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