneering this, because I’m trying to get it going.

“Right now, there’s about four teams all fighting to reach 200 mph first, and there’s a couple of teams in Europe. We’re all taking different approaches and one of us is going to come up with the best idea, which is the most feasible, the least expensive and the one that gets the job done – and that’s the way the dragster will probably go.”

The biggest obstacle to electric dragsters continues to be consistency, particularly of the batteries that power them. Remember, these four-wheeled beasts do not run on conventional fuel, just the power produced by the batteries.

But Garlits is optimistic that further technical advances will soon come faster and more frequent, adding that “I’m in a totally different battery than what I started with. The technology in four years has leapfrogged.”

Another exmple of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits back during the most successful part of his lengthy drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

In addition to trying to get the NHRA onboard when it comes to promoting and exhibiting electric dragsters, Garlits has also had discussions with noted innovator/entrepreneur Elon Musk and Tesla.

“The most important technology that I’m paying attention to and I’m trying to get them involved with my team is Tesla, because they have some nice induction motors that make 450 horsepower, and they’re small,” Garlits said. “I could put four of them in my car and I might be better off than one motor in my car. That would not only give me 1,800 horses, but also maybe 230 mph. I’m really trying to convince (Tesla to get involved with him).”

When asked what has been the greatest accomplishment of his career, Garlits is quick to answer.

“Building the revolutionary championship-winning rear-engine dragster,” he said. “There had been rear-engine dragsters, but they didn’t do well. This put the driver out-front of the motor where they were safer.”

Ironically, it was an incident on March 8, 1970 at fabled Lions Dragway in Long Beach, California, one of the worst of Garlits’ career, when the transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded, ultimately costing Garlits part of his right foot, as well as saw a spectator also injured.

 

But a lot of good came out of the incident, as well. While recuperating in a nearby hospital, Garlits came up with the rear-engine dragster, which revolutionized the sport.

“They had killed, I think it was six people in about a two-to-three year people prior to my big accident in Long Beach,” he said. “And they haven’t killed six since in the last 47 years.

“I’m also very proud of the Drag Racing Museum, where I’ve captured the history of the sport all the way back to the 40s’ and have all these artifacts before they became collectibles.

“Everybody laughed at me when I started the Museum in 1976 because you could go to a guy’s garage and he’d give you all that stuff, they were just trying to get rid of it, and today it’s worth a fortune. We don’t sell anything and we’ve got it there for future generations as a non-profit, so my family isn’t going to be selling anything. It’s there for America.”

And right there smack dab in the middle of all of it is the man and the legend, Big Daddy.

When asked what his life is like these days, given everything that keeps him busy, he looks straight at the questioner, broadly smiles and says matter-of-factly, “I’m having more fun right now than I ever had in my entire life, if you can believe that.”

Yes, Don, we can believe it. And with you leading the charge, that 200 mph barrier will soon be broken.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar recap: Honda Indy Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
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Street races for the Verizon IndyCar Series can often be affected by chaos, with the close quarters and “concrete canyons” often taking their toll on the IndyCar drivers and their machinery.

And the streets of Toronto, a venue notoriously rough of equipment, even in comparison to other street courses, was no different on Sunday.

The Honda Indy Toronto most certainly threw a wrench into the championship equation, as Scott Dixon’s victory combined with troubles from his rivals to see him increase his points lead to 64 points, but his win and the championship implications were certainly not the only stories of note on Sunday.

A look at other stories to emerge from Toronto are below.

Toronto Takes a Bite of IndyCar

A combination of tight city streets, hot temperatures, and a lot of rubble marbles wreak havoc on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

Toronto is infamous as a venue that produces close quarters and often lots of contact between drivers, and Sunday’s race was no different.

And Toronto did not discriminate either, attacking veterans and young guns alike. Sebastien Bourdais (four-time champion, two-time Toronto winner) and spun and backed into the Turn 1 tire barrier. Ryan Hunter-Reay (former champion, Indy 500 winner, and 2012 Toronto winner) nosed into the Turn 3 tire barrier after locking up the brakes.

Josef Newgarden (defending IndyCar champion and 2017 Toronto winner) and Will Power (2014 IndyCar champion, this year’s Indy 500 winner, and a two-time Toronto winner) both clouted the wall exiting the final corner.

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indy 500 winner and a winner from this year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach) suffered two damaged front wings and made six pit stops on the day. And rookie Rene Binder spun and stalled in Turn 8.

Indeed, Toronto was its usual carnage-filled self. But it wasn’t only because of the tightly packed circuit. Sunday’s race was also contested in hot and slick conditions, with tire marbles and dust also prominent from the outset.

