The keystone to Garlits's longevity and success may be his phenomenal energy. In his high school yearbook Garlits wrote that he wanted to be a greyhound, because all he would have to do is eat, sleep and chase rabbits. The metaphor fits. He once raced in Tennessee on a Sunday, towed nonstop back to his shop in Florida, spent 72 straight hours rebuilding the car, then drove nonstop to Indiana for another race. Such a pace has been common for 30 years.
The Old Man, yet one more pitside nickname, looks anything but worn out. His gray hair and reading glasses might give him away, but the body is still a wiry 5'9�" and 155 pounds, and there's a touch of mischief in his laugh, which comes without warning.
But then those deep brown eyes will drill into something, and the single-minded concentration begins. It most frequently occurs when he and Herb Parks, his crew chief, labor over the engine of his car. Frequently, an engine has to be torn down and rebuilt in the 45 minutes between rounds of racing. During such times the two work smoothly, and for the most part without conversation, like deft surgeons over a patient.
This year Garlits moved into another universe from his rivals with the introduction of Swamp Rat 30. It is a striking vehicle, outrageously original in design. The 27�-foot-long car looks like a black arrow ready to be propelled by the howling 3,000-horsepower engine mounted behind the driver's ears. Like a jet fighter, the cockpit is encased by a Lexan canopy—RAT UNDER GLASS reads a sticker on the bubble. Up front are tiny 13-inch wheels, just 26 inches apart and covered by an aerodynamic cowling. This small and slippery front end is the secret to Swamp Rat 30's speed.
Which the new Rat showed from the day Big Daddy rolled it out last March, at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. On its first run the dragster went 268.01, a whisker under Amato's record of 269.46. But there was a problem: The front wheels were fitted not with tires but with skinny Kevlar industrial machine belts. (Fan belts for tires, at 268 miles an hour. Now that's original. Now that's Big Daddy.) The problem was, the belts flew off their rims as the dragster sped through the timing lights. Garlits popped the parachute and slowed to a stop on sparking aluminum rims. It happened again on the next run, and the next.
The fact that the NHRA allowed Garlits to continue running with his fan-belt front tires is one indication of the widespread regard for Big Daddy's tinkering talent. It might also be an indication of how thoroughly Garlits has intimidated the NHRA. He doesn't psych out just the other drivers—although he is a master at winning races before the cars even come to the line—he psychs out whole sanctioning organizations. Big Daddy and the NHRA have a long history of run-ins. The tone of the relationship was set in 1960 when, after winning a major NHRA meet, Garlits stomped his trophy into the dragstrip. He wanted to make it clear that he was still mad that the officials had disallowed one of his early runs because Garlits made a U-turn on the track rather than drive all the way to the return road at the end of the strip. It makes you wonder what Garlits would have done to show his displeasure had the officials disqualified him.
Even though he came riding back on his wheel rims after almost every qualifying and elimination run last March in Gainesville, Garlits and Swamp Rat 30 easily made it to the semifinal round, where they faced former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini and his black-painted dragster, Quarterback Sneak. At the starting line the track announcer asked Garlits, "Well, Big Daddy, are you going for the 270 barrier this run?"
"No way" replied Garlits. "This baby's runnin' on full life-support."
When the green light flashed, the earth shook, and the two black rails were blown out of the billowing smoke. In about the amount of time it takes you to read this sentence, they had both accelerated to more than 250 miles per hour. The big scoreboard at the end of the strip proclaimed Garlits the winner with an elapsed time (ET) of 5.409 seconds. Then his speed flashed in lights: 272.56 mph. Pandemonium poured down from the grandstands. Big Daddy had broken yet another barrier.
"Now that we have the museum established, Don's racing stronger and harder and faster than he ever has," says Pat, who has worried about him for her entire adult life. "That's the thing that scares me—with these speeds and experimentation, he's open to it now."