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A continuing Series where average nitro fan 90% Jimmy Becktel hunts down and chats with our favorite nitro hero’s. This episode features a one on one between Jimmy and some guy named “Big Daddy Don Garlits”, who we presume some of you may have heard of, considering he’s the NUMBER ONE DRAG RACER OF ALL TIME ACCORDING TO NHRA’S 50TH ANNNIVERSAY POLL!
“Some guy”…..how dare you even think something like that!
Don Garlits: The big deal for 2004 is the movie we’re doing about my life, which will take about six to eight months to film.
90% Jimmy: Who’s the backing on the movie?
D.G.: It’s a film company in California, a major Hollywood production. I can’t be specific yet, but it’s got real actors and directors. Although it’s based on a true story, it’s not a documentary, which doesn’t do well at the box office. When the movie is announced, it will appear in Variety with a full promotional campaign.
90%: What are you going to do to avoid the fate of Heart Like a Wheel – a good movie that suffered from a lack of promotion?
D.G.: This is a whole different deal. Heart Like a Wheel had an eight million dollar budget, this is in excess of FIFTY MILLION! It’s going to be done just like any other major Hollywood production.
90%: Where are the locations going to be? Pomona disguised as other tracks?
D.G.: The main location will be Florida. They’ll go to an old airport, Dunellen, Florida or something like that, set it up, build whatever towers they need, and change the props around. The shots could be in Texas or anywhere because all the early tracks were old airports, and the big race deal will probably be shot at Pomona instead at Indy. This is a west coast vs. east coast deal so they want all the big stuff happening out at the Pomona racetrack.
It’s not gonna be Indianapolis. The wheelstand and ‘59 fire will be at Pomona, not Englishtown and Chester. [In his museum, Don has 1959 newspaper articles from his Chester, S.C. fire and recovery at a Tampa hospital, with pics of a non-bandaged starting to heal Garlits, and lots of “I’ll never race these dangerous Fuel Dragsters again” quotes.]
But it won’t be in 59, they’re squeezing 40 years into 90 minutes, so the wheelstand will happen in the semi final round before the “big finals,” which is where we debuted the rear engine car.
90%: I was there Saturday in ‘86. I thought you were gonna come back the next day.
D.G.: We were gonna rebuild it over night because the finals weren’t till the next day – we should have gone to the chassis shop and fixed the damn thing and come back. (90% note: The shop he’s referring to could be Bob Jenkins or S&W Chassis? There is at least one chrome moly chassis shop close to E-town that would’ve opened their doors to Don)
90%: I was in the stands on the pit side, and I was scared to death because I thought you bought it. You won the world championship anyway, but that blow over was the most horrifying accident I’ve ever seen. I was overjoyed to see you driving through the smoke . . .
D.G.: Yeah, It was a nasty deal.
90%: Did you cross paths with ‘John the Zookeeper Mulligan’ back in the 60’s? What kind of person was he?
D.G.: He was a wonderful guy and dear friend. He got me on Kendall oil, which I ran when I was a kid, because it’s a 2000 mile oil. Back then you were supposed to change your oil every 1000 miles, but in 1949-50 it was too expensive, so I used the Kendall. Then I started racing and went to the big Chrysler Hemi. I was using some local gas station oil and having a problem. Lee Petty told me I needed to get a Pennzoil aircraft 60 weight oil, so I went on to that. It was many years until the Valvoline deal came around with the Smother’s Brothers in 1969. They went racing and I was part of their team. We had a lot of trouble with the Valvoline, which was good, but it’s not thick enough for us. We ran too much clearance, which goes all the way back to Lee Petty who told me how to cut the cranks and all. In the beginning I never had any trouble if I used the really heavy oil. I stayed on the Petty combination my entire career. I was having all kinds of trouble with that Valvoline oil and I was at New York National Speedway and John saw I was having trouble, and almost out of engine parts. He saw the Valvoline and he recognized the problem so I guess he had it too, with his large clearances. He brought over a case of Kendall, and that was the last engine we blew that year! So we bought the Kendall oil from the dealers and put it in the Valvoline 5 gallon cans because I was under contract.
