Don Garlits and The Swamp Rat, Bobby Langley and the Scorpion and Their Need For Speed, by Laura Thykeson
Original Photos of The Swamp Rat, The Scorpion, and Other Drag CarsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Don Garlits, The Swamp Rat and The Early Years
Don Garlits definitely must have been born with the "need for speed". Born in Tampa, Florida in 1932, he began racing in 1950, at roughly the age of 18, and won his first major race by 1955. He was considered an outsider at the beginning, because of his Florida roots, as most of the other drivers came from the western US and Nevada. Little did people in the drag racing world know that the person originally referred to as "The Floridian" to other racers would eventually become a legend and implement so many new designs and safety features to drag racing. After being known as "The Floridian" for a few years, other racers began to call him "The Swamp Rat", still a bit of a jab to his Florida heritage, which subsequently became the name for his series of innovative and winning legendary dragsters. The majority of his famous "Swamp Rats" are now housed not only in his own museum at his home in Ocala, Fla., but the Swamp Rat XXX, a Top Fuel dragster is in the National Museum of American History, which is a branch of the Smithsonian.
Challenge Races and the Story Behind These Photos
According to my Father-in-law-, back in 1958, my Father-in-law, in his 20's at the time, heard about a "challenge race" that was going to be held somewhere around Gainesville, Fla. He lived in Florida at the time, and decided to go check it out, taking along his trusty camera. According to him, challenge races (or shoot-outs as they were sometimes called) were informal gatherings of drag racers where they would race against each other, try out new things on their cars, and compare notes and swap information. They weren't advertised, but the word would get out and fans would show up just to watch the fun and have the opportunity to talk to the racers. On this particular day, Don Garlits of Tamps, Fla., and Bobby Langley of Everman, Tex. both happened to be there along with other racers. I am missing one photo, one that shows Garlits and Langley lined up at the line, waiting for the light to change, but no one is sitting in the seats. It really shows that they were there just there for the sheer fun and dedication of their passion - drag racing.
Garlits and His Contrbutions to the Safety of Racing
I don't know if anyone has ever really gone into detail about all the safety features that Don Garlits has designed and contributed to the world of racing. It was Garlits who re-designed the entire setup of the dragster, taking the engine out from in front of the driver and mounting it behind the driver, which protected the driver much more efficiently in the case of a motor blowing up or a really bad accident happening. This change occurred as a result of an accident Garlits had himself, which by all rights should have killed him, but he only suffered the loss of a portion of his foot, which is certainly bad enough. It could be said that Garlits' many other contributions to increasing safety for the driver could be compared to how the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. led to the redesigning, invention, and mandatory use of all of the safety features used now in Nascar. I think it was last year that Carl Edwards walked away from a horrendous wreck practically unscathed, and I was thinking about how if Earnhardt, Sr. had not have been in what looked like a relatively simple wreck that ended up being serious enough to take his life, Edwards would most likely not have made it through that wreck in one piece. Sometimes I suppose we have to lose one to save many. It's just a horrible shame that we had to lose such a legendary Nascar driver to get those safety features in place instead of having them already. I have often wondered if Earnhardt, Sr. might still be here today if someone had just been thinking ahead. Garlits looked down the road early on, at the big picture of drag racing, and got those safety features in place before too many lives were lost.
As every drag racing fan knowns, Garlits set many, many speed records, and won many, many races and championships. What some may not know is that for a new record to "count" and be verified, it requires what is known as a "back-up" run. This means that you have to hit that new speed at least twice for it to count as a true record. In 2008, ESPN considered "Big Daddy" Don Garlits 23rd on their list of top drivers. Personally, I think he should be in the top 5 at least, not only for his speed records and championships, but also for what he did for the sport in the way of design and safety. He still pops up on ESPN and Speed Vision from time to time to do commentary, and even came out of retirement briefly at the age of 71 and qualified 16th with his best personal time ever, with a time of 4.788 seconds, at the speed o 319.98 mph in the quarter mile drags. Not bad for an old guy!!!
FYI Nascar fans - in November, 2009, at Texas Motor Speedway, it will be race weekend, and ZZ Top is supposed to be performing during part of the race weekend. You can bet your "koozie cup" I will be there if at all possible!