First, consider the dragster itself: The Swamp Rat (also called Wynn's Jammer to publicize a commercial sponsor), which Garlits built in 10 days at a cost of $4,000 and 16 hours of work each day, is capable of producing 1,350 hp. It is powered by a 396-cubic-inch Dodge engine which is supercharged and fuel-injected. The Swamp Rat is 15 feet long, has fat, slick tires of special racing rubber behind and motorcycle wheels in front. It is designed for no other task than straight-line acceleration. To its rear is attached a parachute which helps slow the car. It carries only 3� gallons of fuel, which is usually referred to as "exotic." The fuel consists of, say, 90% nitro-methane for power, 6% alcohol for cooling and 4% benzine as an aid to ignition. The percentages vary often, and Garlits is widely recognized for his touch with fuel. Bending over old Army water containers, his hands jumping from can to can, he reminds one of Bela Lugosi in a laboratory of smoking test tubes.
"I used to mix the fuel right at the strip," he says, "but there are too many spies around trying to find out what I'm doing with it. Now I mix it privately. It's all quite complex for anyone outside the sport. Even people in the sport don't know what I've done to reach 200. Oh, they say they know, but they don't. For instance, the fuel. They don't know how I'm getting the proper balance. Actually, the big thing is imagination. You see, there are six major factors: the supercharger, the pistons, the camshafts, the gear ratio, the tires and the fuel. It's the combinations you use. For each factor there are, say, 25 different combinations. I interpret all this as just imagination."
The sensation of driving one of these bullets is described by Garlits as "unreal," and he himself looks unreal as he sits in the dragster before takeoff, dressed in an asbestos suit, a face mask and ear plugs, glued in position by a shoulder harness and safety belt. It is one thing to say 200 mph in less than eight seconds, but it is quite another thing to see the dragster roaring and smoking at the starting line, look away for a moment, and then turn back to see it a quarter of a mile away. It is an impressive and frightening sight. "One-tenth of a second is nothing to most people," Garlits says. "Just a blinking of the eye. But at the far end of the run, that's four car lengths. A dragster at top speed can cover 275 feet per second. Divide that by 10, one-tenth of a second can mean more than 27 feet. And when you finally stop the car at the end it's like having a great weight pulled off you. At the start of the race you feel like you're going straight up. As the race goes on, you feel like the car is out of control. There is no time to think or savor the thrill of speed. And as you go down that strip, you don't see anything. It is a no-man's land. There is just the blur of the landscape, a swirling pattern of grays and blacks, and the strip is sort of like a little black pencil mark.
"When the chute opens your body goes forward, and then you have the force of the opening chute pulling at you. It crushed three of my vertebrae once. Stopping the car is a reflex action. I've practiced it so much I do it in my sleep. I pull the chute release cord, turn the fuel off and pull the hand brake. It takes one second, sometimes a little less. I try not to think of all the things that can happen, like the chute not opening or the car flipping. That's the worst thing. Just one little slip and it's all over. When I climb out of that little cockpit I feel like I've been in a boxing ring. You can't let the fear get the best of you, and I have to light it all the time. After the accident in Chester I used to find myself going down the strip with my foot only halfway on the throttle. I was dazed with fear."
The incident in Chester would have frightened most people into a totally sedentary life. Garlits remembers most vividly the face of a doctor and his first words, which seemed to come from an echo chamber: "My God! We can't do anything for this man."
"The supercharger exploded," Garlits says, "and only my leather jacket saved me. It all happened in four seconds. I had swallowed some of the fire, and later I almost caught pneumonia. My condition was similar to that of Fireball Roberts, the stock-car driver who died this year. I had third-degree burns; flesh, especially on my hands, was just hanging off."
Even now you can see pale white rings around his eyes where the goggles were, and his hands are ghostly white from the wrists down. His lips, practically burned away, are thin and white.
"But one of the worst things about the accident was the convalescence. They had socked a lot of morphine into me to kill the pain; in fact, I used to count the minutes waiting for the shots. Well, when I went home, I was hooked on the stuff. I could never sleep, and then there was this terrible gnawing inside. For days I had to go for long walks. I used to walk until 4 o'clock in the morning, until I was too tired to walk anymore. I kicked it eventually, but it was one of the worst trials of my life. When I was burned again, not as seriously, I wouldn't take any of that stuff. The whole thing was a nightmare. I still dream about it now and then—those four seconds that seemed like four years. All I could think of at the time was why? Why did I get into drag racing? I still wonder."