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Don was a frail boy, too small for other sports. "When he was 14," his mother says, "Don erected a tripod in the backyard and pulled motors out of old cars and worked on them unceasingly. Many nights at 2 a.m. I had to force Don and his friends to quit before neighbors called police." Yet when Garlits graduated from high school, where his grades were good, he took a position in a bookkeeping office. He worked there only six months. "I began to feel like a figure," he says. "I'd walk into the office, look around and I'd get depressed. I thought there must be more to life than this. One day I walked in, turned around and walked out."
After that, there was a succession of jobs in body shops, then a radiator shop. Then Garlits caught on as a racing mechanic. Still, he seemed only to drift into drag racing. In Tampa it was the thing to do so Garlits raced—but at first with no great enthusiasm. His wife was not aware that he raced at all and that he was nurturing a passion for it until he began collecting speeding tickets for dragging on vacant roads. Even then she dismissed it all with a boys-will-be-boys smile. The smile rapidly disappeared when he showed up one day with a "$29 camshaft that he was going to put into our new Ford."
Today drag racing is to Garlits a means, a ladder on which to climb to a less violent life. Once it stimulated him—and it still does to a degree—but now it has become haunting and filled with drudgery and terror. Now it is a life on wheels with all the problems of such a life: two small daughters who have to sleep on a shelf of the truck Garlits uses as transportation; a wife trying to make a home on the road; short, frantic visits to places like Half Moon Bay and Yellow Belly and Cicero and Oswego; road maps and strong coffee and restless sleep at roadside. His wife acts as navigator, keeps the records and now and then writes verse ("it would be perfect for the Beach Boys," she says), some of which tells of a shiny black rail with a blower on top, a cool cat behind a big Dodge engine that likes to drink pop, and concludes:
In staging the crew give the heads a feel,
Except for his physical features, which would blend perfectly with a black jacket, tight pants and black boots, Garlits is the antithesis of the hero of that verse and of the hot-rodding stereotype. Only a few hot rodders make more than nickels and dimes. Most of them seem to glory in the indescribable noise at a drag strip, but it gives Garlits headaches, has partially impaired his hearing and extracts a steady stream of expletives from him. He has been known to cite a Swedish scientist's study of noise in relation to insanity.
Garlits is genuinely confused by the erotic love for hot rods expressed by so many in the sport, and he describes his own dragster as "just a piece of junk." The esoteric jabber (for instance: "if you were a big wienie at the strip you certainly wouldn't drive a rat, you'd probably drive a gasser that gobbles and take the bash") is foreign to his own speech, which flows slowly and lucidly. And the interminable yakking about blowers and cylinder heads and cams and slush pumps, which bombards his ears every time he gets near a drag strip, bores him. When not working he much prefers to talk about other things, perhaps Goldwater, civil rights or the kingdom of the ant, three subjects which always make his eyes shine and his face glow with animation. Yet, besieged by spectators or novices, he will answer without flippancy a hundred technical questions. To promoters he is a "nice fella" and "the only guy in drag racing who can pack a place to capacity."
Psychologists could undoubtedly discover in Garlits a love-hate conflict—probably a normal one. He has a lust for competition and he delights in producing better and faster cars than anyone else, but most of all he is drawn to it by the money—anywhere from $750 to $2,000 an appearance. But now the fear of death has begun to follow him like another man's shadow. The torment is acute. He has begun to speak of "this madness of speed."
"I can't take any more days like this," he said, leaving Great Meadows. "This is the day I've been shooting for. I can't keep going faster and faster. If I do, it will be just a matter of time." He left unsaid, "until I am killed."
"I feel like I'm pushing my luck every time out. It's agony, but then I get the money and it suddenly becomes real sweet. For a while."