Turning Point - March 8th 1970
By Todd Hutcheson and Mickey
The story is old, it has been
told many times at gathering places around opened Hemi engines
at someone's garage, hangouts, racetracks from Bakersfield to
Tampa and nostalgia drag racing festivals across the country.
The old timers rarely talk about it; almost all drag racing fans
swear they were there when it happened. The usual stories will
contain 5% fact and 95 % mixture of rumor and fairytales.
We were amazing that little was
written about it. Mickey and I wanted to get the story straight
from the actual participants (before they were gone) of every
detail of the events on March 8th 1970. It was a huge undertaking,
but in the age of Google and the Internet, it was made a lot
easier. This would be the opening story to the historical events
of the development of the radical designed Rear Engine Dragster.
All this would be presented in the book 'Don Garlits R.E.D.'
The venue for the story opens
at Wilmington California, at the popular and beloved Lions Drag
Strip, or 'The Beach'. At the center of this event is a man known
as Big Daddy.
Don Garlits, that guy from Florida
swamps who rocked the west coast drag racing world in 1958 with
speeds dismissed as a lie. He was hated at his California debut,
the west coast speed kings called him Tampa Dan, Dan Garbage
and Swamp Rat. He took the challenge and marched forward to be
the #1 name in the sport with his Swamp Rat 1 through Swamp Rat
What makes a man like Don Garlits?
He was hammer forged into 'The King of the Dragsters' from the
get-go. At the age of almost three, young Don took the challenge
of moving a load of bricks (for his dad) from the edge of a busy
road to around back of his house where the new fireplace was
to be built. Four bricks at a time in his little red wagon, it
got done, "I can do anything I set my mind to," says
Garlits. (From his book 'Don Garlits and His Cars')
In 1953 Don bought an old 1927
T-Roadster for $50 bucks. After many tries and modifications
he finally beat Florida's best racer, Charlie 'King' Hogan. Victory
has an intoxicating effect, but the flavor soon fades and the
need for more returns.
At Chester S.C. 1959, Don Garlits
was nearly burned to death after Swamp Rat 1 manifold ruptured
and the blower pressure popped open a gaping hole blasting Don
with blow torch like flames at 170 mph. The doctors wanted to
remove his hands to save his life. He said no. He retire, but
not for long. (From the book 'King of the Dragsters')
There is no room here for his
complete medical records, but to say Don Garlits is one tough
'son-of-a-bitch' is an understatement, let's just say he never
He fought with everyone from the fans, the other drivers, AHRA,
NHRA's Wally Parks, rules, track officials and tracks tech's,
and those around him, just ask TC Lemons. Drivers taunted him
when he lost a race, laughed at him when he developed new ideas
that were just too different. Garlits never conformed to guidelines;
he made up new ones and remade his old ones. He was different
than the rest.
Love him or hate him, the entire
drag racing world gasped in horror at 5:25 PM when we thought
we had lost him forever that evening at Lions Drag Strip. We
prayed for his recovery and said 'Well, he's finished, he'll
retire now." But we still didn't understand Big Daddy. Again,
he never gave up.
Like a gladiator brought down
on his knee, seriously wounded, his body covered in horrific
pain, an old road map of his history; the coliseum senate hushes,
he rises up to take the challenge again and finishes the job.
He is legend.
Mickey Bryant and I present here
on We Did It For Love, the opening story to the most exciting
chapter in Drag Racing history; The Turning Point - 18 months
that changed the sport of Drag Racing and gave birth to the rear
engine dragster Swamp Rat 14. And the rest followed Garlits'
lead into the future.
Destiny was waiting. The official
Lions Track Clock read 5:25 on the Tower Bridge when the lights
went green. Swamp Rat 13 exploded at the line. Part of the severed
drum broke free of its housing hitting the timing pole in front
of Larry Sutton, the track starter. It continued on into the
Tower stands and hit a 17 year old race fan, Tim Ditt. It cut
into his chest and nearly severed his left arm.
Young Tim had a few minutes of
life left; Big Daddy Don Garlits trapped in his chrome moly cage
and severely injured; Richard Tharp - condition unknown. Lions
Drag Strip came to a standstill.
Drag racing's most spectacular
moment was put in motion. Carnage and chaos would occupy the
entire drag strip from starting line to finish line to both grandstand
areas. Garlits and machine lay wounded close to the starting
line, Richard Tharp explodes his car at the finish line, Tim
Ditt is horribly wounded in the eastside grandstands and oil
and debris cover the fans in the west side stands.
In less than two seconds the
world of Drag Racing would come to a turning point.
Behind the Engine of History, Moving Forward
Don Garlits had a stable of full
body thoroughbred from 1966 to 1968, such as the red Swamp Rat
10, and the Swamp Rat 12-B Smothers Bros. painted black &
red. They were standout classic beauties of style and function.
The Swamp Rat 13 drew from a
different lineage. Swamp Rat 11 and 12-A. Born in a bayou Seffner
garage in 1969, at 220 inches long, weighing in at 1300 pounds
with the heart of a 426 Dodge Hemi 1600 horse power brute. Muscular,
nothing fancy. This was the brain child of Garlits and Lemons.
As TC Lemons said "You can't see the fancy paint job at
220 mph. So we used a can of Imron spray paint, flat black."
The 13 was built for street fighting.
Its light weight long wheel base could punch out and take the
victory. Tattooed along the sides told all who was its big daddy,
'Don Garlits Wynnscharger'. It usually went too fast to read
the other markings. And the other competitors always had a clear
view of the 13 backside as it roared through the traps for the
win. Brutish and primitive, its one purpose was to kick ass.
Swamp Rat 13 was a tough one to beat.
Rain canceled the AHRA Grand
American scheduled for February 28 and March 1st at Lions. Then
it was moved to March 7- 8th. Garlits and TC wanted to be at
the March Meet in Bakersfield for Fuel and Gas Championship.
But a commitment was made to Lions, and race they did at the
The Californian racers had the
'Oh shit' factor when Garlits rolled in and set up camp in the
pits fresh from his win at the AHRA Winter Nationals at Phoenix.
The 13 had been winning week after week. It was faster and quicker.
Two things about Garlits that ensured his payday, he lived to
win and hated to lose. Garlits was in race mode around the clock.
On this trip, Connie Swingle stayed home to fish, leaving TC
Lemons to crew.
If that wasn't enough, Garlits'
corner man, TC Lemons, started the first west coast fire burnout
right there at Lions at this AHRA meet. People came to see Garlits,
but now the staging show was a "must-see". After all,
TC started the whole thing back east, so the Californian guys
needed a little fire and brimstone, too.
The Creitz & Donovan AA/FD
kept pace with Team Garlits. They would lower the ET and Garlits
would claim it back. Until the final race, Garlits held firmly
onto a 6.57 to Richard Tharp's 6.62. As they glided off the roll
starters, the fire breathing beasts strutted their power in the
traditional pre-stage dance.
After breaking the rear in an
earlier round, TC and Don installed a new two-speed Garlits'
Drive Transmission. They were trying to get oil into the plug
hole when the track official came by shouting "Get
to the line, get to the line or we'll run without ya!" Don
explains, "We got only a couple of tablespoons of oil into
the thing because the filler plug was so small. Had we gotten
a full quart of oil in there it would not have exploded. So mine
was still dry and didn't get the lube it needed. But the transmission
was being pressurized from the engine, so all the moving parts
were going to get all the lube it needed. I thought it would
"Any time there was a catastrophic
failure like that it retarded that drum from spinning up so fast
with all that oil in there, it was hydraulically being held.
My transmission was still dry and hadn't had enough oil that
it needed. It had some but it didn't have that full quart of
oil in there."
Just after his burnout Garlits
noticed a small sound from the transmission. "I heard a
little jingling noise, just a tiny little jingling noise after
the burnout. And I thought 'what the hell was that?' That was
the drum not being in that constant lube, see."
Unalterable fate was in motion.
The official Lions Track Clock read 5:25 on the Tower Bridge
when the lights went green. Swamp Rat 13 exploded at the line.
Parts of the severed drum broke free of the housing and hit the
timing pole in front of Larry Sutton, the track starter.
That sound, that "little
jingling noise" was all the tip-off that Garlits had that
something was wrong. At the moment of detonation, hell was let
loose and the Swamp Rat 13 was mangled in two. In this photo
by John Ewald the entire drama is in place with all that were
involved within it in. Our investigation started here.
