On another occasion, in a Houston parking lot, when he was working under his truck, the jack slipped and the truck pinned his head to the pavement—Garlits can still recall hearing the crunch—resulting in a concussion. And then there was that broken back when his dragster's parachute failed to open and the car landed on a railroad track beyond the end of the strip. And the ruptured bladder caused by the sudden jerk of the seat-belts when the chute did open another time; that injury led to uremic poisoning a few hundred miles later.
The litany of hairbreadth escapes goes on, including his near drowning when a snapped axle threw his tow truck into a canal, and a highway flip when he and Pat were creamed from behind by a drunk driver. By now you would think Big Daddy would shun cars—and race cars in particular—but his love for fast machines is as compelling as ever.
Garlits's first rod was a '40 Ford convertible. He stuffed a big Cadillac V-8 under the hood, painted the body metallic maroon and was doing just fine when along came an 18-year-old girl from Kentucky named Pat Bieger. You knew it was love when Garlits sold the hot ragtop and bought a standard '50 Ford sedan. He got a job at the American Can Company. He took up bowling. He even learned to dance.
Don and Pat got married within a year. And then one Sunday they were out for a drive and "inadvertently" passed the Lake Wales Drag Strip. Uh-huh. The couple pulled in, "intending only to watch." Right. By the end of the day Big Daddy had won his first trophy. "It was just a little eight-inch plastic thing with a gold angel standing on the top of it," he says. "But I thought I'd won the whole world."
That would come soon enough.
Garlits's first record-setting dragster was the seminal Swamp Rat 1, which carried him to 176.4 mph in 1957. The secret to that machine's velocity was its fat fuel lines—more fuel! more speed!—concealed from copycat competitors by the frame rails. Seven years later he was the first driver to break 200, in Swamp Rat 6, a "slingshot" car in which the driver was hung out behind the rear axle, his legs straddling the differential housing. In 1971, from his hospital bed, where he ended up after that explosion that had claimed part of his foot, Garlits designed Swamp Rat 14; it was rear-engined to better protect the driver, and it revolutionized the sport. Swamp Rat 22 carried Big Daddy through the 250-mph barrier in 1975. Along the way, Garlits developed the fire-resistant driving suit—more gas! more speed! more danger!—an "aluminized spacesuit-looking thing." But it was fitting that Big Daddy looked as if he came from outer space, because many of his rivals already figured that was the case.
Over the years and through the stories, some of Garlits's original thinking has seemed to teeter on the brink of madness. He has always been smart; his father taught him to read and write before he started school. Today his library, much of it handed down from his father, includes a large section on the supernatural. "I'm into the flying saucers deal," he says. "You know, it's an ego trip and a half to think that life on earth is all there is in the universe."
He's also into Star Trek, Albert Einstein (a photo of Big Thinker sits on a shelf in Big Daddy's museum office over the inscription "Imagination is more important than knowledge") and economics—Big Daddy's frugality is legend on the drag-racing circuit. On a table in the library rests At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor
, while on a desk in the living room lies Total Recall, a how-to book on photographic memory. Nearby is a tabloid exclaiming DRUNKEN MORTICIAN CREMATES SLEEPING JANITOR BY MISTAKE. Big Daddy is not an easy man to pigeonhole.
And, of course, there's his very orthodox belief in God. According to Garlits, the GOD IS LOVE painted inside a big crucifix on the fuselage of his dragster has cost him millions, because he has had to turn down sponsorship offers that were contingent on his playing down the religious message, which he will not do. Nor will Garlits accept sponsorship from beer or tobacco companies. He takes Big Daddyhood very seriously. (By the way, the name, coined by a track announcer in 1962, is a registered trademark.)
The idea of displaying the cross on his dragster came to Garlits one night in 1978 after he had just completed building Swamp Rat 24. "I was looking at it, and all of a sudden I just envisioned a cross on the cowl," he says. He decided it would be a good way to give God recognition for all the times He had spared Big Daddy—"Links of a supernatural chain," he says. In two years of campaigning Swamp Rat 24, Garlits won 24 of 30 events, which makes it the most successful Fueler in history.