More of your photosTuesday, April 12, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

The outpouring of photos of Don Garlits from your collections in the last week prompted me to revisit – as promised earlier this year -- some of the many other photos that have been sent my way the last few years. Many of you have given me the honor of showcasing your keepsake photos, many of which I know have never been shown publicly before.

The selection below runs the gamut from pit-area photography to on-track action. The quality, in some cases, reflects the fan nature of the image, but to me, the photos only serve to validate that drag racing is a sport of the people, passionate people who love to document their favorite activity and to capture their stars at work.

Yeah, OK, so it's another Don Garlits photo, but I still like it. Taken by Tim Crofford of Phoenix at the AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway, it shows "Big Daddy" at work on what almost assuredly is Swamp Rat 14 (the first rear-engine car), putting this at 1971. Garlits ran the car for about half the season without the rear wing. What I particularly like about this photo is how the fans have gathered around to watch the master at work. Although NHRA is still renowned for its open-pit policy, allowing fans to mingle with the drivers and watch – from behind pit ropes – the teams work on the cars, back in the day, you could stand right next to the car and team between runs … and no one seemed to mind! I've heard lots of stories about young fans getting recruited to hold a wrench, pick up a drop nut, or even work with the team all from just being within breathing distance of the stars.

Robert Nielsen, whose photos of early SoCal doorslammers set off a furor of remembrances a few years ago, sent some neat nitro photos from the 1970 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, including this Top Fuel race between Rick Ramsey in the immaculate Keeling & Clayton California Charger, near lane, and the Danny Ongais-piloted Young American. According to Nielsen, the Keeling & Clayton car won the Best Appearing Car award, and Ongais set the low e.t. of 6.56 seconds.

Above and below are two more Nielsen photos from the same event showing the Leonard Hughes-wheeled Barracuda Funny Car of Candies & Hughes taking on the Sush Matsubara-driven Pisano & Matsubara Camaro in the first round. "At this point, the cars are approaching midtrack, with the C&H car slightly ahead of the Pisano & Matsubara entry," he noted. "Shortly after this photo was taken, Matsubara shifted his Camaro into high gear, causing it to make a hard right turn and sending it toward the guardrail. It slid into the guardrail, rolled over on its top while shedding parts – as seen in the next picture. Sush got out of the car uninjured, but NHRA photographer Leslie Lovett, who was downtrack, was not so lucky." You can see Lovett, in the white pants (who came up with the idea of wearing white pants at the drags?), beginning to step away, but he didn’t make a clean getaway; an errant front shock absorber (yes, kids, Funny Cars back then sometimes had shocks) broke his ankle.

Steve Gruenwald sent several photos after I met up with him in Gainesville, the most intriguing of which is at right. The native Floridian was at Miami-Hollywood Dragway in October 1968 to see a match race between Paul Stefanski's Boss Hoss Ford cammer Funny Car and Dave Pinta's Chrysler-powered Falcon. "This would be the last time that I would take my Instamatic camera with me to the night races as I wasn't happy with the way they turned out (too dark). The one photo that would stand out was this shot I took of a cool turquoise '23-T AA/A. It had a blown 426 wedge with a Scott injector. As I got ready to take the picture, a little kid steps up and asks me if he could get in the car. I said 'Sure.' I didn't know who he was. I was only 15 at the time, and he looked about 6 or 7. He jumped in, and I took the shot. I would learn later that this was Jerry Gwynn's car and the wedge would soon be replaced with a Hemi. It was also repainted blue and pearl white and named Baby Huey in 1969 and went on to win the Super Eliminator world championship in Dallas. I still never made the connection until National DRAGSTER ran a winner's circle photo from Dallas, maybe sometime in the '80s I believe, and there was that little blonde kid standing there with his dad: It was Darrell Gwynn."

People photos can be tough, especially trying to grab candids in the pits, but Ron Harway of Windsor, Ont., grabbed a bushel full in his trips to the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus in the early 1980s. Above, you can see Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins and Don Prudhomme ("the Snake" apparently deciding to have a little fun with Ron), and below are great shots of Garlits and the late great Steve Evans; below those are a shot of Gary Ormsby in the cockpit with Lee Beard tuning -- I'm pretty sure that's a young Dickie Venables in the background -- and another Jenkins photo with his then driver, Joe "Crazy Legs" Lepone Jr. Good stuff!

Steve Thomsen snagged this time-machine photo in the 1970s in Omaha, Neb., showing the Little Red Wagon and Fugitive wheelstanders getting ready to do two-wheeled battle. The Wagon, of course, was wheeled by Bill "Maverick" Golden, and the Fugitive was one of the many machines that Bob Perry originally drove. the Fugitive Corvette (which was actually preceded by a Corvair wagon of the same name and followed by memorable acts, including the Hell on Wheels tank), but as pictured the Fugutive was owned by Gary Watson, who owned the Paddy Wagon and the Red Baron Mustang. "The original Fugitive name and car with the engine behind the rear end  was bought by me and run for a year and then replaced by the car in the picture," reports Watson.