Garlits - Momentary Blackout
Garlits explains what happened
next. "There was this explosion, and I lost consciousness
momentarily, 'cause the 8mm film that just surfaced of the accident
show my arms dangling out of the car. And when I came to I thought
the clutch had blown and I was in the traps, and I was in the
cage tumbling. I thought 'God I hope this thing don't hit something',
cause that is what killed so many guys, the cages hitting telephone
poles and shit, see. And then it all just stopped and all these
guys were rushing around me and I realized that I was still at
the starting line."
Larry Sutton - Track Starter
Larry Sutton took notice that
the Swamp Rat moved all wrong. Something was not right. Larry
had witnessed thousands of burn outs from all classes. Something
wasn't right with the Rat. Larry clearly remembers, "The
car didn't move right after the dry hop and I knew something
was wrong with the car, I have seen enough cars race to know
the difference. So I knew something stupid was going to happen
I just didn't know what. I push the button, Garlits' car exploded
and something hit the pole in front of my face, cutting the timing
TC - Garlits Crew
"I always stood behind the
thing to see how it would run; ya had to know what to look for.
Prudhomme was always there watching the old man. That Snake was
sharp and was always looking for tips." TC recalls. "Lions
had its Christmas tree hanging over head from a wire across the
track, so they were a little weird."
"When that thing exploded
I took off running." TC Lemons was in full flight. It was
unusual for Lemons to move so fast, but he was running like an
Olympic sprinter. "All I could think was that the old man
was hurt, and that had me really worried."
Tim Ditt - Richard Tharp lane, Tower
Timothy Daniel Ditt, age 17,
with his fingers in his ears turned slightly to the left in anticipation
of the final race towards the tracks end was suddenly hit on
the left side of his chest and left arm that spun him violently
around. Blood sprayed out of his left arm as it hung by only
an inch of skin from his bicep. The shock of the sudden and massive
blood loss from having his arm almost cut clean off had Tim screaming
The crowd around him cleared
away from him as the spraying blood covered everything. A man
ran down from the top of the stands and laid Tim Ditt down. Moments
later another man stuck his thumb into Tim's armpit to slow the
blood loss and save his life. Tim looked up at the man trying
to stop the arterial flow and went unconscious.
Tim Ditt never saw Garlits' dragster
explode, or the part that hit him.
Bob Creitz - Richard Tharp lane
Bob Creitz remembers the moment,
"I was standing next to John Wiebe behind the left lane.
As soon as I saw Garlits explode and tumble over and land near
by the guardrail, I looked up to my left and saw this guy pumping
blood out on the track. A piece of shrapnel hit this guy up by
the left shoulder and must have hit an artery cause he was pumping
blood out on the track. He was standing right there above the
track real close, ya know. I do remember that real clear. That
has been in my mind ever since it happened." - Bob Creitz
Todd Hutcheson - Don Garlits lane, Spectator
I heard some guy behind me say,
"Hey kid, you'd better get back from the fence." No,
not me. I'd stay until Big Daddy is long gone. He rolled gently
to the lights. I looked right into his facemask. It was 5:25
PM on the Lions Clock. Whaaap! The concussion from the blast
hit me and hot oil splattered on my face and chest. Last thing
that I saw was the Swamp Rat broke in half and the back end with
Garlits in it flipped up and forward.
The blast pushed me backwards
and my fingers let go of the fence. I wasn't hurt, just stunned.
My ears rang and I did a mental check of my health. People rushed
past me to see the spectacle of what had happened.
"Is he alive? What happened?
My God, look at that! You OK Don?" I heard these things
from the rushing crowd. There was no way I could fight my way
back to the front to see for myself. I was 17 years old, same
age as Tim Ditt.
Sliding down track, Swamp Rat
13, now severely damaged and split in two, is the main focus
for all close by who spring into action and rush to the car.
Skidding to a stop, the twisted
wreck of the car shows just how devastating the accident is.
