Drag racing legend ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still as competitive as ever at 87 years old

Toyota Racing
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Even though he’s now 87 years old, the lure of strapping himself into an 11,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragster still courses through the veins of legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

One of the greatest innovators in drag racing history, not to mention a 17-time national champion (10 in the American Hot Rod Association, four in the International Hot Rod Association and three in the NHRA), Garlits had a chance to relive some of his past glory during this past weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

First was a return to racing. Piloting identically prepared Toyota Camrys, Garlits lost to Shirley Muldowney in the first round of NHRA’s “Unfinished Business” race-within-a-race. Still, “Big Daddy” had a ball.

“You’re never too old to have fun, you never lose your competitiveness,” Garlits told NBC Sports. “We all still want to win. I’ll probably never hear the end of it from Shirley.”

But it was on the following day that Garlits really got pumped up.

Familiar territory: Don Garlits warms up Antron Brown’s 11,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragster this past weekend in Gainesville, Fla. (Photo: Toyota Racing)

The Ocala, Fla. resident (he owns and operates the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing there) climbed into the Top Fuel dragster of Antron Brown and fired it up in the pits Saturday afternoon.

While Garlits didn’t take the car for a spin down the quarter-mile, he was definitely in his element when he turned the ignition over.

Oh man, it just got my adrenaline going,” Garlits said. “I was like, ok, I’m ready to go to the starting line with this son of a gun! This is my life. This is me.”

Garlits, who has kept himself busy in recent years operating his museum, as well as working on becoming the first driver to surpass 200 mph in a battery-powered dragster, admired the state-of-the-art technology in Brown’s dragster, knowing he was one of the sport’s leading safety developers and proponents during his racing career.

Things have changed a lot,” Garlits said. “I introduced the first cockpit in 1986 and they thought I was crazy. They weren’t like they are today and I’d like to see them made mandatory and just give the driver a little extra protection.”

Brown, a three-time Top Fuel champion for Don Schumacher Racing, extended the invitation to Garlits — they’ve known each other for more than 30 years — to warm up his dragster in the pits. In fact, it was Garlits who inspired Brown to become a professional drag racer.

I remember being at Englishtown (New Jersey) when I was about 10 years old and Big Daddy flipped his car over and I went back to his pit area and he wasn’t scared or defeated,” Brown recalled. “He actually had words of encouragement for his team, telling them they had to get that car back down to Florida.

Antron Brown. Photo: NHRA.

That year he went on to win the championship. It’s amazing to see a man like that with the determination, vigor and integrity and have all the moral values to be not only a great champion, but a great human being. That’s Big Daddy Don Garlits.

He’s always been a hero to me and to call him not just a hero, but a friend is pretty awesome. He calls me from time-to-time and I’ll call him from time-to-time. We talk about family, not about racing, not about the old times or what’s going on now, just about family and how he’s doing. It’s pretty incredible to have that type of a relationship with somebody like that.

I’m pretty close with Big Daddy Don Garlits, Don ‘the Snake” Prudhomme, Joe Amato, Terry Vance, Shirley Muldowney (all who competed in “Unfinished Business” at Gainesville), just so many people that have paved the way for our sport to be what it is.

I really wish we could reverse time and put them in our cars so we could race them. The Snake (turns 78 on April 6) still talks a lot of trash like he used to when he was racing. I’d like to get him back in a car just for one race. I know he could do it.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.