Big Daddy

SEMA News - March 2010

By Drew Hardin

Photo Courtesy Source Interlink Media Archives

SEMA NEWS-MARCH 2010-SEMA HERITAGE 
Don Garlits’ accomplishments in drag racing are literally the stuff of legends. He won his first NHRA race in 1955, turned pro three years later and amassed a career total of 144 national event wins and 17 championships. In 1957, he was the first drag racer to go faster than 170 mph, the first faster than 180 in 1958 and was the first to the 200-mph mark in 1964. He wasn’t through setting speed records, either, and was the first to break 250 mph in 1975 and 270 mph in 1986.

This photo, taken by long-time drag-race photographer Bob McClurg, shows Garlits in Swamp Rat XII, a rail he first drove at the Winternationals in 1968.

Garlits is also a SEMA Hall of Fame member, an honor he earned largely through his innovations in drag-racing safety. While he was among the first drivers to endorse wearing a full protective driving suit, it was a catastrophic accident in 1970 that led to his most influential accomplishment. Until that time, dragsters were built with the drivers sitting behind the engines, putting them literally in the line of fire should something go mechanically wrong with the driveline. That’s what happened to Garlits: A transmission explosion cut his Swamp Rat XIII in half and severed most of his right foot. While in the hospital recuperating, he laid out plans for a rear-engine dragster, which would put the driver safely ahead of any mechanical damage.

That first rear-engine Swamp Rat took some sorting out, but once it was dialed in, it was a blistering 240-mph bullet that set the trend for dragster design that continues today. 

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