Indianapolis. The 17th Annual
NHRA Nationals, September 1-7. In drag racing it is equal to
the Oscars. The 'Big Cheese'. The best against the very best.
For seven days they check-in with inspections, did runs and qualifying,
the long lines, repairs and drop-outs were nothing new. Even
Monday's rain delay was no surprise. But this drama started days
before all this took place.
Don Garlits and Tom 'TC' Lemons had rolled out the Swamp Rat
14 the week before here at the same track and prepared for a
few test runs with the boys from Goodyear Tire. It seems they
had a fresh idea in traction. TC had the 14 set to 'Faster'.
The big fat tires were rolled out and stacked and numbered. The
men in white coats recorded everything from track temperature,
air pressure, humidity, wind direction...well you get the point.
Goodyear was thrilled to see
'Big Daddy' with another winning car. At first they were understandably
nervous. A rear engine dragster and not a very pretty one at
that. They thought 'Big Daddy' had 'bitten off more than he could
chew' with this one. It was no surprise that he had one. The
surprise was that it worked and went straight and fast.
After Lions on January 10th and
OCIR the 23rd, Pomona on Feb 7th and the Bakersfield March Meet,
Team Garlits had the front engine boys placing orders for the
new all-you-can-see front seat racer.
The testing went, shall we say...good
for the lads from Seffner, Florida. Rumors from Drag News went
out that Team Garlits with the new Goodyear tires turned in a
few 6.35, 6.30 and even a 6.18 ET! True or false, the others
would face the facts on race day. TC and Don were a happy lot
at the end of the day.
Garlits: "I think we have
them beat Tommy. What are you going to get with your share?"
TC: "I'll start with a beer, and think about it."
Garlits: "We got her dialed in just right Tommy, we can't
TC: "And if we face Carbone, we'll give him the bone, and
make it six in a row!"
Drag Racing, or any racing for
that matter, had never seen a team like TC and Garlits. Garlits
was obsessed with winning. A tough fighter. A 24 hour competitor,
forward thinking inventor, and avid experimenter on new ideas.
Plus he loved it all. He would say, "I just loved it. I
liked the idea of two cars lined up side by side. It's one person
against one person, one machine against one machine. There is
a winner and a loser. It's real simple." No one person in
any sport of any kind has dominated a sport as long as Donald
Glenn Garlits. Love him or not, he is #1.
Tommy Lemons was equally tough,
and didn't give a shit. He could go toe to toe with the old man
any time any place. And besides, he said "I didn't want
no damn job anyway". He once said, "I didn't want to
tell my momma that I spent twenty years in drag racing, so I
told her I was in prison." TC is loved by everyone. He is
the Will Rogers of drag racing, one of the great storytellers
we will ever see.
Under clouds and foggy skies
the best 32 car field assembled at the famous track in Indiana.
They were all here. Team Garlits ran the lowest elapsed time
of 6.211, Steve Carbone - 6.394, Carl Olson - 6.419, Don Prudhomme
- 6.433, Ronnie Martin - 6.483, Butch Maas - 6.492, John Wiebe
- 6.493, Rick Ramsey - 6.584, Dennis Baca - 6.533, Kenny Safford
- 6.539, Herm Petersen - 6.594 and on and on it goes. The qualifying
ET's told the true story of how the tire testing went. Garlits
was just that much faster, a 6.21 ET, almost 2/10 faster than
the next competitor. The ones who didn't qualify for one or another
reason, tried their best and stayed for the show.
The by one they fell to ET numbers
by Garlits too low to understand - 6.21, 6.25, 6.28, 6.31 and
6.32. The finalists fared as follows:
Steve Carbone (win) vs. Chuck Kurzawa (red light)
Don Garlits 6.28 (win) vs. Al Friedman (6.65)
Steve Carbone 6.39 (win) vs. Tom Kaiser (6.45) R.E.D.
Don Garlits 6.32 (win) vs. John Wiebe 6.46 at 232.55 mph, (top
For Team Garlits it was all working
out as planned. The new Goodyear tires, the clutch, the rear
wing, the rear end all fell into place to put the power to the
track. Maybe it seemed a little too easy.
