In drag racing, there is “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and there is everyone else. Some won more races and championships, but Garlits will always loom largest among the straightliners. He was the original badass. He foraged through junkyards for parts to build his own engines, fabricated his own cars from scraps, put them together, tuned them up himself, and then kicked everyone’s butt up and down the strip. Now 85, Garlits is still a powerful presence, working his 57th year for Mopar and Dodge. He has an incredible memory and loves to tell stories with zeal, even though he’s likely told them all 1,000 times before.
Automobile Magazine: As we recognize Mopar’s 80th anniversary, tell us about your association with the brand.
DG: Even today I do appearances for them. I actually got involved with them in 1958 when they started sending me engines out of warranty cars, mostly Chrysler 300s. That was a big help because those engines would cost about $450 in the salvage yard. So to get a couple of them every few months was a really big help to me. But that was unofficial. In 1961, I got the official call from Dodge, and they flew me to Detroit. I’ve been with them ever since.
AM: Can you believe nitro engines still use the same basic 426 from the ’60s?
DG: We called it an elephant motor when it came out; it was so big and strong. Ed Donovan, he was a big 392 guy, always said, “They increased the mass to save their ass.” I thought that was the funniest statement I’d ever heard. Problem was, it was heavier than the 392s. About that time I won the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championship in Bakersfield with the 392, but when I came home Frank Wiley at Mopar said he wanted me in the 426. I said, “Frank, it don’t run as good.” He said, “If you are with it all of the time, you will make it run good.”
Cotton Owen gave me a lot of help. He knew how to make the 426 live, but he didn’t know how to tune it for drag racing. He knew NASCAR, but he didn’t know anything about fuel racing. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him with one of those 426s on the dyno. It was running about 440 horsepower, and he said, “Let’s go to lunch. If it’s still running when I get back, I’ll know it’s a good one.” The engine is the strongest, most well-developed automotive engine ever built. It’s a real tribute to the engineering 50 years ago that a 426 today will make 11,500 horsepower on nitro for a few moments. It’s remarkable.
AM: How did you finally get it to run?
DG: I struggled for a year. It all came to a head at National Trail Raceway. I won three races, posted low ET and top speed of the day with an 8.12 at 192 mph. I was supposed to get $1,250. Old man [Clark] Rader is sitting behind his desk under this big old moose he had killed. He shoved $500 across the desk and then put his hand on a .45-caliber service pistol. He said, “Garlits, you laid down on me. I advertised 200-mph top speeds. You made a fool out of me, so take your $500 and don’t ever come back.” I was really upset [the next day at another race], and I told my boys I was just going to blow the 426 up and go back to the 392. I told them to put 40 degrees spark in it. I’d been running 34 degrees, exactly what you put in the 392. The damn thing ran 213 mph. We expected to find all kinds of damage, but it looked brand-new. I said, “Give it another 10 degrees,” and it went 7.31 seconds at 219 mph.
AM: Describe today’s drag racing.
DG: It’s a totally different world. We got most of our parts at the junkyard, and you had to be a fabricator, and there wasn’t any money. If you got a $500 war bond, that was a big prize. We’d drive halfway across the country to win something like that. We usually had less than $1,000 in the race car, and we learned by racing. Of course, some of us got hurt. I was nearly burned to death playing with nitromethane and a blower. That’s just the way it was. Everyone was really close in those days. Today the drivers don’t seem that close.
AM: You would even share parts …
DG: Bakersfield, it was the final round, me against Vance Hunt, and his engine blew up in the round before. He borrowed a motor from Don Cook, so we all went over and helped him change it out even though we were about to race him. I’ll never forget Vance asked Cook if he could put 38 degrees of spark in it because he really wanted to beat Big Daddy, and Cook said, “Well you can back it down if you want to.” Cook already had more than that in the damn thing.
AM: Do you expect to race again?
DG: Dodge came out with the Drag Pak Challenger in 2008. I was bored silly because my wife asked me really nicely not to drive nitro cars anymore. Mopar flew me to Denver, and Judy Lilly and I raced the first two cars they built at the Mopar Mile-Highs. We got such a reception. … I don’t know how many they built, but I know I got the first one and ran it at a bunch of national events. I didn’t win but had a couple of really good reaction times. Then in 2012 they came out with a new Viper, and I got one of those. It went 9.4 seconds at 145 mph, but by then my wife [Pat] had gotten really sick, and I didn’t go to many races. Both cars are in the garage. We just got them out of mothballs the other day and are thinking about taking them to some races. Why not?