90%: That meet was a couple of months before the U.S. Nationals? (90% note: This was Gil Kohn’s Bakersfield Smokers Meet, which I attended as a 15 year old Long Island apprentice nitro fan.)
D.G.: Yes. (Solemn) And then John was killed . . . I was behind him in line, the next car to be run, when he caught fire . . .
90%: A terrible tragedy. As I understand it, he survived and was in decent shape in the hospital and got infections from visitors. It seemed like he died more from medical ignorance than the accident.
D.G.: They say he lived about two weeks. A hospital is a dangerous place to be. There’s a lot of bad stuff in there. Most of the employees become immune . . . it’s the people coming in from the street that might be weakened; John was, and it got him.
90%: Do you keep in touch with any of your other contemporaries, Prudhomme, Kalitta, those guys?
D.G.: Oh yeah, we’re all good friends.
90%: What do you think of your 2003 season, getting back behind the wheel of a modern Fuel Dragster?
D.G.: I love the speed, and the 323 was exciting, 319 at Atlanta [the slicks from this run were available for sale at the entrance of the museum]. The car was good, but it’s a two-edged sword; I hated the major changes to the car that the NHRA required to keep running, but it was probably for my own good because I was gonna make those changes, and it wouldn’t be good for the car. If there was an accident it could weaken it in certain places and they knew I knew that, so that got me out of the car for now. If I’m gonna drive anymore, I have to get a new car, which I’m not gonna do now ’cause there’s a lot of major changes taking place. The timing of the movie is perfect. I can go hide and watch. If I’m gonna do anything, it will be 2005; come back and build a new car with all the latest . . . like all this blower stuff’s been moved now, and the chassis and body changes. And now, Clay Millican and Mike Kloeber are making a mono strut carbon filter rear wing.
90%: Good for them! Good for Kloeber, he’s a cool guy – in the rocket scientist category.
D.G.: Of course, the problem is that the car was set up as a system. The narrow wheels, the mono strut, and enclosed cockpits go together like ham and eggs. If they do just a piece of it they won’t get the full benefit, and that narrow rear is tricky. They don’t like that because they can’t just take the clutch out and the engine has to slide forward, but the design takes 24 square inches of frontal area and throws it away. If bigger frontal area was better, they’d made them bigger, wouldn’t they? But the silhouette needs to be as small as possible to get through the wind.
90%: Another thing: open wheels: The top part of the wheel in open air is going twice as fast as the car, and you’re approaching something supersonic . . .
D.G.: You impress me! There isn’t one out of a thousand that knows that. That’s why I covered the front wheels with Swamp Rat 30. I was down in the lights in Indianapolis in 1985 and I saw ‘em coming through, and there had been rice ash on the track, and the Funny Cars with enclosed wheels were only pushing the rice ash six feet in front of the car, while the Fuel Dragsters were disturbing it THIRTY FEET in front of the car! They were doing about 280 back then so the top of the wheel was nearing 600 miles an hour. Now at 340 its nearly 700 miles per hour!
The top of the wheel is soon gonna reach the speed of sound. Who knows what that’s gonna do?
90%: Do you keep in touch with Craig Breedlove?
D.G.: I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I used to. The last thing I saw was a UFO film, with him being interviewed, because he and a friend had just seen a UFO . . . he would know.
90%: Have you been to Roswell New Mexico?
D.G.: Yes, it was an exciting trip and I brought back a lot of souvenirs. [Don’s office has lots of UFO items on prominent display.] I know Bob Lazar personally, and he worked at Area 51. [Pointing to a framed picture of a UFO] That’s a craft he’s worked on, drawn to Hollywood specs. I saw a program with scientists discussing how it would be possible to go from one star to another. Not in a linear mode, at the speed of light, or any of that stuff, but from Quantum Physics we do know that because space and time CAN BE BENT, and I said to myself, ‘I knew this years ago when Bob Lazar explained to me how the saucers worked, because he’s worked on them.’
90%: And he’s got a jet dragster?
D.G.: Just as a hobby.