On the move and heading to the car as fast as they can run are
T.C. Lemons and Larry Sutton. They will be the first to arrive
at the now semi-conscious and badly injured Garlits. Sutton had
the presence of mind to pick up a fire extinguisher before he
headed down track
Garlits - Awakening to it all
Garlits continues and says he
was awake by this time, "Mickey Thompson came up there,
and he looked at my foot. You couldn't actually see my foot with
the boots and all, but you could see it was all mangled up. So
Mickey Thompson took that leg up under his arm just like that
so I couldn't see it while they unbuckled me and got me out of
TC - On the Spot
"I can move fast, if I have
to. The old man was dangling his arms out of the roll cage real
dazed like. Mickey Thompson, he ran up fast and helped with the
old man's bloodied foot, tucked it up under his arm so Garlits
couldn't see it."
Larry Sutton (left) with the
fire extinguisher races to Garlits and the two halves of the
Swamp Rat 13. Right behind him is faithful TC Lemons, Garlits
best friend and team mate. TC moved around to the upright roll
The 426 Dodge Hemi is still running
with the remaining fuel in the line, even though the fuel valve
is off. Sutton and Lemons arrived so fast that a few couplers
and rings are still rolling around. There was no fire in the
With plenty of help on the scene,
Larry Sutton eyes a hurt spectator (Tim Ditt) in the Tower Side
stands. Sutton hurries to help.
Mickey (on the left), TC (back
to camera), Douglas Kruse, Pete with the other fire extinguisher
and with some help from photographer John Ewald, free Don Garlits
from his protective gear and gently lift him from the chrome
John Ewald - Photographer
John Ewald said, "He was
like dead weight, he was out of it, glassy eyed. There were so
many people around, but the ambulance crew took over and I got
out of the way." Garlits obvious agony was very clear to
see. McEwen was at his side.
Tom McEwen - Helping Hands
McEwen moved in and held Garlits
hand. Tom knew he had to keep Garlits alert.
McEwen: "Don it's Tom, relax buddy, the ambulance is here."
Don squeezed Tom's hand tight. They had been close friends for
years and years. Garlits was struggling not to scream out. The
pain was horrific.
Mickey, Kruse and 'TC' lifted
Garlits onto the waiting stretcher in the ambulance. Trudy Thompson
put a tourniquet on his leg to stop the bleeding.
McEwen: "Take it easy pal,
I'm here, I'll take care of everything, don't worry about nothing,
just relax." Again Don squeezed hard, holding his anguish
Garlits was carried to a waiting
ambulance. The loading door slammed on Garlits' injured foot
separating the hanging toes. Mickey Thompson picked it up and
gave it to his wife Trudy, a trained professional emergency nurse;
she applied a tourniquet to help control the bleeding. 'TC' Lemons
rode along to Pacific Coast Hospital, Long Beach.
Mickey called his friend, Dr.
Larson, a top surgeon in Pasadena, who was sent by helicopter
to the hospital to meet with Garlits.
TC - Road Rage
As the ambulance moved along,
it was not fast enough for Lemons. 'TC' yelled at the driver
"Get going man or I'll drive this thing!"
Lemons recalls the details. "We
got in this, oh...I think the damn thing was an old Pontiac or
something ambulance. The old man was conscious and it was moving
so slow I was going to jerk the driver out of his seat and drive
the damn thing myself." TC added, "I was afraid he
was going to bleed out on me or something."
The driver sped up as advised.
They proceeded to the Pacific Coast Hospital, Long Beach.
At this time Larry Sutton ran to the
Tower side stands.
Sutton seeing the two ambulances
at the accident scene from both ends of the track, he took flight
to get to the spectator that was hurt. The gate was locked and
the guard was missing. Larry yelled to get some help to open
the locked gate. Not wasting any time Larry lifted the gate off
its hinges and tore it open. He ran up the front of the stands.
There were two people who had fainted, about six feet of red
blood running down the bleacher seats and a man with the wounded
teenager (Tim Ditt). His left arm was almost off, with very little
left connecting it to the kid. "The blood pumped out
like a garden hose," as Larry describes it.
Quickly he put pressure on the
armpit artery and slowed the flow. The young teenager was very
pale and unconscious. The second ambulance arrived to help. Larry
told Pete, the ambulance driver, "If I let go, he'll
die". The emergency team helped to get the teen
onto the stretcher and into the emergency vehicle. Larry Sutton
stayed with the teen and kept pressure on the artery all the
way to the Pacific Coast Hospital.
Arriving at the ER doors, 'TC'
Lemons helped open the doors and went in with the crew.