Rick Howard and I traded several emails a year and a half ago trying to get some of his 40,000 photos to me, but for some reason, they never all came through. He has an extensive Midwest fan history dating back to the early 1970s that includes the U.S. Nationals, Popular Hot Rodding Championships, and more. Of the few I did get, this one kind of stood out. Shot by Howard in Montana in 1975 while he was finishing his Air Force active-duty career, it shows Bill Spevacek preparing to fire up his Funny Car for a match race against Twig Zeigler at Lewistown Dragway. I remember Spevacek for two reasons: First, I think he may have been the only fuel Funny Car driver in Montana, and second, I have seen photos of this car burning to the ground at the flopper charfest that was the 1975 Supernationals. And finally, according to Funny Car historian Danny White, Spevacek also was the only driver to beat Prudhomme at a points meet in his dominant 1975 season.

Yes, that Mike Edwards. Before he became a Pro Stock superstar, Edwards was a hitter in Modified eliminator with this Maverick, and you could say that he's still the reigning Modified champ because the class was discontinued and folded into Comp and Super Stock after Edwards won the 1981 world championship. This photo shows Edwards in flight in Marion, S.D., captured by track photographer Tim McVay.

Glen Brown of Rockford, Ill., sent a six-pack of photos, two of which are shown above. On the left is yet another Garlits photo, this one of "Big Daddy" and Prudhomme "having a serious talk" (according to Brown) at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., in 1969, and the other a sweet photo of the Rockers Car Club Crosley at Rockford Dragway in 1968.

And finally (for today at least), here are a couple of Funny Car pics taken from about the same position by David Oakes at the 1986 Springnationals in Columbus. The photo above shows Pat Austin's Tempo-bodied Funny Car just as "Pat Awesome" was on the verge of superstardom. The car is wearing the No. 10 from his first full season in the class, when he was runner-up in Columbus. In 1986, he won the Cajun Nationals (how could I forget? I was on assignment, crewing for his final-round opponent, Dal Denton) and the Springnationals. The next year, he won his first championship. Below, of course, is Scott Kalitta boiling the hides on the Kalitta Racing Mustang. I remember this car well because a few races later, in Englishtown, I saw its body get destroyed in a massive blower explosion. People remember Garlits' blowover that year (I do, too), but I'll never forget Scott, either.

OK, that's it for today. I still have more of your submissions that I'll share, maybe later this week if my other planned story doesn’t come to fruition or later if it does. I hope you enjoyed today's show-and-tell.

The Legend of Benito MagnetoFriday, April 08, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I may have mentioned in a column or two over the winter that we moved our editorial offices downstairs to consolidate the Publications Department onto one floor of our humble little Route 66 salt mine and that we have new working quarters. When we first moved into this building way back in July 1993, as the bossman, I got first pick of offices and selfishly took the biggest and best, a corner office with a view of not just one but TWO parking lots.

Moving downstairs, I lost about a third of the office size and a view of those two parking lots. Today, I have just one window, from which, if you look out past yet another parking lot, you can see the Mother Road, Route 66. If my window opened, with a favorable wind, I could probably lob a red pen into the closest lane and hit Marty Milner's Corvette. But I digress.

The good thing about moving is that you get a chance to start anew, so when it came time to decorate my new office, I grabbed one of the many pieces of art we had hanging on the walls upstairs and claimed it as mine: Kenny Youngblood's amazing Benito Magneto print.

It's a faux promotional poster for an appearance by the aforementioned Mr. Magneto, an Italian Funny Car racer, and his rather tricked-out flopper. Ours is a personalized copy on which Youngblood has drawn a speech bubble coming from our hero proclaiming, "To ze USA To be in ze National Dragster!"

I've stared for a long time at the artwork, which is so unlike anything that the amazing Youngblood had done or has done since, and every time, I see something new. It's so rich in detail it's mind-boggling, and, as it turns out, Youngblood wasn't just accessorizing his car like some out-of-control J.C. Whitney catalog shopper; it turns out that he had purpose behind the madness, and a lot of thought went into what might easily be dismissed as a cartoonish drawing.

How do I know? Well, you know me. I got to wondering about the story behind the story, the kind of stuff I like to share here, so I dropped Kenny an email, hoping to set up an interview. He said he was busy that day – heading out to the March Meet – but he'd love to talk about it because he was planning to rerelease the print as part of his 'Blood Did It 45th anniversary world-tour souvenirs.

