Thursday's Breakfast of Champions, held at the NHRA Motorsports Museum with Don Garlits and John Force, the two finalists in NHRA's season-long 50 Greatest Drivers program.
One of the two will be named the NHRA's No. 1 driver during Sunday's pre-race ceremonies for the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway. Most recently Don Prudhomme was named No. 3 on the list that was compiled by a panel of NHRA drag racing experts, 37 journalists and historians of the sport.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE IN THE FINAL TOP-TWO OF THE GREATEST 50 DRIVERS OF ALL TIME?
Like I told USA Today, just to be in the final three, as far as I'm concerned, is a great honor. Don Prudhomme, John Force and myself, any of the three, you can pick out good reasons why each one should be No. 1. It's a really hard decision to make and to say, 'Well, this one is three and this one is two and this one is No. 1.' It's a really hard decision. As far as I'm concerned, all three epitomize the sport of drag racing. John has epitomized relationships with corporate sponsorship. And Snake actually got that started. And (Prudhomme) was a driver. He was a driver's driver. He was one of the first guys that came out and didn't build his own car. He actually was a hired driver. Myself, I came from the beginning, I built my own cars, and I drove my own car. That was an era that has come and gone. You look at John Force and you see what he has done with corporate sponsorship. It is incredible what he has done to bring the sport up to the next plateau. In my opinion, he brought the sport to the same footing as NASCAR and CART racing. I really couldn't say who should be one or two. I think the three personalities have really represented the sport and what it actually stands for today.
This is a very serious occasion. I am very proud to be a part of it. I am just proud to be here. I never thought I was better than Prudhomme or Kenny Bernstein, and especially Shirley Muldowney. She is one lady that I know not to make mad. 'Cause I've seen her mad at you, Garlits. My uncle, Gene Beaver raced Funny Cars for years in the Coca-Cola circuit. I probably loved this individual as much as my own father. He helped me get to where I am today. When he spoke of the greatest driver, he spoke of Don Garlits and my uncle knew the sport as good as anybody. Beaver was a real drag racer. I'm an artificial drag racer. Hell, I can't even hang cabinets in my hauler. I tried, but they fell off on the way to Las Vegas. When Gene Beaver spoke of people, he spoke of Don Prudhomme and Don Garlits. Funny Car and Top Fuel. If there hadn't been a Don Garlits, maybe there wouldn't have been an NHRA. Back then, if there wasn't a Don Prudhomme, maybe there wouldn't be a John Force because he was my motivation to get here. And Don Garlits is the guy who got us here to this point. And that is how I really stand.
DON, DID YOU EVER THINK 40 YEARS AGO THAT YOU WOULD BE RACING IN 2001?
No, I didn't, as a matter of fact. I thought it was all over. I came back in 1992 and built that mono-wing car and hurt my eyes with those special parachutes and I really thought that was the end of it, forever. We've got different kind of chutes now and my eyes are much better and here I am. It's not something I want to do on a regular basis, but it is fun to do every once in a while.
WHAT THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 1992 AND NOW?
These cars are so different. When I went to Indianapolis I had to be re-trained. It took me a couple of runs to get me acclimated to how these cars run now. It's not like it used to be; it's a totally different feeling.
DID YOU EVER THINK THE EVOLUTION OF YOUR REAR-ENGINE DRAGSTER WOULD BE THE END-ALL TO THIS WHOLE SPORT?
When I built that rear-engine car I was hoping that it would be barely competitive where I could get out there and run with the guys and not have all that terrible fire and parts flying around. I never thought, in my wildest dreams that it would completely surpass the ability of the slingshot to compete much less reach the performance levels it does today. It is mind-boggling that we can send that vehicle down the quarter-mile in four-and-a-half seconds over 330 miles per hour. Most people don't understand that, to them it's just numbers. You have to actually come out to the track and see it and even that is not the same as actually being in it.
YOU SAID THE CARS ARE TOTALLY DIFFERENT, WHAT PART? THE GADGETS, THE TREE, STAGING?
The sequence of what the driver has to do prior to going to the starting line, the backing the car, the way you have to do the clutch. Everything is very precise, and it all happens in a certain amount of time. Before you just did whatever you wanted. You rode the clutch; you backed up, held the other guy up if you didn't want to stage. There was a lot of flexibility that the driver had. The driver doesn't have that flexibility anymore. It is a very serious situation, everything has to be done with precision and right on target.
DO YOU WISH YOU WERE YOUNGER AND DOING IT TODAY?
It's definitely an exciting sport, I think it's the most exciting sport on the planet.
DO YOU THINK (THE REAR-ENGINE DRAGSTER) IS YOUR LEGACY?
