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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Don Garlits The Man

By John Wilson

Born January 14, 1932, Donald Glenn Garlits grew up in Tampa, Florida. Just months after Don was born, his family lost their savings in a bank failure. That same year, the orange groves that had brought earlier prosperity, were ordered by the Florida Department of Agriculture to be destroyed due to fruit fly infestation. This economic blow sent Don and his parents from a large home on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard to a dirt floor shack on the outskirts of town. The meager years that followed taught Don about hard work, long hours, and diligence toward a job well done. Don and his brother Ed, who was born in 1933, did everything together, from milking the cows to maintaining the truck and farm equipment. They learned craftsmanship building model airplanes from scratch, and mechanical skills picked up from their dad were exercised repairing bicycles. The Saturday afternoon movies, and an occasional swim with the guys in the Hillsborough River, was their recreation. Don might have become an accountant, but his General Metals instructor, Howard Fowler, introduced the high school senior to his first look at a new California magazine called "Hot Rod". Don bought his first car at age 17, a blue 1940 Ford Sedan, with his two-year savings of $345.00. By 1950 he had traded up to a beautiful '40 Ford Convertible. During this period, Don's life was job to job, spending his paycheck and spare time on hot rodding. Then, in 1952, Don met Pat Bieger, who was about to graduate from Hillsborough High School. Pat was special, and suddenly Don had an entirely new interest. Don and Pat married in February 1953. With both of them working, they saved a little money, bought a lot, and built their first home. Garlits was reformed. He sold the convertible and settled down - until a Sunday drive took them by a drag strip in Lake Wales. Innocently, Don made a few runs in their 1950 Ford two door sedan, garnered the class win, along with a trophy, and the rest is history. Don's obsession to out run the fastest guy in Florida led to a series of chassis and engine changes, culminating in the world's fastest slingshot dragster. Racing appearances and a successful automotive shop called "Don's Garage," now marked Garlits' business future. It was 1957, and Don's performances around southern dragstrips were drawing significant attention to his name, along with a nice backlog of work in his shop. Americans were fascinated by the speed, sound, and acceleration in Drag Racing, prompting enthusiastic spectator response. As Garlits dominated the Top Eliminator class, track promoters from around the country were offering Don guaranteed money for racing appearances. Disaster struck at Chester, SC in 1959, while Pat was carrying the first of their two daughters. Don suffered horrible burns from a high-speed engine explosion, introducing the risks of fire in fuel racing. Near fatal burns prompted Don to sell everything when Art Malone proposed a racing partnership. Art took over driving the dragster, while Don maintained and tuned the record holding car. Ed worked in the shop, and Don, still healing, traveled with his new driver. Gay Lyn was born in November, which brightened the year for the young couple. Still reluctant to drive, Garlits tried other drivers in search for the ideal replacement, including a cocky young fellow named Connie Swingle. Swingle assisted Don in race-car innovation, and the proven Garlits chassis attracted lots of orders. Pure desire and tireless efforts kept "Big Daddy" in the racing headlines. Chrysler Corp. and Wynns Oil joined the long list of speed equipment manufacturers who sponsored the "Swamp Rat".

Donna Louise was born in January of 1961. Don enjoyed his family, so when the girls were only a few years old they began traveling together. Racing at tracks hundreds of miles apart, Don often drove all night to make the next scheduled appearance. Living out of suitcases, the girls slept in the station wagon, and Pat looked after the four of them. "Garlits Automotive" replaced the name of "Don's Garage," and on track success generated demand for the shop's high performance expertise. "Don Garlits, Inc.," was opened in Detroit with a focus on mail order performance parts, and the commercial dragster chassis business. Don was racing the Wynns Charger every weekend, and with the larger business operation came more employees. Gay Lyn started school in the fall, requiring Pat to stay home with the girls. With the increased demand on his time, and the tough cold winters, Garlits decided to move his operation back to Florida. Don and Pat built a beautiful ranch style home in Seffner, FL., with the shop attached. In 1969, "Don Garlits High Performance World" opened in Tampa, and a new building was added later to house the race car operation. Garlits was comfortable driving slingshots again when a nasty transmission explosion cut the dragster in half. The incident severed his right foot at the arch, and broke his left leg. Hospitalized in Southern California, Don began designing a car that would reduce the danger and fatalities in the slingshot dragsters by moving the driver location in front of the engine. The new rear engine car was sorted out over the winter of 1970 and debuted in 1971, handily winning the NHRA Winternationals. Garlits had brought in a whole new era for Top Fuel Racing, and his overwhelming success established him as an American Sports Legend. "Big Daddy" entered his third decade as a champion drag racer, full of enthusiasm, with his fears literally behind him. The satisfaction of being on top always managed to overcome the idea of retiring. Don is a living testament of persistence, and his record proves that life rewards those who back their desires with determination! Don and Pat live on the location that is now "Garlits Attractions," and they have five grandchildren. "Big Daddy" still maintains a full schedule around the shop, enjoys television commentating, and continues to accept opportunities for endorsements and public appearances.

Check out Don's Museum of Drag Racing website at www.garlits.com/.

John Wilson


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