90%: That’s one helluva hobby! Al Hanna lives near me, I’ve spoken to him a few times, he recently put his first Jet Car down here in your museum. He also inducted Roger Gustin into the Hall of Fame. I was in Al’s office when Gustin called, and those two talked like teenagers. Al is an unsung hero of this sport, plugging away for 20 years making a good living and keeping jet car racing going.
D.G.: He’s got a low profile.
90%: Exactly, which is ironic because he’s got a marketing degree. (90% Note: psst, Don, Al would slot right into a HOF nomination..hint…hint.) He’s still working on a nitro ride . . . [We began talking about car sponsorship.] It’s all about demographics. Marketers go after 13 to 16 year olds, and ignore the middle-aged baby boomers, which is the biggest demographic bulge there is: We’re working and have money. It upsets me that guys like Eddie Hill, one of the most beloved people out there with a tremendous fan following, can’t get any backing.
D.G.: I know! Isn’t that strange? What happened to that deal? When Pennzoil fell through, I thought he’d have grabbed someone else right away.
90%: The marketing people have MBA’s, but must have their heads up their ass or else we’re wrong about our demographic theory and who’s spending money. They’re missing the boat with you, Frank Oglesby, Eddie Hill, Bruce Larson, Shirley Muldowney . . . and others.
D.G.: That’s why the movie, when it comes out – should be 2005 – will change Drag Racing. See what the Shirley movie did for Drag Racing? It was a low budget, B movie, and it got the sport into the homes. I’ll bet this will be the best racing movie ever made! Better than the Petty stuff and John Frankenheimer’s famous Gran Prix, and instead of being a NASCAR or USAC movie, it will be a Drag Racing movie! It will elevate the position of Drag Racing in the eyes of the general public, and totally change what they think about it. It will be so good for everybody! NHRA, sponsors, everyone that hung in there all this time will reap the benefit.
90%: That’s a “Be careful what you wish for” thing. I like Drag Racing the way it is, because, if it goes NASCAR . . . the pits, standing in the pits when the fuel cars fire up is awe-inspiring . . . I don’t want that to go away.
D.G.: My wife and I have talked about how this movie will change my life. I won’t be able to go into a restaurant or anything. I’ve got the best of two worlds now; famous enough to have the money, but obscure enough to go where I please with very few interruptions. [But] I like the idea of what its gonna do for the sport, and for the museum, so I’ll just have to “suffer along” with the rest.
90%: (Laughing) I was thinking about that . . . you don’t want to end up in the Michael Jackson/Elvis Presley world.
D.G.: That’s horrible. I don’t think it will get close to that extreme, but it will elevate me to a position similar to other leading sports figures, certainly as good as any of the NASCAR guys. That’ll be fine.
There’s something else too. NASCAR still has a connotation of Southern red neck/tobacco chewing/rum running/all of that. Drag racing was all over the United States, not just the South. You don’t think of anybody in NASCAR coming from California, do you? Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington State, we’re more of a national sport, we just have never reached that publicity level. The old guard at NHRA caused part of the problem because for many years they wouldn’t promote the personalities. They said the cars where the stars! That was a mistake NASCAR didn’t make; the drivers were the stars. The new management, the Tom Compton’s and Graham Light’s, realized that and they’re pushing the stars. For years a person’s whole head shot was never on the cover of National Dragster, and now it’s always a big head shot, and that’s good!
90%: So you think NHRA’s moving in the right direction?
D.G.: Yes, and I’m happy with the new management, although I’m not putting the old one down. They had a different job, taking us from black-leather-jacketed street hoodlums and making us legitimate. Wally Parks did a wonderful job at that, but because of what he was doing, he always saw it as an amateur sport. He never wanted money to be involved – hardly even a trophy, maybe a toolbox or Mustang or something. I won all of that stuff. [The Mustang Don won is in the antique car building.] Then the sport got so expensive we needed to get the prize money into that million-dollar league if we were going to be elevated in the eyes of the general sports media. We’re behind what NASCAR, USAC, and Formula One Racing is doing now. Those guys are multimillionaires! I don’t know if we’ll ever reach that level, but what’s wrong with trying?
I won a race with a flathead dragster in Lake City Florida. Little Regional Drag Safari and the club had a little party afterwards. I was the only one with any prize, and I had won the event! The President of the club said to me, “I guess you’ll retire now,” and I said; “Gee, why would I do that?” His answer? “You’ll never beat the Californians!”
