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.
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.
“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.”