The next thing I know, instead of an interview, I got the entire story delivered into my lap, in the man's own words. Magnifico! So, without further ado …

The Legend of Benito Magneto
by Kenny Youngblood

In the early '70s, when Funny Cars were breaking the 200-mph barrier, their lack of proper aerodynamics was causing some real problems. Most notably was Bob Pickett’s pass at OCIR, where the entire car literally “took off” in the lights, flying across the finish line!

The racers had to do something, and Bob Kachler had the solution! For his 1971 Hot Rod magazine article, Bob -- who was the creative genius behind Racing Graphis magazine -- had me do some drawings depicting what (we thought) was happening aerodynamically to the fiberglass-bodied coupes.

The article was all about areas of high and low air pressure and how adding spoilers would create sufficient downforce to keep the cars glued to the track. For the lead illustration, the good Lord gave me Benito Magneto and his Flop-O-Aerodynamico! Benito’s revolutionary Funny Car incorporated every possible innovation to generate “downforce,” and then some!

First of all were the car’s aerodynamic features, starting with the car's high angle of attack and severely chopped top, wedging it against the air (and necessitating the fender bumps). Next was the guy-wire-supported, double-element rear wing with vertical stabilizers and aero-shaped strut tubing. Added, too, were the double-element canard wings on each side of the car. Note that the car's unique header system was ingeniously designed to direct the hot exhaust gas against the underside of the top element, thus increasing the airspeed to reduce pressure and maximize downforce.

The car also had an extra-tall rear spoiler and ground-level front spoiler. The rear spoiler was so effective it obviously stressed its mounting bolts and the front spoiler so low that when the car was fully loaded and ready to run, it became somewhat less than ground level!

Not visible (behind the front sandbags) was a real grille opening that vented front-end air pressure out through the louvers in the hood. And finally was the addition of the aerodynamic, needle-nosed blower pulley!

Designed by Benito, the top pulley was made of magnesium and had to be machined in the United States (as no one could be found in Europe who worked with the exotic metal). So Benito sent the design to a young American racer named Steve Leach, who shipped the finished part back to Magneto’s secluded Palermo, Italy, race shop (which took over a month as much of its transport was by mule).

With the aerodynamic features in place, Benito then concentrated on static downforce.

Supplementing the lead weight bar on the front end and over the rear tires was Benito’s amazing and fully adjustable Sand Bag Static Traction System (SBSTS). At the hit, the weight of the bags optimized traction, which gave the car incredible 60-foot times (unfortunately, they didn’t have 60-foot clocks back then). Then, as the car gained speed and no longer needed them, Benito (utilizing a complex ratchet-lever system, which can be seen inside the car), would “eject” the bags as needed! The farther back the lever was pulled, the more bags fell off, lightening the car for its top-end charge!

Other unique features on the machine included the fully adjustable wheelie bar, the side-mounted dual parachutes, and the header-mounted “training wheels.” The wheels were designed to help stabilize the car when it got out of shape (an idea Benito got from watching Dave Condit drive the L.A. Hooker, using the side pipes as rockers). Also unique was the inclusion of a “brodie knob” on the half-round, '48 Alfa Romeo steering wheel (butterfly wheels were yet to catch on in Europe). The knob allowed Benito to steer the car with one hand while keeping the other on the sandbag-release lever.

To monitor the car's performance and measure existing weather conditions, the vehicle was equipped with a weather vane and wind sock for wind direction as well as a wind-speed indicator and aircraft pitot tube to measure air pressure. During a run, Benito would actually monitor the air pressure (downforce) indicated on the dash-mounted gauge and release the sandbags accordingly.

The car was quite successful and way ahead of its time, but, of course, there were some bugs.

The first problem was getting the car into the staging lanes for its maiden run as the static downforce systems eliminated the necessary ground clearance. This problem was overcome by using a dolly and making some simple adjustments to the suspension.

The next problem was a little more serious, or at least for the Sicurezza Safari (Italian Safety Safari), because, of course, the ejection of the sandbags required extensive cleanup. The Italian sanctioning body immediately imposed a penalty against the popular (and country’s only) fuel Funny Car team, but it was quickly rescinded (much to the delight of the fans). It’s not known for sure, but legend has it that Benito’s bodyguard (Johnny Limo Sr.) made the officials “an offer they couldn’t refuse” behind the timing tower (which had a slight “lean” to it, in honor of the tower in Pisa).

Other minor problems arose (like when the header flames burned the canard wings off the car), but none that couldn’t be easily resolved.

How far ahead of its time was it? Well, we think Jim Head would have been very proud of Benito as his machine incorporated a long list of innovations, innovations that would not be seen until, in some cases, many years later.

