NHRA Top Fuel legend 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits accomplished phase one of his comeback mission during Sunday's early qualifying round, covering the Indianapolis Raceway Park quarter-mile track in 4.720 seconds at 303.37 mph in the Gary Clapshaw-...
NHRA Top Fuel legend 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits accomplished phase one of his comeback mission during Sunday's early qualifying round, covering the Indianapolis Raceway Park quarter-mile track in 4.720 seconds at 303.37 mph in the Gary Clapshaw- owned Matco Tools dragster. The run moved Garlits into the 15th position for the 16-car starting lineup. Garlits, whose previous career-best performance numbers were 5.072 seconds at 287.71 mph, entered the 47th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals during NHRA's 50th Anniversary season with hopes of clocking his first run under five seconds at more than 300 mph. Garlits, a three-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion and eight-time U.S. Nationals winner, addressed the media after completing his drag racing resume with the career-best performance.
Congratulations, Don, you did it.
GARLITS: "I've always wanted to do it. Gosh, I would see all these guys doing it and I'm thinking I'm getting older and older. If I'm going to do it someday, when? I got to thinking about this anniversary for NHRA and this race, because it's special to me because I've won it eight times. It's like home to me. This is the racing capital of the world as far as I'm concerned. I thought I would come up here and see what I could do.
I worked on it and I was going to bring my car. I had Swamp Rat XXXIV being prepared and we were all ready to bring it up here. I had assembled a crew and a transporter then right at the last minute NHRA faxed me 16 pages of new rule changes. NHRA has been changing the rules this year between rounds because these cars are so fast and they want to keep them safe. They had issued all these new upgrades. All of the upgrades could be done to my car, but not in five days. So at 11 o'clock on Wednesday (Aug. 22nd) morning I pulled the plug. I said 'It's over, we're not going boys.' I mean we had worked twenty-four, seven.
Then at 1 o'clock the phone rang and it was Gary Clapshaw. I don't know Gary all that well. I had seen him race and I knew of him. We weren't personal friends. He said his car was entered in the race and that I was welcome to drive it. He said 'I know how bad you want to do this.' The next thing that happened, was the phone rang and it was Doug Davenport and he said we'll need money to do this because it's an expensive deal. He put together the Matco Tools deal and they made it possible for the Clapshaw-Garlits combination to happen.
I got here and I was really excited about it. My back has been broke several times in these dragsters over the years and I have a bad lower back. I had a special cushion made and I brought it with me and put it in the car. It really took up too much room in the car on that first trial run when I was going to do the half-pass on Friday night. I didn't feel comfortable in the car. I just wasn't right for it. I made a couple of mistakes on the starting line. I lifted, but I didn't mean to lift and that really troubled me. If that car is moving so hard and I'm doing things in there that I don't know what I'm doing, then I shouldn't be in there. We looked at the computer and the it showed that I came off the throttle and jiggled it three times. I knew I didn't do that, because I was underway. We got to looking at it and my foot is cut off half way. What was going on is that my foot was down in the pan and all I've got is that little stump that was moving the throttle. Under the heavy acceleration that little stump was not able to hold that pedal down anymore. The car automatically shut off. I put a little heel pad in there and got up on the pedal so I can stomp that pedal. They want to be stomped anyway. You want to kick that pedal out of the car, that's how you get good reaction times. That solved the problem.
Then we came out and a tiny ten-cent nut got loose and that caused it to run all the way down (on the burnout) and I couldn't stop it. The throttle was cocked and it wouldn't come back. Then last night it spun the tires and I was beginning to wonder if I could do it or not. But on that run when it spun the tires everything was really good. All the numbers were right until it actually turned the tires loose. That run against Shirley really felt good. I really felt like the car and I had come together.
Then to line up with the old Greek after all these years was pretty special. I remember one time when the Greek beat me 23 match races in a row. You guys probably don't even remember that because it was so long ago. He was fierce. He's seventy-something and was in World War II. It almost brought tears to my eyes when we were down there before the run suiting up. It was almost like we were match racing like we had done so many thousands of times over the years. Then for him to run 4.84 and 300 side-by-side down that track. What a deal. If I never do another thing in drag racing the rest of my life, I can always say I had a great time at Indy on Sunday afternoon.
Don, did you see the crowd standing at attention when you were coming back down the return road after the run?
GARLITS: Yes, that was great. That's Indianapolis, no question about it.
How does 4.70 at 300 miles per hour feel?
