NHRA Legend ‘Big Daddy’ Gives Advice To Aspiring Drag Racers, More

In the first two parts of this interview series with drag-racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, now 91, we covered a lot of ground, including his racing in the colorful sixties and seventies, breaking the 200-mph barrier for the first time, his 1970 accident which changed the design of dragsters, his epitaph and more. Here, in this final part, Garlits gives advice to aspiring young racers, discusses his drag-racing museum in Ocala, Florida, dissects his own fears and more. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation this past week.

Jim Clash: You’ve put together a famous museum for drag-racing, correct?

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits: Don Garlits Museum Of Drag Racing, on Interstate 75, just outside of Ocala [Florida], exit 341. The museum has been in existence for 46 years, 40 at this location and six in Seffner [Florida]. So many cars pass us, over a quarter million in 24 hours, that we are bound to get some visitors. People come from all over the world to see 65,000 square-feet of show area. We started with 15,000, and have expanded quite a bit. We’re open every day, except Christmas and Thanksgiving, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Come early, as there is so much to see. We have the largest collection of Prudhomme cars, and of Shirley Muldowney’s. We have Tom McEwen’s Coors Funny Car. We even have the very first dragster driven down a dragstrip. And, naturally, we display all of my cars. We’ve tried to gather all of the vehicles that contributed to the history of this sport.

Clash: I know you’ve been working on bringing electric vehicles into drag racing. They race quiet. Mario Andretti once told me that electric will never catch on in motorsports because fans want to hear the roar of the engines.

Garlits: I do think there is a place for electric dragsters. It’s true, the fans want to hear the sounds. But the fans also would like to see an electric car. Every time I show up with mine, plenty of people come over and watch me test it. I call my car “the quiet one.” Fans can come up close while its running, and it doesn’t hurt anyone. My goal is to go 215 mph. My best so far is 189 mph. The loud cars will always be there, for sure, but I think there’s a spot for electric vehicles, too.

Maple Grove Race Photo by Bill Uhrich 10/10/2010Darrell Gwynn takes a run down the quarter-mile in … [+] his specially outfitted electric dragster. (Photo By Bill Uhrich/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Clash: You eventually ran over 300 mph, in 2003, at like, 70 years of age. How was that run compared to 200 mph in the 1960s?

Garlits: I had been out of drag racing for many years, was on television as a color commentator. An old friend, Chris Karamesines, called and said that I should get one of my old cars out of the museum, put new stuff in it, and run 300 mph before I got too old. I took the Swamp Rat 34, built in 1993, and refitted it with new motors and clutches, and went 323.04 mph, at Gainesville! It was a thrill. In the old days, when I broke the 200-mph record, you drove the thing all the way down to the traps. In a 300-mph car, all of your driving is done to the eighth mile. At that point, the car has to be lined up perfectly. You’ve got a long front end, so you can see where it’s pointed. If it’s not pointed in exactly the right direction, you have to abort the run. I’ll never forget once I was racing a competitor, and it wasn’t quite lined up at the eighth mile. But I was ahead, so I thought I would just correct it. It clipped the lights and ruined a $2,500 wing. My wife came down right away and said, “I could see it wasn’t lined up at the eighth mile [laughs].”

Clash: What’s your advice to young, aspiring drag racers?

Garlits: It’s a long ways to the top, and you have to start at the bottom. Get a job on one of the teams, washing oil pans and stuff, work your way up. Once you’ve learned everything about the engines and cars, go to drag-racing school – Frank Hawley is an excellent teacher that I know personally. He has a famous school [Gainesville, Florida]. Then get your competition license. If you’re good enough, somebody will hire you to drive.

Clash: What’s your greatest fear, and how do you deal with it?

Garlits: That something happens to this great country of ours. There is so much emphasis put on things that are not important, and not enough on the important things that affect the well-being of this country, the culture. I don’t know what to do about it, except prepare myself for the worst. The banks that we have upside-down now, that scares me. But I never feared anything with the car, and I always did the best I could for sponsors. Even though I didn’t always win, I put a nice image out there for them.

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 27: Former race car driver Don Garlits signs autographs at the Great Sports … [+] Legends Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria September 27, 2005 in New York City. The event honors sports legends for their great athletic achievement and has raised more than 25 million dollars for spinal cord injury research at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for The Miami Project)


Clash: Tell me something few people know about you.

Garlits: I’m an accountant by trade, have a degree in it. Three months into my job, my stepfather could tell I wasn’t happy. I gave notice to Maas Brothers department store, and went to work in a radiator shop. My mother was mad, my girlfriend never spoke to me again. “You quit your job to work at a stinking radiator shop [laughs]?” I’m also an avid reader because my father was. I know a lot about the economy, the banking system. I’ve studied archaeology. These hobbies have nothing to do with drag racing, and they’re an unusual side of me that most people don’t know about.