By the numbers: Flop-O-Aerodynamico

Benito Magneto’s 1971 Flop-O-Aerodynamico was the first to have or use:

1. A roof hatch (now mandatory on Funny Cars)

2. Double-element wings (now standard in Top Fuel)

3. Vertical stabilizers (now incorporated in Funny Car spoilers and Garlits' T-tail)

4. Guy-wire supports (used now on Funny Cars)

5. Front fender bumps (used in the late 1970s)

6. Dual, side-mount parachutes (dual chutes now mandatory)

7. Aero-shaped tubing for wing supports (now standard equipment)

8. A vented hood (used later on Don Schumacher’s Wonder Wagon Vega)

9. A weather station (now standard)

10. On-run data (now standard)

11. Dollies to move the car in the pit area (now standard)

Benito was ahead of his time in the marketing arena, too: He had Europe’s first major nonautomotive sponsor; the Tums logo can be seen above the header cutout. And of course, Steve Leach went on to become the leading manufacturer of magnesium blower drives!

A few things didn’t catch on, like the aero blower pulley, the training wheels, the brodie knob, the rearview mirrors, and, of course, the sandbags, but all in all, it was a plenty trick piece.

Oh yes, Benito is pictured wearing another of his innovations that went by the wayside. It was a safety device “just in case” -- his firesuit/parachute combination. As it worked out, he didn’t need the parachute; the Funny Cars never flew again! 
... and, that, ladies and gentlemen, is the legend of Benito Magneto. My thanks to Kenny for not only chronicling the life and times of Mr. Magneto, but also for his superb storytelling and writing ability that is just shy of his drawing talents.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week.

The Garlits lovefest continuesTuesday, April 05, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess
The Bucher brothers -- from left, Mike, Rick, and Tim -- helped Garlits push Swamp Rat 34 back into the pit area at the 2002 Gatornationals.

Just back in from a great weekend in Sin City, and the Inbox has been overflowing. I should have known better than to expect the "Big Daddy" lovefest to end after just one column. No doubt inspired by the outpouring of Don Garlits stories and photos that  I published here last week, I received quite a few more, some of which I'll share below.

One of the best came from Tim Bucher, the middle son of late, great Chevy Top Fuel racer Jim Bucher. I had mentioned in Part 3 of the Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide that the Bucher boys had been part of the effort to help Garlits ready Swamp Rat 34 for the 2001 Indy event and Garlits' hoped-for 300-mph pass, and Tim outlined that episode and many more of his brushes with greatness, which also included a stint on the crew in 1985.

"I worked for [Garlits] part of the 1985 season," he wrote. "After I graduated from college, was engaged to be married, thought I had to give this racing thing a shot. I got hired by Don after the Springnationals in Columbus 1985. I traveled with Herb Parks for the summer, was with the team long enough to win four national events that year. Here are two of my most memorable moments regarding 'Big':

The victory celebration at the 1985 Grandnational. Tim Bucher is fifth from left.

"At the 1985 Grandnational Molson, I remember not liking the intensity of Don during the event. I thought he was being kind of a jerk during the whole weekend. I kept to myself as much as possible, tried to do my job as best as I could. After winning the final round, I remember getting to the end of the track; I walked past Don just trying to do my job right, getting the car ready to tow back to the pits. Don ignored everybody else, stopped me, gave me a big hug, and told me, 'That was for your dad.' From that point on, I looked at 'Big Daddy' differently.
"After losing in the first round of the Brainerd event, it was just the three of us towing out of the track. Herb was driving the truck, Don was in the front passenger seat, and me in the back seat. It was a disappointing loss. At a quiet moment, I felt comfortable enough to ask, 'So, who do you want to win this event?' I’ll never forget what happened next. Don turned around to look at me, said nothing, then turned back around. We drove in silence for quite a while. I wondered what was so wrong with what I said. Herb later told me, 'If Don doesn’t win, he doesn’t want anyone to win.' Wow, I’ve never been around someone so intense and so driven to succeed as 'Big Daddy.'
"I went on to live normal life, raise my family, did some Sportsman racing on my own to get racing the rest of the way out of my system. As the years went by, I learned to appreciate Don and his influence on me. When I heard he was thinking about making a comeback at Indy in ‘01, I offered to come down and help. I think he had many offers to help. I picked up my younger brother Rick and drove all night to Florida. We walked into the shop on a Monday morning, and Don looked at us like we were ghosts -- I think because after all the offers of help, we were the first of just a few who actually showed up to help. We weren’t even that qualified to help, but we showed up. I have many good memories of that week, getting to drive the truck to push-start 'Big' in Swamp Rat VI-B, working with Jim Hunnewell and 'T.C.' Lemons, hanging with Peggy Hunnewell. Most of all the one late-night conversation on that late-August evening when my brother and I hung out with 'Big Daddy' in his own personal garage, watching him assemble an engine and listening to us about several important topics -- I’ll keep that conversation between the three of us, but one of the most memorable evenings of my life. Finally, I’d like to say that I think 'Big Daddy' is a much kinder and compassionate man than he’d want anyone to know."

Bucher also shared this very special (and funny) photo of him, his brother, Hunnewell, and Garlits – and his little green friend – posed in and around Swamp Rat VI-B. As many know, Garlits has a passionate interest in extraterrestrials. "After NHRA pulled the plug [on their hopes to get Swamp Rat 34 ready to race], we helped [Garlits and Hunnewell] get Swamp Rat VI-B running. The last night we were there, we gathered for a group photo, and at the last minute, I grabbed Don's secret alien to put in the photo. Don is really a lot more compassionate and funny than most people know. As Rick and I drove home from Florida the next day, I remember telling him that we just spent a week with a person most drag racing fans would never get to. I think there are only two photos of this; I have one, and Rick has one. That photo has a lot of meaning in it for me."

Mike Burg of Wadsworth, Ohio, sent this fab photo of Garlits that he took in 1971 at Dragway 42 in West Salem. "I was a junior in high school," he remembered. "I snuck through the fence and ran up to Don's car, flashed him the peace sign, he flashed me one back, I snapped the picture and ran before I got caught in the staging lanes. In 2006, Don was doing an appearance at Summit Racing here in Ohio, and I took the picture to show him. He signed it for me, 35 years after it was taken. You will recognize 'T.C.' Lemons looking over the Hemi behind Don, and if you look just to the right, you can see that he is staging beside Steve Carbone (written on the black truck). This picture sits in a frame inside a case surrounded by my Swamp Rat diecasts."

Paul Greven Jr. of Pomona sent his thoughts via email with the intriguing subject line "What makes Garlits fans so loyal" and recounted his memories of The Last Drag Race in October 1977 at Irwindale, where he was competing with a bracket dragster. "No better end was possible than a match race between Garlits and Shirley Muldowney," he wrote of the fabled track's closing. "When we arrived, we found out that Garlits had almost lost his finger while working on the car in the pits," he wrote. "He was already at Santa Teresita's emergency room getting stitched up. We figured that he was done for the night. Shirley made a checkout pass, and as the evening was about to start, Garlits was back with a huge bandage on the finger in question. He got suited up, got in the car for their first race, and promptly beat her. A while later, they had their next race, and he won again. He easily could have loaded up, and nobody would have blamed him one bit, but his dedication and competitive spirit carried the day. Those were the days when you could literally walk up to the cars and crews, no ropes or aloofness at all. Even though he was in obvious pain, he was cordial with his fans and went above and beyond the call of duty to please the fans that were there."

Terry Knickerbocker of Eugene, Ore., had a similar experience with Garlits at the 1973 Winternationals. "I was in the starting-line stands at Pomona, hanging on the rail about halfway up the stands shooting stars of the sport coming back up the return road and turning through the break between grandstands to return to the pits," he remembered. "I was prefocused and ready when 'Big Daddy' made the turn, and just as he was under us, he looked up and flashed his trademark victory sign. He was in Eugene in 1995 at the spring hot rod and roadster show when he autographed it for me."

Gary Osborn has a pretty cool item on his aafueler.com website, a 1964 Garlits Speed Shop catalog that he has scanned. "It was a 10-page catalog at the time, and, of course, it is 47 years old," he wrote. "It is just amazing to look at the prices from back then and how time has changed." You can find it here: http://www.aafueler.com/garlits.htm.

Tom Miller sent this photo, which he said was taken in the pit area at the airport “dragstrip” in Dunkirk N.Y., in 1960, "where the finish-line timers were triggered by gas-station hoses," he wrote. "According to legend, this is the place where 'Big' earned his Swamp Rat name." Close, but not quite. As mentioned in Part 1 of the Spotter's Guide, Garlits started using the Swamp Rat name after Setto Postoian tried to take him to task for putting young Art Malone in the car in Sanford, Maine. Malone broke Garlits' Drag News record of 182.54 mph on his first outing in the car with a speed of 183.66, and Postoian took out an ad in Drag News saying that Garlits was a "swamp rat" for putting a "green kid" in the car. Garlits used the insult to his advantage, and the rest is history. This is, however, the Malone-driven version of Swamp Rat I (Swamp Rat I-B), as is evident by looking at the roll cage. When Garlits drove it, through the June 20, 1959, fire in Chester, S.C., there was no middle bar behind the driver's head. The cockpit was rebuilt to accommodate the taller Malone.

Stephen Justice sent this great pic of Garlits-Swingle, far lane, racing Jim McLennan and the Champion Speed Shop rail at famed Half Moon Bay Drag Strip in Northern California. "Note the front body panel sans paint," said Justice. "I want to say this is Swamp Rat III-A and the photo was taken in late 1960. Connie Swingle is behind the wheel. Signed by 'Big.' "

I also heard back from Rich Venza regarding Swamp Rat 33, which as noted crashed at Bonneville with Dave Thomssen at the wheel after Garlits had left them in possession of the streamliner. Damage was limited to some of the body panels, coil-over shocks, and wheels/tires, and when the car's body was restored, a fin was added to the tail by E.J. Kowalski in Reading. "We took it to the first SCTA Muroc reunion, where E.J. made a couple passes, then on to Bonneville, where we were ready to break a couple more records and put E.J. into the 2-Club, but Mother Nature and the rain gods had other ideas," wrote Venza. "This is a photo of the rebuilt SR 33 at Bonneville [with the fin]. It is on display in Don's museum in this configuration."

OK gang, that's it for today. Coming Friday: The legend of Benito Magneto!

Your Garlits stories and photosTuesday, March 29, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Writing a drag racing history column about "Big Daddy" Don Garlits is like playing The Beatles or The Beach Boys on your classic-rock radio station: Ain't no one gonna complain. I wasn't surprised to see an outpouring of love (and old photos) for "Large Father" after my three-part Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide, some of the best of which are shared below.

Reader Tommy Thompson of Hardyville, Va., sent a trio of Garlits photos from his long and varied life as a drag race fan that started in the late 1950s in Chester, S.C., and included regular visits to the old Charlotte track ("in the boonies just north of the present Charlotte Motor Speedway complex," he reported), where he remembers seeing Garlits and Art Malone and Super Stock heroes like Ronnie Sox, Shirl Greer, Buddy Martin, Jake King, and others. "Man, it was like heaven!" he said. "On the big SS race nights, they'd have what they called a parade lap. All the racers would line up and drive down the track, turn around, and drive back up the track. In those days, of course, all the so-called ‘stockers’ still had a full complement of seats, so if you were in the staging area and were real lucky, you had a chance to ride in the parade lap. One of my fondest memories is sitting in the middle of the back seat between two other guys and doing that parade lap in Richard Broome's '63 Z11 Impala."

He joined the Air Force and in August 1964 was sent to tech school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., home of Gulf Coast Dragway, where he saw his first almost-200-mph pass in the spring of 1965. "There were posters up all over town and the base: ‘See Don Garlits and his 200-mph dragster!' Well, it wasn't Garlits but Swingle, and he only did 198, but it was still something to see!"

Stationed in the Northeast, he went to all of the great tracks in the region — Cecil County, Capitol, Aquasco, York U.S. 30, Budds Creek — and after his service stayed in the Richmond, Va., area, saw the first of 21 consecutive Summernationals, moved to Houston, then back to Virginia, seeing as many races along the way as he could.


"I suppose that over the past 50 or so years, I've been to probably 100 major NHRA events, a handful of AHRA and IHRA majors, and a couple of ADRL Pro Mod events. Oddly enough, I've never made it to Gainesville or close-to-home Bristol,” he said. "I have a 2-cubic-foot cardboard box absolutely packed with nothing but racing photos — some NASCAR, but probably 90 percent drag racing. Sadly, they're all in a massive jumble. I've been telling myself for years that I should straighten the mess up, but so far ...

"I'm including three pics of Garlits cars. The white-bodied one was taken at E-town (early '80s?). The black car, which looks like the same except for the paint, was taken at Ontario, again in the early '80s. (Don't remember the exact year, but it was the race where Shirley came from behind to steal the championship from I think Jeb Allen; could these be the same car?) The other pic of the front-engine car was taken at a Division 2 points meet at Suffolk Dragway in Virginia. Must've been in the very late '60s right after I got out of the Air Force. It's the car with the red stripe down the center of the body. First couple of passes were made with the body in place. Don removed it later (it's sitting on top of his trailer) because of the wicked crosswinds that day."

The two cars in question are actually not the same car, the white one being Swamp Rat 24 with the famous "God is Love" cross and the black car being Swamp Rat 25 (aka Godzilla), which came the following season, in 1980, when indeed Shirley Muldowney did beat Jeb Allen (and Gary Beck and Marvin Graham) for the championship, her second. The front-engine car is Swamp Rat X, easily identifiable by its red and black cowling.

