"I'm playin' Chuck Yeager here," Garlits says with that grin. "Got a fan letter the other day addressed 'Attention: Chief Test Pilot.' "
He likes the ring of it. And at the NHRA Summernationals in English-town, N.J., on July 12, he was eliminated after seemingly taking the role of test pilot literally.
Garlits had solved the problem with the front wheels by abandoning the belts and switching to real tires—13-inch airplane tires on wheels he had designed himself. In qualifying, Swamp Rat 30 had gone 271.08 with an ET of 5.40 and backed that up on Friday night—under the lights—with a 270.59 in 5.343, the lowest ET run in drag history. In order for either an ET or a speed record to be official, NHRA rules require that it be followed by a run within 1% of the new mark; thanks to Garlits's run in qualifying, the 271.08 officially now stands as the NHRA's top speed mark. But for the ET to also become an official record, Garlits would have to back it up on Saturday.
"Off the line, the car picked the front wheels up just a little bit," Garlits recently recalled of that record try in July. "I kept my foot in it since it was still going straight, but the wheels kept coming up. By the time I recognized it and lifted, it was too late—the front end was maybe at an attitude of 30 degrees. There was already too much air under the body, and it just lifted everything straight up, like some rocket. The rear wheels took off three feet in the air. It was wild. When that thing stood up, it looked like some sort of black monument. The nose was 30 feet high. They said they could see it from the parking lot behind the grandstands."
Then came the most original—not to mention creative—U-turn of all time.
"It dropped back down on the rear wing—it was still going forward at a couple hundred miles an hour—and I braced myself for a big crash by jamming my feet down on the floorboards. But I didn't get my foot off the throttle, so it was still running wide open."
Swamp Rat 30 came back down on one rear tire, which caused the car to pivot and slam back down on the track facing the other direction, neatly and spectacularly. Now it was going nearly 200 miles an hour backward. Garlits's foot was still planted on the throttle, driving 3,000 horsepower in the opposite direction from the way the car was actually moving.
"I was disoriented by now," he continued. "I know I'm going backward and I know I'm going real fast, and I'm waiting to hit something—a fence, a guardrail, a tree, a telephone pole, something. But it was stopping...so fast. I didn't know what the heck was going on. I couldn't tell anything because I was in the center of nothing but noise and smoke. I was doing a giant burnout going backward! There are these two great big burnout marks for 300 feet. When the car stopped, my foot was still completely on the throttle. So then it took off forward again, and here comes my car back to the starting line, under full power. They were panicked down there, let me tell you."
As the car came out of the smoke, Big Daddy finally figured out which way he was headed, and he braked to a stop. The first thing he noticed—and couldn't believe—was that he was in one piece. Neither could the crowd, which watched in awed silence as Garlits climbed out of Swamp Rat 30. Big Daddy, now elated, threw his hands up, and to appreciate the roar that followed, you had to be there. Big Daddy had done it again. Maybe there would be no ET record to go into the books that day, but in the next edition of Close Calls, look for a 25th chapter.