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: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski