Toyota Racing

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

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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.”

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Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”