Garlits: "Tommy, I don't
even have to watch the light. I can watch their front tire move
and still beat them."
TC: "You're driving dead nuts on, just don't do any of that
Déjà vu shit."
Garlits had his demons from March
8, 1970 that visited his mind at the worst opportune time. At
Lions, January 10, 1971 the debut of the new Swamp Rat 14, the
final race against Gary Cochran. Garlits began to see the exploding
transmission in front of him as the lights descended to green.
He left late, giving Cochran the victory. It was best to not
bring it up. The real pain would return and cause Don to wrestle
the nightmare over and over again.
Steve Carbone (win) vs. Gary Cochran (red light)
Don Garlits 6.25 (win) vs. Arnie Behling (6.44) R.E.D.
This time it looked like Carbone
might finally meet 'Big Daddy' again. Steve was ready for a rematch
with 'Big'. Garlits had beaten Carbone in the finals three years
ago right here at Indy. He used a slow stage technique against
Steve. Seems 'Big Daddy' took his time getting to the line, and
then beat him with a 6.87 at 226.70 mph to Carbone's up-in-smoke
7.58 at 191.86 mph. That gave Garlits his third Indy Nationals
win. Carl Olson adds this, "Since Kuhl & Olson were
very close to the Carbone camp (Steve had formerly driven for
Kuhl, and they'd formed a strong bond), we were aware that Steve
felt Garlits had "taken his time" staging in their
'68 final round encounter. He vowed that he would never stage
first against 'Big Daddy' again. He was very much looking forward
to a final round Nationals re-match."
Garlits: "Looks like we
might face Carbone again, but I think Kenny can take him out."
TC: "Too bad, like I said, I'd like to make it six in a
A week earlier at Marion Ohio,
at an AHRA event, Garlits faced Carbone in five straight races.
This unusual turn of events was because of the 'break rule' that
stated the lower ET loser from the previous race could come back
if anyone broke and couldn't make the next round. Garlits beat
Carbone in the first round. Steve returned in the next three
rounds being beat by Garlits in each comeback round. In the final
Don 'Mad Dog' Cook did his burnout and shut it down, leaving
Carbone to step in with his fueler already started and pulling
up to the line! Funny stuff? I guess so. Garlits thought, "OK,
we'll make it five in a row." Steve Carbone with his fifth
shot at Garlits that same day, red lit as Garlits ran a strong
6.46 at 223.32 mph. Steve Carbone was humiliated.
Round Four: The Semi-Final
Steve Carbone (win) vs. Kenny Safford (red light)
Don Garlits 6.31 (win) vs. Carl Olson (7.29) R.E.D
(The Kuhl & Olson's rear engine car suffered broken rear
end ring and pinion gears in our semi-final match against Big.
It was a very good race up to that point. - Carl Olson).
Carbone's crew knew that they
couldn't out run Garlits even with their big Ed Pink engine.
It was luck and three red lights that got Carbone to the finals.
After giving it much thought Steve said, "If I can't beat
his machine, I'll beat the man. I won't stage until his engine
is so hot that it will fail him. Get word to Gar that I won't
stage until he does." Would Garlits bite? Steve knew that
Garlits had way too much ego, and it would get the better of
him. So Carbone taunted him and drew him into his trap. They
had a history of tough match races. The word had been sent to
Camp Garlits that Carbone wouldn't stage first.
It was a respect thing with Garlits.
"How can he out run a 6.21 car with a 6.60 car, can't be
done. I won't stage first, that son-of-a-bitch; I'd rather burn
that engine to the ground than stage first."
The swifter fly can be caught
by a much slower and craftier spider in a web of pride.
Garlits' German temper reasoned,
"My engine can run just as long as his can. My engine's
got aluminum heads and will stay cool, but that 426 of his has
iron heads and, in fact, was pinging and detonating all day long,
so I have nothing to worry about!"