TC - At Pacific Coast Hospital
"I stayed in there until
they run me out. I was ready to give him some blood or whatever
he needed, ya see. After they run me out I went outside and the
other ambulance arrived with that Timothy, and I helped to bring
When TC saw Tim Ditt for the
first time he remembers, "I opened the door for them and
his arm was cut off. He had his arm lying on top of him there,
not much holdin' on, a vein or something is all. Very gory. The
kid was just white. Sutton was helping Timothy, Sutton is good."
Tim Ditt was taken into the ER
where Don Garlits arrived moments before. Larry stayed with Tim
and told the doctor "I can't let go." It's a helluva'
thing to hold a man's life in your hands. Garlits was on the
gurney next to him. The ER physician quickly put a tourniquet
on the remaining upper arm and hustled Larry Sutton out of the
room. Moments later the doctor told Larry that Tim was about
"Zero." The ER team filled him up with blood and remarked
that they were surprised he had survived.
Larry had a few words with Garlits
and 'TC'. He was full conscience with his arms behind his head.
Larry said he joked about not having to worry about ingrown toe
nails for awhile. Garlits asked about Tim, he was worried about
what had happened to him. Larry didn't want to worry Don at this
point and said the teen had a pretty good cut, too. Larry Sutton
later remarked that it was one of the worst accidents in drag
racing, in his long career that he had witnessed.
At this point Larry had returned
to Lions for the Funny Car final race. The surgeons, Dr Larson
and Dr. Shrader, informed Don of Tim's server injury. Garlits
was not in shock and had all of his faculties. Don told the surgeons
to take care of the injured teenager first and try to save his
arm. Don said he could wait. He said just put me out and wake
me when it's over.
Garlits was able to call his
wife, Pat, and she flew into LAX Airport. TC was sent out to
TC - Helping Pat Garlits
"I was out there by myself
in the middle of the night, no one helped me." He was always
a good and faithful dependable friend. "As the plane taxied
around here come Linda Vaughn and Brock Yates (co-author of 'King
of the Dragster', Garlits' 1967 book) who had flown in from Bakersfield.
She was going to help me meet Pat, and that was great."
They drove straight to the hospital;
Pat Garlits was composed because she talked to Don on the phone
before getting on the airplane.
True to his word Tom McEwen gave
Pat Garlits his new Cadillac Eldorado to use around town and
trips to the hospital. Tom even got Pat a very nice hotel close
to the hospital. McEwen took care of Pat's needs for her long
stay. Pat Garlits was dependent on all of McEwen's help, he was
considered family. Don Prudhomme
& McEwen both visited Garlits that evening.
Remember Richard Tharp? Back
Richard Tharp - Winning and Waiting
The clock on the Lions Drag Strip
tower struck 5:25 PM as Tharp launched down the track. All day
he had been running consistent low ET's and top speeds. He glanced
to his right to see if Garlits was gaining on him. No Garlits.
He thought, "Easier than a Texan..." Boom! The engine
melted a piston just as he crossed the timing lights at the top
end. Richard Tharp got oiled; a face full of hot oil. Richard
brought the Creitz & Donovan top fueler to a safe stop and
got out to remove his protective gear. His eyes were full of
stuff making it hard to see. Tharp expected help from his crew
and the ambulance right away so he sat down and waited. And waited
and waited. "Son-of-a-bitch..."
As the scene escalated Creitz
remembered Tharp. "There was a lot of real chaos going on
so I got the hell out 'a there and got Richard."
"Where the hell are they...?"
It wasn't too much longer when Bob Creitz and Ed Donovan arrived
to find Richard covered in motor oil and pissed.
"Where the hell were you
guys, what's taking so god dang long!" It was explained
to him what had happened to Garlits. Richards' eyes were washed
out. He wasn't hurt. There was a massive clean-up going on after
the accident, people running around like crazy.
Don Garlits was long gone to
the hospital. Richard Tharp collected his check, got a winners
photo in Drag News and a big kiss from the trophy girl.
Tim Ditt - Discovery and Recovery
Tim woke up in an unfamiliar
place. It was dark, things were beeping and there were noises
that seemed out of place. His left arm was throbbing painfully
and aching bad. A tube ran out of his nose and was taped to his
face. Tim turned his head and saw that his left arm was in a
white cast. His chest pained him when he moved. 'What happened...where
am I?' He looked up to the ceiling and at the bags and tubes
hanging nearby and he blacked out.
