MAY 21st 2015

Legends at FoS: Drag Racing's 'Big Daddy': Don Garlits

As specialist motorsport disciplines go, drag racing cleans up when it comes to power, noise, speed and spectacle. With the reactions of a scalded cat, and the bravery of something rather more serious from the feline family, those who get their kicks from firing an umpteen-thousand horsepower, methanol-gorging rocketship down a quarter-mile strip at 300mph are a breed apart. It’s a game of roulette in which the huge risks are matched only by the huge rewards.

Don Garlits, Petty Promo

One of the very bravest and fastest, not to mention most decorated and adored, from this electrifying endeavour is Don Garlits, an American daredevil and household name on a par with such icons as stunt biker Evel Knievel, NASCAR king Richard Petty  and all-round race ace Dan Gurney.  

And in another coup for Goodwood’s motorsport garden-party extravaganza, Garlits, a master of the art of the instant and explosive gratification that characterises quarter-mile combat, is coming to the Festival of Speed for the very first time.

Garlits’ presence in West Sussex adds serious clout to the Festival’s annual efforts to embrace American motoring culture, whether it’s the recreation of the Indianapolis 500 yard of bricks on the startline, the tyre-shredding antics of the NASCAR stockers on the hill, or the surreal sight of Hollywood icon Peter Fonda riding his ‘Captain America’ Harley chopper from 1969 road-trip flick Easy Rider.

Don Garlits

Now 83, Garlits began his relentless record-breaking career in the 1950s, taking a total of 17 world championships and smashing speed targets everywhere he went. Staggeringly, the man dubbed ‘Big Daddy’ in deference to his pioneering and dominant status, was still performing 300mph-plus quarter-mile runs into his seventies, before retiring for the final time.

Unbeatable in the cockpit, he was also a wizard in the workshop – hand-building a succession of innovative and effective machines, all dubbed Swamp Rat. And it’s the very first of these lovingly crafted monsters, Swamp Rat 1, that will accompany Garlits to Goodwood – marking the first time it’s been brought to Britain since he restored it in the late-1970s.

Completed in 1956, and powered by a 454 cubic-inch Chrysler V8, Swamp Rat 1 immediately broke world records, eventually upping the ante to 180mph in 1958. After the supercharger exploded and badly burned Garlits in the summer of 1959, the car was retired, giving way to the larger – and faster – Swamp Rat 1B.

Don Garlits

Thirty-four evolutions of Swamp Rat later, taking the story up to 2003, when Garlits made that final quarter-mile run in under five seconds, aged 71, the great man throttled back to focus on his museum, situated at his home in Florida.

There are a couple of things guaranteed when Don Garlits arrives at the Festival of Speed: he’ll soon fill the park with a heady brew of eye-watering burnt-methanol-and-roasted-tyre smoke and chest-aching noise, and he’ll love the relaxed atmosphere in the paddock, lapping up the attention, signing posters and books and posing for photos.

It’ll be a memorable moment in Festival history, so make sure you’re part of it – even if the assault on the senses proves overpowering.

Photography via LAT and Creative Commons

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