Here's another pic of a Garlits car that wasn't all black. In fact, it's the all-red version of Swamp Rat X. Clyde Blair of Southgate, Mich., took this photo in 1966 at Detroit Dragway, where Garlits beat Don Prudhomme's B&M Torkmaster in a match race. Garlits tells a pretty funny tale about another 1966 race with "Snake" in his book. At Half Moon Bay, during a challenge for Garlits' top spot on the Drag Racer magazine list, for some reason, the track had already engraved the winner's trophy with Prudhomme's name. Garlits still has the trophy and the "runner-up" plaque that was quickly removed before it was presented to him. Garlits was still learning how to make the new 426 hemi run after years of dominating with the old 392, so the promoters obviously thought that Prudhomme, winner the year before of the Winternationals and Nationals in Roland Leong's car, might hand "Big Daddy" his lunch. Didn’t happen that way; Garlits won two out of three.

I'm lucky in that one of the most avid readers of this column is a guy who makes my claim of being a drag racing historian seem like first-grade readin' and writin' — Bret Kepner. He’s always quick with a compliment, gracious with a correction, and generous with his knowledge, and I wasn't surprised to see an e-mail from him after the third installment.

Kepner noted that though the item about the Garlits sidewinder mentioned Mike and Chuck Sage, it omitted Russ Camp's name, a key member of the company, SCS Gears, whose initials help make up Sage-Camp-Sage. "While Mike and Chuck were known for a variety of race cars (their Ohio Express Duster BB/FC among them), Russ eventually became both driver (of their Arrow BB/FC of the same name) and an equal part of the brain trust which helped create the sidewinder."

As a member of the Society of Land Speed Historians, Kepner also had more info on the Swamp Rat 33 Bonneville car, including an important note about the car's almost demise. "Rich Venza continued to run the car at Bonneville and Muroc after Garlits set his record in 1988 and managed to put Don Kehr and Tim Thomssen into the 200-mph Club with both flathead and ArDun powerplants," he reported. "If I remember correctly, the car eventually clocked a terminal speed (not applicable to a record) of 236 mph. In 1991, Dave Thomssen drove SR 33 at Bonneville with the ArDun engine but suffered a major crash at speed, which [damaged] the streamliner as well as the thumb on Dave's right hand. The car was rebuilt and competed on the Salt until 1996, when it was sent to Ocala for permanent display duty."

I also heard from Venza — another longtime Insider reader — who verified Kepner's facts about the records and provided information about the project that was so vital that I went back and amended the copy that initially (as cribbed from Garlits' book) attributed construction to Venza. "Actually, I was the project manager on the project," he wrote. "I was involved with a group in Lincoln, Neb., running a vintage streamliner when we decided to put a new modern-style car together. I was working at Speedway Motors and had worked with Don on some parts for a '32 Ford roadster he was restoring. When I read about his retirement due to eye problems, I contacted him about the Bonneville project. With no issues about chute hits on his eyes, he was very interested and signed on to the project. At that time, the pipe for 32 was on the jig, so the Bonneville car became 33. Lucky for us, 33 was not assigned at that time, and SCTA was thrilled to give it to us. The 'liner was built by Jim Schuman in his Blue Engineering shop in downtown Lincoln. Many others in our crew assisted with dozens of custom-made parts and tons of labor."

Rich Perez passed along a photo of a great little piece of Garlits memorabilia, an Isky book on valve timing that features Swamp Rat I on its cover.  "I am from New Jersey. I've been going to the drags at Englishtown since I got my driver's license in 1969. I have three sons in their 20s and have introduced them to the thrill of drag racing. My late uncle was a heavy-equipment mechanic for the operating engineers local union. He died in an industrial accident in 1989. My cousin inherited the family-owned apartment house that my uncle lived in and decided to sell it in 2005. My uncle's tools and shop manuals were still in a storage bin in the basement of the apartment house. My cousin and I cleaned out the whole area, and we came upon an old Isky Cam pamphlet with Swamp Rat I on the cover, copyright 1958. You can imagine my surprise and delight to have stumbled onto this treasure. Maybe someday 'Big Daddy' will come to Englishtown again and I will have an opportunity to present it to him for the museum in Florida, or maybe I'll just get him to autograph it if I can't bear to give it up."

Speaking of Garlits and Isky, Steve Pace didn't take the photo above but had it in his collection and thought we'd like to see it. You don’t see many color photos of Swamp Rat I and not many photos of Garlits' early cars that didn't have an Isky cam in them. You can see that SR I is sponsored here by Giovannoni Cams. Ray Giovannoni offered Garlits the unheard-of sum of $10,000 to run his cam in 1960 ("Ray was a crazy man, had lots of money, and hated the West Coast," explained Garlits). Garlits gave Ed Iskenderian the right to match the fee, but Isky passed.