At this point Tim Ditt had no
idea what had happen at Lions Drag Strip or with Garlits' exploding
dragster, nor the serious injury to his left arm. Not even that
he was in ICU at Pacific Coast Hospital, Long Beach.
The next morning as he woke,
a man spoke to him from another bed to his left side. The man
said, "God, Tim I'm really sorry..." his voice seemed
so sincere. With his kindly southern accent he was trying to
get Tim's attention.
Tim answered, "Who are you?"
It was all so strange to him. He replied, "I'm Don Garlits.
It was my car that exploded. It's my fault that you got hurt."
Don was in too much pain to remain turned sideways any longer.
Tim began to recall what he was doing that day, and said, "Oh
yeah, I was watching you race. You're Don Garlits!"
Don repeated again, "It's
my fault that you got hurt, my car exploded and that's how you
got hurt. I am really sorry, Tim." There were a few others
standing by Garlits' bedside.
Garlits' explanation of what
had happened to Tim four day earlier at Lions Drag Strip was
the first time he had clearly heard what had happened to him.
Doctor Larson and Dr. Shrader came in to see Tim and explained
what had happened to his arm. The doctors said his arm looked
like raw hamburger that had been squeezed into a mush mess. They
had to remove two inches of bone and replace the muscle to get
it back together again.
A piece of the drum from Garlits
exploding transmission had launched across the track and hit
Tim in the chest at about the left nipple. It cut across his
left chest about ten inches along to his side. It traveled along
his left side and cut thru 98% of his left arm. He lost considerable
amounts of blood. The life-saving measures taken by the man was
the right thing to do. It slowed the blood loss. That man, Larry
Sutton, did the correct procedure and saved Tim Ditt's life.
After 40 years his identity remains unknown to Tim.
Larry Sutton was a true hero,
selfless and was not looking for accolades for his actions that
day. God knows, we need more people like him.
Dr. Larson explained that with
Dr. Shrader they went to work on Tim for almost seven hours.
He underwent 10 major surgeries over the next five years.
One day, two visitors walked
into his room to cheer him up. The two visitors shined a light
of joy and happiness into his heart that he never forgot. His
visitors were Tom 'The Mongoose' McEwen and Linda Vaughn, 'Miss
Hurst Golden Shifter'.
Linda walked in first and said,
"Hi Tim, how ya feeling?"
Well, Tim Ditt, a 17-year-old
male, was feeling pretty good when he first saw Linda. Tim thought
she was so beautiful and stunning that he momentarily lost his
ability to speak. But there she was smiling at his bedside. And
then in walks Tom McEwen. McEwen had always been Tim's racing
hero. It was indeed a shock to see him walk in, too.
Tom McEwen introduced himself
and asked, "How you doing buddy boy? I guess you been through
some real hell." They talked for about eight minutes. Their
visit was up-beat and friendly. They wished him well and left
young Tim with a lifelong memory of their thoughtful visit.
TC Lemons - The Aftermath
Lemons stayed with Don for several
days. He said, "It looked the old man was going to be OK
so I loaded up the 13 and headed back to Seffner, Florida."
After the accident at Long Beach
a couple of T.C.'s friends took the mangled car over to Mickey
Thompson's shop to hold until it was decided what anyone wanted
to do. In the meantime Lemons and his two buddies, Jimmy King
and Donnie Marshall, went back over to the Lions drag strip to
gather up and parts and pieces of the car that were strewn all
over the accident area. It was not a pleasant site.
The force of the explosion was
evident based on the ground covered by the debris. From the starting
line, down the quarter mile strip to about half way, left and
right there was remaining evidence that something had gone terribly
wrong here at Lions Drag Strip.
All three guys avoided the stands
on the left lane side. In the front row of the bench seats the
wooded planks bore the stains of blood from the kid, Tim Ditt,
who was hit by flying debris and nearly had his left arm severed.
They hurried thru this ordeal as fast as they could. When they
were finished they could not pop a top fast enough.
The force of the mechanical explosion
is difficult to understand even while viewing the photos. The
fastest and most powerful engines on earth have their drawbacks.
At times they come apart violently. Imagine all that power and
danger at the tips of your feet, and you're going 230 mph. After
40 years, Garlits still lives with this nightmare.