Newgarden particularly highlighted the marbles and dust when describing his contact with the Turn 11 wall.

“It was a tough race. Making contact with the wall didn’t help. I don’t know what it was to be honest with you, it was either marbles or dust from the sweepers; they’re trying to clean off the track and that yellow, when we already had tons of marbles 27 laps in,” he explained.

Even race winner Dixon bumped the wall once exiting Turn 1. While he didn’t suffer damage, he also noted how tricky the conditions were, and revealed just how exhausting the day was.

“I’m worn out, man, that was a physical race,” he detailed. “It was definitely easy to pick up lots of debris on the tires out there, and I think that’s what happened to Josef (Newgarden) on that restart where we took the lead. He tried to go a little bit fast into the last corner there in Turn 11, got into the gray and that was pretty much it.”

Indeed, the tricky conditions combined with the already difficult Toronto street circuit to create another chaotic outing north of the border.

Wickens, Hinchcliffe Give Canadian Crowd Something to Cheer About

Robert Wickens was elated to finish on the podium at his home race. Photo: IndyCar

Canadian fans are among the most enthusiast race fans you’ll ever find, and they’re particularly passionate about their homegrown heroes.

And they had plenty to cheer about on Sunday, notably in the form of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe.

Starting ninth (Hinchcliffe) and tenth (Wickens) respectively, they maneuvered their way through the chaos to run inside the top five – Wickens even used a slick move on a Lap 34 restart to go from fifth to second.

Wickens eventually finished third after battling with Simon Pagenaud, while Hinchcliffe was elevated to fourth after a late pit stop by Marco Andretti – Andretti needed a splash of fuel with one lap left.

Their results mark the third year in a row that a Canadian driver has been on the podium in Toronto (Hinchcliffe finished third in the 2016 and 2017 outings).

Wickens, who acknowledged he doesn’t typically get emotional, couldn’t help but feel a little emotion after scoring a podium finish in his home race.

“Thankfully, I’m not an overly teary guy, but that (finishing on the podium in Canada) was really cool. I can’t thank these Toronto fans enough. I mean, this whole week has been such a whirlwind of emotions, and to stand on the podium in my first professional home race, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Wickens revealed.

For Hinchcliffe, finishing fourth was just as impressive, if not more so given that he did it with a damaged car. Hinchcliffe suffered suspension damage following the Lap 34 crash in Turn 1, in which he had contact with Takuma Sato.

James Hinchcliffe overcame suspension damage to finish fourth in the Honda Indy Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“On that restart melee, we got tagged by Takuma, which I should know better than staying on the inside of him in a corner like that. I bent the toe link, and from there, it was a bit of a struggle to feel the car out and see how it was going to change with the bend in the suspension,” he detailed. “Honestly, the Arrow Electronics car was still pretty great, and in that last stint, we were chasing down the leaders. Who knows what could have been, but ultimately happy with Robbie being on the podium and two SPM cars in the top five.”

And their results paid dividends in their championship standings. Wickens now sits sixth, while Hinchcliffe is back inside the top 10 – ninth.

New Faces Grace the Top 10

Charlie Kimball was one of several new faces to finish near the front in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

Because so many of the usual suspects had trouble, some new faces graced the top 10, and even the top five, for the first time in 2018.

Charlie Kimball gave Carlin Racing its first top five by finishing fifth, his best finish since he finished sixth at Road America last year.

Tony Kanaan finished seventh for A.J. Foyt Racing, their first top 10 since Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit (Kanaan also finished seventh there).

Zach Veach finished eighth, his best result since he finished fourth at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Marco Andretti was running fourth before he pitted for a late splash of fuel – it would have been only his second top five of the year (fourth in Detroit in Race 1 is his best result of 2018).

And Jordan King just missed out on his first top 10, finishing 11th.

They all found themselves in position to capitalize as others around them faltered, and some were rewarded immensely as a result.

Misc.

  • Conor Daly deserves kudos for a strong outing after a last-minute call up from Harding Racing. He qualified 11th and ran a clean race to finish 13th. While unspectacular, Daly gave a nice account for himself as he seeks to return to IndyCar full-time.
  • A possible top five, what would have been his third in a row, got away from Takuma Sato when he smacked the wall exiting Turn 11. Combine that with Graham Rahal being involved in the Lap 34 pileup, suffering damaged suspension in the process, and it was a day to forget for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
  • Very quietly, Zachary Claman De Melo, the “other” Canadian in the field, drove another clean race to finish 14th. While it won’t garner attention like the results of his countrymen, it is another solid outing for a rookie who is still learning the ropes.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now takes a weekend off before heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN).

@KyleMLavigne