Final: 1971 Indy Nationals
Don Garlits vs. Steve Carbone
TC push started Garlits first,
and did his burnout to further soften the tires. TC would later
say "Our tires were worn out. We had been running all day
and they were marginal tires at the finish. We had made 7 or
8 runs that day." Steve Carbone waited, then started a few
moments later, keeping his engine, tires and clutch as cold as
possible. Garlits rolled up hot and stopped short of the pre-stage
lights. Carbone stopped a little further back. The spider watched
and waited for the fly.
In the right lane was the beautiful
full body, painted black, silver & blue, front engine 'Mickey
Mouse' dragster of Steve Carbone. A show car from Don Long Chassis,
powerful Ed Pink engine. Every detail was perfect. It was called
the 'Mickey Mouse Car' because it had the friendly Mouse on the
cowling. Carl Olson remembers. "The Mickey Mouse logo on
Carbone's car was a tribute to Steve's father, Michael "Mickey"
Carbone. Michael's nickname was the result of the fact that for
many years, he had a very successful business delivering bulk
newspapers to businesses in the Anaheim, California vicinity,
and his favorite stop was at Disneyland. He absolutely worshiped
Walt Disney. The logo on Steve's car had Mickey flashing the
"V for victory" sign, which Steve felt was a good luck
In the left lane was the plain
black rear engine dragster 'Swamp Rat 14' of Don Garlits. Nothing
fancy, 426 Keith Black motor, 1,260 pounds, big wing. It had
a swamp rat on it. It was rarely clean. The only thing missing
was a skull and cross bones, 'Arrrr!'
The duel of wills commenced.
The Mouse and The Rat. Both eyeing the big cheese.
TC: "Come on old man, stage
it." TC signaled to Garlits, who shook his head no.
Garlits: "I'll be damned if I stage first, ain't going to
Carbone: "Wait, wait
TC: "Let's go, what's the matter?" Using all the sign
language he knew to get his point across.
Garlits: "No! That son-of-a-bitch stages first!"
Carbone: "Just a little longer
TC: Now very angry he throws his arm out wide yelling, "Don't
blow it old man, screw Carbone, stage that thing!"
What Garlits couldn't see was
the oil smoke and water steam from his rear engine car. It was
hot, and the tires were cooling off. Buster Crouch, the official
line starter knew this was a dangerous situation. Wisely he started
to clear the area, much to TC's objection.
Buster: "Come on TC clear
out, everyone out."
TC: "Garlits! Don't do this man, make the run and beat this
Buster: "Out TC, out
TC now fully disgusted flips
Garlits the bone and clears out. It had been just under three
minutes long, too long for these Top Fuel machines to run safely.
Finally, Garlits relented and crept forward to stage.
Carbone: "Look at that!
Look at that
I got you now old man!"
Garlits: Now seeing Carbone's trap. "Damn...stupid. I should
have known better! Damn it!"
When the green lights lit up,
the air filled with white tire smoke from both dragsters, only
Garlits couldn't find enough traction to hold on, as Carbone
reached the finish with a 6.48 to Garlits' 6.65. Carbone's gamble
paid off. Had Garlits staged normally and posted an ET like he
had been running all day, he would have beaten Carbone easily!
Years later, Garlits remarked,
"I didn't make the right decision. I'm only human. I should
have gone bink-bink and staged and he wouldn't have known what
happened to him. I could have had nine U.S. Nationals Championships
instead of eight. That's the one race I'd like to do again. But
it was my own fault."
Two track officials watching
the situation summed it all up.
Jerry: "I can't believe it, Carbone beat Garlits!"
Dave: "Carbone didn't beat Garlits, the beast did."
Jerry: "The beast? What beast?"
Dave: "The beast within his own ego beat Garlits, Carbone
just won the race."
"Kuhl and I did not see
the final round at the '71 Nationals. We were back in the pits
replacing the third member in our rear end in preparation for
the following week's commitment at Wichita Dragway in Kansas.
We did, however, enjoy the excitement generated by NHRA announcer,
Bernie Partridge, and the sounds emanating from the starting
line. The sound of the ever increasing spectator cheers, punctuated
by a huge roar when 'Big' smoked his tires, made this an absolutely
"electric" moment that's seared in my memory bank."
