Big Daddy Don Garlits, also known as the Swamp Rat for his tire-burning emergence from central Florida in the late '50s, has reigned as King of the Hot Rodders for nearly three decades. Now, at 54, he is drag racing faster than ever in a sport that seems to demand the reflexes, and the fearlessness, of youth. It also helps if one possesses a healthy measure of rebelliousness.
In claiming the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel Dragster World Championship last year, Garlits won 6 of 13 "national" events, more victories in a single season than any Top Fuel driver in history. His closest competitor for the points title, Joe Amato, was 2,204 points behind him. Along the way Garlits also raised the speed record for the standing-start quarter mile to 268.01 mph—and made the next four fastest runs in the annals of drag racing.
This year he has hardly slackened the pace. So far Garlits has won four more nationals, and with three events remaining on the NHRA schedule, he has a 1,554-point lead toward a successful defense of his crown. His most notable '86 win came at Indianapolis Raceway Park on Sept. 1 at the 32nd annual U.S. Nationals, drag racing's grandest event, with a purse exceeding $1 million. One hundred and thirty-five thousand people watched Big Daddy win his eighth Indy, his third in a row.
It takes more than a foot like an anvil to win drag races, especially in the wide-open Top Fuel class, where almost any innovation is legal and those that aren't only aren't if you're caught. Originality counts, too, and no one—and this is incontestable—gets more points for originality, both mechanical and personal, than Big Daddy.
Innovative urges run in Garlits's blood. Big Daddy's daddy was a Westing-house engineer who in the early '20s collaborated on the invention of the electric fan and the electric iron. Soon after that, however, Edward Garlits moved from Pittsburgh to El Paso for his health, and nutrition became the elder Garlits's religion—almost literally, because he also became an atheist. Eventually, Edward moved back East to New Jersey, where he opened a health food store and restaurant and developed a reputation as a nutritionist-healer. He also divorced his wife to marry Helen Lorenz, a 16-year-old who worked in his store; wore his hair long; and advocated nudism, none of which sat well with the late '20s New Jersey Establishment. Eventually, Edward was run out of the state by a judge who decided that Garlits's nutritional advice constituted practicing medicine without a license. So at 38, with an ex-wife and three children behind him, Edward Garlits and his new wife moved to Florida, where he bought an orange grove.
In the spring of '32, a couple of months after Donald Garlits—Little Baby Big Daddy—was born, the Depression sank the bank that held the family's savings. That same spring an invasion of fruit flies polished off the orange grove. Slowly, the Garlits family bounced back by truck farming. But when Don was 10 the elder Garlits beat up both his son and his wife, so Helen had her husband arrested and divorced him. Edward Garlits died in 1966 after a drunk driver plowed into his car. "He was light-years ahead of his time," says Big Daddy.
Garlits is very much his father's son, although not in his domestic life. Don and Pat, his wife of 33 years, live with two spirited Yorkshire terriers and three Doberman pinschers on 16 acres just south of Ocala, Fla., not far from where Big Daddy was born. One of their daughters is married, the other is away at college. Separating the Garlits's house—designed by the Garlitses—from the rumble of I-75 is the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, opened in 1984. It contains 55 cars that hold a place in hot-rodding history, as well as numerous personal mementos the King of the Dragsters has deigned worthy of inclusion. Among them: Big Daddy's boyhood collection of marbles and his Boy Scout badges. Last year the museum had 50,000 visitors, establishing it as a Florida tourist attraction right up there with the alligator farms and monkey jungles.
Among the souvenirs for sale at the museum are two paperbacks: the autobiographical Big Daddy, by Garlits and Brock Yates; and Close Calls, a 24-chapter chronology of Garlits's major encounters with calamity. "The close calls are more my story than the victories," says Garlits, whose current dragster, the radical Swamp Rat 30, has a bubble canopy and bears the silver sticker SONS OF DANGER in dripping-blood calligraphy.
If Garlits were a cat with nine lives he would have used up the majority of them. The pattern was set when he was six weeks old and Edward rescued his son from a burning crib in their burning house. Fire would touch Don again in 1959, when the supercharger on Swamp Rat 1 exploded in his face. The first doctor to see him wanted to amputate one of his badly burned hands. A second doctor, who while serving in Korea had specialized in repairing soldiers charred in their burning tanks, saved Garlits's hands by submerging them in a saline solution for five weeks. "It was like watching St. Augustine grass grow, the way the skin came back," says Garlits. He ranks that as his closest call.
Garlits says his second-worst injury was the one in 1970 when an experimental transmission in Swamp Rat 13 exploded during a race and took off part of his right foot. An ambulance attendant then compounded the damage by slamming the door on the mangled foot.