Ed Eberlein took this photo at the famed March Meet in 1976. "Only photo I have of this car. Did Don drive this or did he have someone else in cockpit? Was this really his Funny Car? Or did he help out someone?" So many questions, so few answers. Kepner rode to the rescue again. "That would be Norm Day from Indiana; he rented Gar's name for this BB/FC 'Cuda," he wrote. "It was later converted into a Dodge Magnum (!), and everywhere it appeared, it was, of course, advertised as 'Don Garlits' Funny Car!' Bear in mind, Norm had much success with the 'name-rental' program, having already campaigned a Vega wagon BB/FC under the 'leased' name of 'Big John' Mazmanian and later barnstorming Ivo's Showboat."

Dave Gibson took one look at the photo I had of Swamp Rat 21, the 1975 Winternationals winner, and immediately noticed the tall wing struts. "Are we sure that the picture of Swamp Rat 21 from 1975 is accurate? The wing is high, and it looks more like an Amato-inspired rear wing from the mid-'80s." I'll have to agree that it looks like (once more) “the Old Man” was ahead of the game, but that photo is most definitely from the 1975 Winternationals.

Praise for Garlits was, of course, unanimous.

"It's no secret that Garlits was one of the great innovators of drag racing, and his skill and determination are sorely missed in this day of cookie-cutter cars," opined Paul Cuff. "Whether it's due to rule restrictions or lack of motivation to be different, the days of diversity in Top Fuel racing seem to be gone, for the most part."

Jeff Foulk of Finagler injected Funny Car fame wrote, "Great series on Don Garlits' cars. I learned a lot about the legend. I have met him several times and have seen him match race numerous times. As a Florida resident, I feel like a dumb ass for never having visited the museum. I need to correct that! The only other thing I can say is 'Big' sure went through a lot of pipe!”

He sure did, Jeff, and not just for his cars. David McGriff sent this ad, which ran in the February 1972 edition of Car Craft magazine, meaning that it probably went to press in December 1971 after it became clear that Swamp Rat 14 was going to work. (Actually, that became apparent after it won the Winternationals!) It's kinda small here, but the ad copy reads: "Don Garlits says, 'Rear engine dragsters are here to stay.' World's quickest and fastest rear engine chassis — 233 mph — 6.43 e.t. Big Daddy is now in full production of the fantastic Swamp Rat series rear engine dragsters. Complete chassis, including steering, firewall, rear housing, and all the pedals and levers, front spindles — only — $1,500.00. Three weeks delivery — deposit required." I'm not sure if I'm reading that right, but $1,500 for a Garlits rear-engine dragster chassis? What an investment that would be today, eh?

Jack Franklin passed along this snapshot he took of a youthful-looking "Big Daddy" in May 1973 during a match race with Tommy Ivo at Muncie Dragway. "I was asked while hanging around Garlits’ car in the pits to 'help' 'Big Daddy.' Then-crew chief ‘T.C.’ Lemons approached me and asked for the help. My job: to push the car back after the burnouts. I was 14, and this solidified my loyalty to Garlits and love of Top Fuel cars. What a weird feeling to ride in the sleeper section of his old Dodge push truck during the fire-up, then to run down the track before the burnout. My best memory? Running up to Garlits' car after his burnout, grabbing the roll bar, and Garlits looked up to me. Forty years later in my life, I still cannot believe I got to do this … man, the emotion this draws out of me. Helping my real-life hero do what he does. It does NOT get any better than that."

Jeff Thomas wrote, "I have had the pleasure of meeting him a few times over the years, and the last time having him autograph my pictures from the 1976 Popular Hot Rodding event at Martin U.S. 131 Dragway (I was all of 17). I saw him at the Mopar event at Bandimere in 1998. When he saw the pictures, he knew when and where they were taken; I was impressed he remembered so many years later. He also said to me, 'You've been waiting a long time to get these signed.' Yes sir, I had! Just a wonderfully gracious man and very welcoming to all who were there. Fond memories, indeed!"

Gary Goetz saw Swamp Rat I run in 1958 or 1959 at Fort Montgomery airport, where he remembers Garlits turning a national record 8.36 with an Isky cam and his brother, Ed, running the Buick dragster. He added an all-too-familiar note from anyone old enough to have seen the original in action: "Will send photos of the Fort Montgomery meet once I can get that 10-year-old kid walking past the house to show me how."

I'm headed off to Las Vegas later this week for the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals. Even though this race has been on the NHRA calendar since 2000, and even though it's just a short flight (or even drive) away, I've never been. I'm not telling you this so you can have me put down your Final Four bets; it’s just a heads-up that unless something falls in my lap between now and Friday that just can’t wait, there won’t be a week-ending column. Be sure to check out our daily View from Vegas photo galleries to keep up with the latest and greatest from The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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