I think that's my legacy, I really do. I had so much opposition, everybody was against it. Sponsors were against it, everybody at the track was against it. I showed up at Long Beach with the car and C.J. Hart didn't want me to run the car. He said every rear-engine that ever went down the track crashed and he didn't want Don Garlits getting killed at his racetrack. The racing association had so much power that they convinced him to let me run. At first I just ran singles because nobody would race against me. They were afraid, but they didn't realize that I had three months of testing and we pretty much had everything worked out. It just gives you an idea of what I was up against. Goodyear called me up and said, 'We have a lot of money in you and we don't want anything to happen to you. You need to give up on this project.' They said they would build me a really nice slingshot dragster. My team, was two guys at the time. They believed in it. After three months of testing, almost every run the car made, we went off the dragstrip somewhere. There would have never been a rear-engine dragster if we had the walls because I would have run into them a couple of times and it would have been all over. The truth of the matter is that even I had finally reached the end of my rope. I told my wife, 'I'm going to give up on it.' She said, 'Big Daddy, stay with it. If anybody can make that car work, it's you.' So we went out and gave it another shot and I was coming off the drag strip because we ran off the strip again. I'm setting there in the truck. I said, 'That evil witch, we are never going to get it.' Then someone said, 'Those Indianapolis cars, they get around the track and they are rear engine.' I said, 'Yeah, I keep thinking that and that is why I keep working on it.' We went back to the shop and we just changed the arms around so it would slow down (the steering). I went back to the track the next day and that thing went straight as an arrow. We broke the Ram Charger's record. They were killers back then. We couldn't get that car in the trailer back fast enough to get back to the West Coast. It was all over. It was all in the steering.
JOHN, YOU WERE (VERY YOUNG) WHEN ALL OF THIS WAS GOING ON
Yeah, everyone thinks that I was around for 100 years. I started racing late. I raced as a kid, but never accomplished anything until 1974. I actually drove a car at Irwindale and they actually threw me out of Irwindale because the wings kept coming off. I drove a lot of cars that no one knew about because I never accomplished anything until I went to Australia and race with Gary Densham. Gary Densham baby-sat me and I stumbled along and that's how I got here.
WHAT ARE YOU THOUGHTS, JOHN, ON GARLITS' REAR-ENGINE DESIGN?
I was never any kind of an innovator. I can't turn on a hair drier. But I was into the look and design of the car. I didn't know how to build anything, for a fact. I tried, I just couldn't do it. Someone sent me home with a clutch one night and put it in my bedroom and told me to live with the thing for the next eight days. Look at it everyday and one day you will understand how it works. I'm often compared to the movie Days of Thunder. Remember when Tom Cruise says, 'I know how to do it, I just don't know why.' That's kind of me. I remember standing at Orange County Raceway and I watched Don Garlits bring out a rear-engine dragster sidewinder with a big chain. The engine was sideways. We just sat there laughing at this dragster with a cock-eyed engine. The header fire went the wrong direction. I sat there and looked at this thing and it was awesome. I just sat there and wondered how does he think up this stuff? That's what is so unique about him. Not taking anything away from NHRA, but the road started when Garlits moved from Florida to come out to California.
DON, DO YOU THINK DRAG RACING WOULD HAVE WILTED AWAY IF THEY HAD STAYED WITH THE SLINGSHOT DESIGN?
I do not believe that drag racing would be what it is today had the slingshot had stayed the dragster design. The speeds and the elapsed times would have been down from what they are today. The cars are so much stronger today and the parts are so much better than what we had in the late 1960's. I don't think a lot of our guys and gals would have made it in slingshots. The (slingshots) were hurting a lot of people back then.
JOHN, HOW HAS YOUR HIRING PROCESS AFFECTED YOUR TEAM?
One person I really miss is Gene Beaver. He really led me. He was a hustler, but he was brilliant. At a time when Garlits started, people had no money. Guys were working in paint shops and car garages and at night they were taking these pieces and creating something. I couldn't do that. That's why Gene Beaver told me to come over to where he was standing and take a look at something. He told me, 'Well, you can't hire Don Garlits because he's the best. But you could hire that guy Austin Coil.' I asked what he thought made him so good. Coil was sitting there in his truck, he had already won two championships with Frank Hawley. I said, 'I want to hire you.' He looked at me and said, 'Why would I possibly want to work for you?' And I told him, 'Cause I've got a million bucks' which I lied about. But Beaver told me, look at what he is doing. He was eating a hot dog and at the same time, he has one piston and he was filing on it. Beaver said, 'That guy knows how to make a car run, just like Don Garlits. He doesn't have 50 pistons like some other guys. He's got one, because he is broke and he has got to make it live.' Coil has become my best friend. There are two Einstein's in drag racing. Garlits is one of them and the other one is Coil. I truly believe that.