- Carl Olson
TC adds the epilogue. "Because
our tires were worn out. The tires cooled off and the engine
got hot and got better. It went out of sequence when he sat there
all that time, about two and a half minutes. That meant the clutch
got hotter and it was going to grab faster. The engine got hotter,
it was going to make more horsepower. The tires got cooler and
lost the traction. It was a chain of events mechanically. We
"He didn't spin the tires
like we did. He had a better set of tires. Of course he knew
he was going to go up there and set a long time. So he set the
clutch and engine differently. We didn't know we was going to
sit there. We would have set the car up differently too. He won
and got that trophy. After the race I went over and had a couple
of beers with him and his wife. It was a bad day for me. I lost
a paycheck cause he won."
"After a week I went into
his shop in Tulsa, and he had that trophy sitting there, I tried
to steal it. He laughed, we were good friends. And every time
I visited him there I would avoid looking at the thing. But Steve
would always say 'TC...have you seen my new Indy trophy, I just
got it all shined up'."
The 1971 Indy Nationals was the
last race for the little rear engine car. The Swamp Rat 14 was
retired. It was not the first rear engine dragster, but it was
the one that worked, and it would forever changed the way drag
racers would see into their future. One month later Swamp Rat
16 roared on the scene and started another winning chapter for
Don Garlits, Tommy Lemons and Connie Swingle.
History's scrapbook is littered
with stories of winning in spite of the odds against them; David
and Goliath, King Kong vs. the airplanes, the tortoise and the
hare. The story of Garlits and Carbone has been told in short
form many times. Explaining the 'why' took some digging and many
calls to those who were there. Don Garlits raced with only one
thing in mind; to win. With his Swamp Rat 14 in top form and
running unbeatable speeds, there was nothing stopping him from
a fourth Nationals Title. It was true, he was that much better
on that day than anyone else at the track. Steve Carbone knew
this and used Garlits' Achilles heel to bring him down in a cloud
of white smoke. Will it happen again? Oh yeah, for sure. History
also has proven that the same story repeats over and over again
for our amusement.
Sometime in the future you may
see another single arrow or smooth stone stopping the next unbeatable
champion from the most unlikely contender.
Ooops! Never say we learn from
history. After the great showdown at the Indy Nationals in 1971
between Steve Carbone and the 'unbeatable' Don Garlits, it happened
again. Only two months later this same little trick worked again
at the NHRA Supernationals, Ontario Calif, November 21st.
Hank Johnson fastest ET run at
6.68 was well behind 'Kansas John' Wiebe's 6.53 ET of the day.
Hank was out gunned by Wiebe and his revolutionary Donovan all
aluminum 417 cubic-inch engine. He knew he had to do something
unexpected. So, Johnson uses the same Garlits 1968 'slow stage'
- and Carbone's 1971, 'I won't stage first no matter what' play
book, and guess what, it worked - again!
After another long wait and slow
staging trick the quicker John Wiebe went up in smoke with a
slow 7.30 ET at 182.55 mph to Hank Johnson's 6.61 ET at 218.44
mph. Does any one remember our history? No we dont. Three times
That race is still discussed
in earnest to this day. The results don't change but some say
now Garlits and Carbone waited there at the staging area more
than 20 minutes! I think these same people have Carbone running
This race was significant for
a couple of reasons. This would be the last race for this original
and historic rear engine dragster of Don Garlits, Connie Swingle
and TC Lemons dubbed Swamp Rat 14, and it will make way for a
brand new car to be SR 16. (Remember #15 was that front engine
car sold to Goodyear back in January). The torch will be passed
to the new stalwart from the Garlits Group which will debut soon
since it is actually finished.
Editors Note: Having been at Indy in 1971 I can attest,
all the cleaned up language aside, this is a good account (from
old and somewhat bias minds) of one of the most talked about
races in our sports history.
For the full story on this and
others stories, go to the book Don Garlits R.E.D.
By Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson