Don Garlits, now 82 years old, has been active in drag racing since the mid-1950s running various “Swamp Rat” cars, powered by a series of flathead Ford, Oldsmobile and Chrysler Hemi V8 engines. He was the first to run more than a 150 mph quarter mile in a dragster, then 160, 170, 180 and 200.
After suffering a clutch explosion that put him in a wheelchair in one of his Swamp Rat front-engine dragsters at the NHRA Winternationals, he spent a year rethinking the design and ultimately reinvented the rear-engine rail, a type that had been tried many times before without success.
The main advantage was much better traction with the heavy supercharged engine behind the driver, but also, blower, engine and clutch explosions would always be behind the driver. That design changed Top Fuel racing overnight. Garlits has now won the NHRA US Nationals, the biggest event in drag racing, held at Indianapolis Raceway Park over Labor Day Weekend, eight times, more than any other racer before or since, the equivalent of winning the Daytona 500 in NASCAR or the Indy 500, eight times.
Garlits recently set the world record for quarter-mile performance by an all-electric dragster, his Swamp Rat 37, yes 37, at Bradenton, Florida, at 7.25 seconds at 184 mph. This was first time out with a 2000-horsepower electric motor. The rear tires spun huting the run. He also races a Dodge Challenger V-10 Drag Pack car at selected events, and between races, he operates the Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida.
(Editor’s note: I asked Jim – an expert on drag racing – for a quote about Garlits for a story I was working on that is published elsewhere on AutoInformed.com. Here is the note that I sent to him. The answer he gave – printed above – belongs under his byline and not as an adjunct to my piece. (Grand Marshal Don Garlits at Detroit Dragway Reunion in Milan, Michigan Saturday. Be There or Be Square)
“Jim: If you are not too busy or out playing with Volkswagen on the left coast [VW was running a press preview in San Francisco], can you give me a Don Garlits quote for an AutoInformed piece on the Milan / Detroit Dragway reunion. Drag racing is just too much a part of ‘Merican car culture for me to ignore it.
I particularly liked your off-the-cuff observation in a parking lot overlooking Tigers Stadium (baseball hot dogs apple pie… – another uniquely American sport) about the rear engine rail. (and this from a guy, me, who turned left and right on a track and my idea of horsepower in an H-production Sprite was way south of 200…)”