Garlits - Planning Forward
The time at Pacific Hospital
went very slowly for Don. The days were long mainly because of
the excruciating pain from the injury to his right foot. The
toes were completely cut off as well as half or so of the foot.
His left leg was also broken. The first week or so there was
a constant stream of visitors and well wishers so Garlits was
occupied most of the day and night. However, as the visits tailed
off and only Pat remained at his side for the entire four weeks,
the magnitude of this moment in his already storied career overwhelmed
Tom McEwen visited Garlits almost
every day for hours. Garlits would get bored very quickly, so
they talked about everything -- racing, old times and outer space.
Tom always brought fresh books and magazines to Don on every
visit. It kept him busy.
At times Garlits would stare
out over his injured foot right out into the Long Beach skyline
and think. "Things have got to change," he would think.
It was the 1320 foot stare.
For Don Garlits it was not the
end, like so many had suggested or thought. Don had recalled
his own near death fuel fire back in Chester S.C, 1959, and so
many others who did not survive. It had to change.
'Will I ever be able to race
again? How can I, with any confidence at all, get back into what
has become a death trap - the front engine dragster? Most importantly,
how much more of this can Pat take?' he wondered.
So in about his third week in
the hospital Garlits started doodling on a blank sheet of paper
a plan for a next generation top fuel dragster. From the get-go
the sketches all had one starting point. He placed the motor
behind the driver. This was the one given, no matter how much
he modified the rest of the car. The driver will not be looking
at the motor when sitting in the car, period.
Garlits reminisced: "I remember
at Long Island, New York, Dwane Ong had a very neat rear engine
car at the race, and he let me sit in the vehicle. I remember
thinking to myself, 'If someone could get this design to work,
wouldn't it be great--such safety and visibility'!"
One drawing after another was
enthusiastically rendered then found its way to the trash can.
What came out of this effort was mainly what not to include in
the construction of a brand new rear engine dragster. Although
some very good and creative ideas were produced on those many
sheets of paper, Garlits decided he just needed to wait until
he got back to that little race shop in Seffner, Florida and
brainstorm the plan with his trusted and capable posse of two
- the Dos Okies, T.C. Lemons and Connie Swingle. After all, the
three of them had been quite a successful team to this point
in building the front engine variety top fuel dragster, so why
shouldn't they be able to put together the next phase - with
the engine behind the driver? "No reason", Garlits
thought, "No reason at all".
The seed was there and it began
to grow. Garlits knew the front engine dragster of his youth
was dead. His biggest challenge lay ahead of him like the load
of bricks alongside the road of his childhood home. , "I
can do anything I set my mind to," Garlits said to himself
There was one more important
decision made during the long hospital stay. "We will keep
this revolutionary project a secret from everyone. Since we will
be some 3 ,000 miles from drag racing's hub of Southern California
it won't be a problem", he concluded. There was also the
nagging thought this radical re-do would not work. If that were
the case, then he certainly didn't need to give the SoCal bunch
one more reason to bash him.
That's it, a total secret. Garlits
now could not wait to return to his South Florida home and begin
to mend his body and build his dream.
Garlits sold the SR13 to 'TC'
and he and Connie Swingle repaired it and raced it again. About
three months later, still with crutches and cast, Don drove it
himself, all the while the Team Garlits; Don, 'TC' and Connie,
worked quietly on the new rear engine dragster, Swamp Rat 14.
Here it is June of 1970 at the
AHRA Spring Nationals at Bristol, Tennessee and Garlits had again
put himself back in the very same driver's seat that almost cost
him his life less than four months prior. The entire racing world
knew about this but Garlits didn't care, in fact it was part
of the master plan. He had already put in motion the building
of Swamp Rat 14 in complete secrecy in that "Little Shop
That Could" in tiny Seffner, Florida. And if the competition
thought he was planning on returning in a front engine dragster,
so be it. It only helped disguise what was really going on -
the creation of what would turn out to be the most significant
step in the history of drag racing.
The building, testing, unveiling
and success of this car - step by step - in detail and in depth,
is captured by Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson by their account
of this historic period of drag racing in the two part book,
Don Garlits R.E.D.
Thanks to Don Ewald, keeper of
If you enjoyed this edited narrative
to the beginning story to our book,
Don Garlits R.E.D., please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org