Don Garlits lives 14 miles east of Tampa, Fla., in Seffner, an area so chockablock with retirement villages and cemeteries that it is known in undertaking circles as God's Little Waiting Room. Old women with blue hair sit on park benches feeding pigeons; old men who are gnarled like briars play checkers. Don Garlits has lived in this area for 47 years, all of his life, and it has affected his feelings: Garlits refuses to believe that he is an old man, in fact the Old Man. Some people, of course, will tell you that such a denial is a sign of senility.
While it is true that in the strictest sense Garlits did not invent drag racing (Louis Armstrong did not invent jazz, either, but without him we might all still be listening to A Bicycle Built for Two), in 29 years of racing he has surely had more to do with the sport's emergence and survival than anyone. Fifteen years ago, when Garlits was a stripling of 32, he was canonized in a book as drag racing's Big Daddy because of his prominence in the sport. The name had a certain ring, and it has stuck. Half a dozen times Garlits has retired, or threatened to, and each time he has returned, more competitive than before. Big Daddyhood is not something you just walk away from. "In 20 years they'll be rolling him up to that car in a wheelchair and dropping him in," says driver Don Prudhomme, the only true rival Garlits has ever had. "He'll never quit."
And why should he? In nearly three decades of hurtling down quarter-mile asphalt strips, Garlits has earned more than $4 million, won every event of consequence at least once, set every speed record that meant anything and engineered almost every design innovation that brought the long, spidery dragsters to their present top speeds of 250 mph. "There isn't one bit of engineering on these cars that didn't come from something I did first," says Garlits, characteristically immodest. "Damn straight."
All of this pioneering has taken its toll. From time to time little pieces of Big Daddy have been left out there. Part of a finger once, another time half of his right foot and very nearly both of his lips. But what is the loss of a few fleshy parts to a man who has carried an entire sport around on his back for more than two decades?
Physically, Garlits may now be at the peak of his career. "He may be older than most of us," says driver Tom McEwen, "but his reflexes at the starting line are phenomenal. Nobody leaves first on the Old Man. He may be the quickest in the lights I've ever seen." Prudhomme, who has turned being blasé into an entertaining art form, admits that he often sneaks up to the starting line when Garlits is racing, just to watch him at work.
If, indeed, the years have affected Garlits in any way, it is that whereas he once was merely strange, now he is weird. "The man has made an awful lot of trips down that quarter-mile," says Shirley Muldowney, the 1977 National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel driving champion, and, as we shall see, Garlits' great nemesis. "I think it's made him funny in the head."
Muldowney, who was likely playing hopscotch when Big Daddy was well down the road to drag racing stardom, has come late to this opinion. Garlits has always been regarded as something of an oddball. A believer in extraterrestrial beings, Garlits has been suspected of being on a first-name basis with the kind of people who know how to produce a bit of eye-of-newt on short notice. "He always did have an interest in unusual things," says Bernie Partridge, Division 7 director of the NHRA, the California-based organization that promotes and sanctions the most prestigious drag racing in the United States.
In 1970, when Garlits was involved in a serious accident in Long Beach, Calif.—the one that cost him half of his right foot—McEwen spent hours at his hospital bedside. "He can talk about anything," says McEwen, "politics, religion, racing—he can go on for hours. His eyes get real big when he's talking; it's kind of scary. He's so intelligent that sometimes he borders on being insane. The strange thing is that he believes in all that outer-space stuff. Garlits thinks Albert Einstein was brought from another planet by aliens, then taken back when he died."
Stories of Garlits' dealings with the spirits gained such widespread acceptance among the drivers he raced against that at the 1973 Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., Carl Olson, a rival driver in the Top Fuel class, decided to fight it out with totems at 20 paces. Olson, who is now an NHRA executive, strapped on an ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol of life, figuring in his own fevered way that it would ward off whatever evil spirits Garlits might be invoking. "Garlits likes to mess with other drivers' minds in very subtle ways," Olson says. "Usually he does something that makes you so mad you forget what you ought to be doing to try to beat him." Ankh or no ankh, Olson was evidently distracted enough to get eliminated in the semifinals. Garlits won.
Prudhomme, who began his career in the "rail" dragsters Garlits drives but then switched to Funny Cars, says he was once startled to see Big Daddy stop what he was doing in the pits between rounds, look to the heavens and suddenly bleat the name of the driver he would have to face in the next round well before it was determined who that unfortunate soul would be. It was also Garlits' custom to hang animal teeth from a leather thong in the cab of his tow truck, teeth he believed were invested with magical powers. Another friend recalls seeing him rub the teeth vigorously before a particularly crucial race, then suddenly freeze in the midst of this rite. "Better not rub too hard," Garlits reportedly said, ominously. "Somebody could get hurt out there."