GARLITS: That really feels good. It would've been better. It was on a much better pass and it got loose right in the middle and I had to drive it around a little. It was really moving good up until that point. My best run was 5.07 at 287. I did that in Shirley's car (1989), probably a lot of you don't know that. She told me if I would get her in the fours as a consultant she would give me a ride in the car. I got her in the fours at Maple Grove and then we went down to Dallas to the national event there. I got in the car on the first pass and it spun (the rear tires). We backed it down a little and it only ran 5.07 at 287. That was my fastest ride up until that point. This ride exceeds that by a considerable amount.
Do you have plans now to bring out Swamp Rat XXXIV?
GARLITS: I am going to update the specifications on Swamp Rat XXXIV and I am going to bring the mono-wing car out. I am going to tell you something, you saw the car move around in the middle and the mono-wing car would not do that. That rudder would hold that car completely straight. It would have went through that little spot, puffed a little smoke, and went right down on through there. There wouldn't have been any of that stuff swinging around down there. You don't need that. If you can stay in the groove you can run faster. That's why I did that. I have a salt flats car. I've been at Bonneville on the salt and that's slick. You wouldn't even think of running a streamliner on salt without a rudder. It's unheard of. I just brought that technology over to drag racing and why it hasn't been picked up on, I don't know? I want someone to tell me the last time they saw a jet fighter with some tubes sticking up holding the wing back on the back of it. Think about it.
Is Swamp Rat XXXIV a new car?
GARLITS: That's the car we built in '94. The first mono-wing car is Swamp Rat XXXII, the salt flat car is XXXIII and XXXIV we came back and made modifications, not very many but the stuff we had learned. Swamp Rat XXXII is what we call a prototype and the little things I felt need a little dialing then we did that and built XXXIV and it went right out off the bat and went 4.88 at 299.30. It was a good running car. I have never driven XXXIV. It did not have the good fuel curve and the clutch technology that they have today. That's where all the speed is in the clutch and the fuel curve. You put Clapshaw's engine in Swamp Rat XXXIV and it will run 300 easy. The only difference is that the car is more stable.
What was the biggest motivator in your comeback to get the 300 mph speed?
GARLITS: All the time people are asking you what's the fastest that you've ever been. At one time 287 was good. That's not a great speed anymore. I would like to say that I've been over 300. I always thought it would be great to say that. Now I can say that. The Greek was just a little spur. I had already been buying parts and had Swamp Rat XXXIV out of the mothballs. I thought I would take it somewhere and do it. I had two or three different offers to go places for a match race and make this 300 mph run. I got to thinking about this U.S. Nationals. If you are going to do it and going to the trouble to do it, this is the place to do it. I mean, because of the crowd, the birthday, the NHRA anniversary. This to me is the biggest drag race. This one is the biggest they've ever had in drag racing once it is all finished. As far as the number of spectators. I think this is it. This is the granddaddy of them all.
How disappointed were you when you pulled the plug on Swamp Rat XXXIV last week before Gary called you?
GARLITS: I was really depressed. I went into my office and shut my door after I told the boys there was no way to make the car legal in five days. I started paying some bills and taking care of the everyday nuts and bolts of the business. The phone rang and it was Gary and I tell you what, I came back to life.
After you didn't make the run the first three tries, did you think you would have a chance?
GARLITS: Here's the thing, if the tires don't stick, it doesn't happen. They promised me faithfully last night that they would get me down the track. Then we went out there and spun the tires and it didn't happen. But they did it today.
After the run, the parachutes seemed to come out slowly.
GARLITS: That's exactly right. You noticed the first one didn't come out real quick. My eyes have been worked on and they're in good shape. I'm OK. I have a special set of parachutes. I went through the lights and clicked one out. It was just smooth as glass, none of that hitting you. Then I flipped the other one out, put on the brakes and stopped just fine. In fact, I stopped short. There was no problem at all and I never felt a jerk at all. The chutes are no problem now. They were wonderful. I can't wait to congratulate the company on what a great job they did.
Was there one point during the run where you knew that it was the one?
GARLITS: When I went through the lights I knew it was over 300. I didn't think it was much over 300, but I knew it was close. I knew it was a four-second run. That thing left. The incremental numbers at the first were really good. If it wouldn't have spun (the tires) it would have been really good.
Was there any point when the car started skating around that you thought about getting out of it?
GARLITS: No way.
GARLITS: Now we're concentrating on coming back and making a better run, get it down in the (4.60s) and get deep in the show. Then plan for race day and see how many rounds I can go.