D.G.: That’s what people believed! But I wouldn’t believe that, so why should I believe we can’t rise to be as big a racing organization as anything on the planet? What I see in the future is a family oriented sport, and I pray they never separate it into Pros and Sportsman classes in their own separate races.
90%: I’d be happy if guys like the Skuza and Gwynn wouldn’t have to fight for sponsorship, and sweat out deals every other year.
D.G.: Gwynn Racing is sweating it out right now I think.
90%: Yeah, it looks like the Yankees lost their enthusiasm. I think Darryl and team are a good operation with great marketability. Darryl is a bona fide hero.
One thing about Darryl’s accident was it never looked like he hit the guardrail that hard, it didn’t scrub off that much speed or absorb that much energy.
D.G.: I can explain it to you, but I thought everybody knew!
Darryl got hurt got hurt so bad (and it was in the beginning of the run, before the car was even up to speed) because he did not have his arm restraints on; they were in the back of his truck in the pits. When they were sitting in the staging lane, they thought, ‘we’ve never had any trouble before, so does it matter if we go without them?’ The car was broken already, it was cracked, and so under the tremendous force of the run the car broke in two and it held the throttle open from the cable and it turned over and Darryl’s arm came out of the car and that’s what tore his spinal column in two, tearing his arm off. If his arms had stayed in the car, he would have walked away!
90%: Another thing is the judgement with Blaine Johnson at the 1996 US Nationals, the open guardrail . . .
D.G.: Right. As much as we hate those walls, he’d be alive since they do keep the cars on the track, and not much can happen to you in there, just jar you around a little bit.
90%: The one time I got a press pass, I stood behind the line watching the Fuel cars at Maple Grove 2001. I was surprised at how totally unexciting it is to watch a fuel run behind the car! The stands are the best place to watch a Drag race, since you can see what’s going on. I look at Prudhomme and the crews, they go for decades and never watch in the stands. I don’t get it?
D.G.: I would always go to the stands and watch the Fuel Cars run, if I had the time at a race. So much can be learned up there! I have a story about that:
It was at Atlanta in 1979. We were running about 5.95’s/6.0’s, and Shirley was running 5.80/5.85 all day; our eight plugs, just beautiful, not hurting anything, but we just weren’t moving. I asked my Crew Chief Ron Barrow about it, “do you see any clutch dust coming out of this thing, is the clutch tight enough? It seems like it moves pretty well, but . . . ” He said: “No, this motor is down on power, I’m sure that’s what it is.” In the final round, Shirley got lane choice and put me in the bad lane. [I thought], “I’m going up there to have my throat cut.” My only chance was if she blew up or red lighted, and either was unlikely because she’s a damn good driver, and her crew was not hurting a thing. After they called us and we’re getting ready to go, this drunk who’d been in the stands all day walks up, and says, “Big Daddy, your gonna let the bitch get you one more time, ain’t yah?” I said; “Shut up, it’s bad enough I have to go up there and be outrun, there’s no way I can out run her.” He said “Of course you’re not gonna out run her, the car ain’t got any clutch in it, it’s carrying black dust to the 8th mile.” I said; “Ron, get that clutch cover off that can.” He said: “Big, its almost spinning the tires every time! I can see it! If you put anything on that clutch, its gonna spin the tires.” I said; “Good! Then people will think I had more power and I just couldn’t get it to the track.” So we pulled the thing off and we put about 10 or 15 grams, it was a Hayes clutch with the springs, but I put the counter weight on it . . . 5.75 LOW E.T. of the meet! I never saw that guy again, but I wished I had so I could give him a kiss! Like I said, you can see more in the stands than you can see on the starting line.
90%: Great, Don, when this comes out on the Internet, all the fans are gonna be hob nobbin’ with all the Crew Chiefs and team owners in the stands!
D.G.: They should keep a guy in the stands! Just sit there at about 300 to 400 feet. They’ve got all the computer stuff now that we didn’t have then, and you can tell now if its slipping or moving . . . but there’s still things that can be seen out there.
90%: With people fighting for hundredths of a second, every bit of information makes a difference between – separates a Dick Lahaie from the rest of the pack.
D.G.: I’m going to show you something, turn that recorder off for a second. [Don showed me an excellent color photo of his car vs. Doug Kalitta’s at dusk. The shutter speed captured a profound difference in the header flames between the cars. The keyboard Crew Chief in me fails to understand the tuning benefits of what Don pointed out, but the picture would be profound to a Coil or LaHaie that knew what they were looking at.]
90%: The contingency car: You built the first rear engine car, and concurrent with that, you built another front engine car, that you never ran. Were you ever going to try to use that front engine car if the rear engine didn’t work out?
D.G.: Yes! We actually built the rear engine car first; but in three months of development I hadn’t gotten down the drag strip and that’s when we threw that slingshot together. That was for the upcoming season. My wife saw us out there and asked why I was doing that. I said; “Well, if this rear engine car doesn’t work, we still have to go out and race!” She said; “Don, you don’t want to run a slingshot any more. If there’s anybody that can make this rear engine car work, it’s you, so stay with it.” After that, we didn’t give up.
I was coming back from the Orlando track with Lemons, and Swingle driving the truck, and said; “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the steering was too fast but that can’t be it because it’s the same ratio as the slingshot.” Ole Swingle says; “Gar, it ain’t a slingshot, it’s a front driver car. If you think the steering is too fast lets slow her down.” So we put long arms on the spindles and back at the drag strip the next morning, the Ramcharger had just won a big race there a month before with like, a 6.85, and we went 6.83!
They were the killers of that era. They didn’t win many races but they were quick, and always set the ET records. Once we knew we were quicker than the Ramcharger, we couldn’t get in the trailer fast enough to get to the Coast!
Goodyear called me about that time wanting a show car they could take around to the dealerships. I told them I had a nice new slingshot, and they gave me $7,500 with a dummy engine in it. We rolled the rear engine car into the little pull along trailer we had then, and took it apart, put the engine up in the corner, the rear end over here, and tied the chassis to the roof!
Pulling into Waterman’s shop in long Beach, all anyone wanted to see was the rear engine car. When we opened the door, there’s the shiny slingshot ready to go, and they all laughed and said ‘we knew it wouldn’t work, he’s got a slingshot just always.’
We dropped the car off at the Goodyear headquarters in LA, and went out to the Drag Strip with this all apart. At gate, there’s Jim Tice from AHRA, who saw it all. He said, “Let’s just put it together right here, and when people are coming in they’ll see you working on it, and definitely know you’re here with a rear engine car.” So we got it all strung out, and were putting it back together, when Prudhomme shows up, cocking his head, (you ever see the way he does that?) . . . and says, “Well, I guess that’s one way to get publicity!”
90%: One of the things that has surfaced recently is film footage of your accident at Lions. I’ve seen it, and it’s awesome.
D.G.: Yes! A kid sent me the 8mm film. He told me he was going through some of my stuff and thought you might like to have it. It was real footage, and Master’s put it right on Beta for me.
It shows something I didn’t know: While I was momentarily unconscious, one of my hands flopped out of the car. I could have had the same injuries as Darryl, because we didn’t have arm restraints then . . . I don’t remember that, only the explosion and the thought that I was tumbling down at the end. When it chopped my foot off the shock must have rendered me unconscious for a moment.
90%: And the centrifugal force of doing a 360 [degree turn] strapped in the cage . . . I’m happy you survived . . . Don, I’ve taken up a helluva lot of your time . . .
D.G.: I’ve enjoyed it.
90%: I’ve enjoyed it too. You’ll be reading this soon on Deepstage.net. This conversation has got me going again as a drag journalist, as I’ve been kind of dormant, but this is the third time I’ve talked to you, and you’re still the most interesting guy in drag racing!
D.G.: Well, thank you!
Conclusion: Big Daddy really is one of the most interesting people in Drag Racing. He is an avid reader and can talk at length about almost anything. The Drag Racing Museum is wildly successful, if being packed to the gills with priceless drag cars is any indication, and the antique car building rivals anything in the Smithsonian, especially if you like early original Fords.