Lead in by Phil Burgess

Celebrity roasts are always good fun, where friends and acquaintances take turns skewering the object of their affection, regaling the assembled multitudes with sordid stories, amusing anecdotes, and tall tales meant to simultaneously embarrass and fete the guest of honor.

NHRA hosted a spectacular roast Saturday night after qualifying at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries, saluting legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The cause a great one, benefiting the Quarter Mile Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the history of our sport through interviews with the principals involved before we lose them. Obviously, as regular readers here would guess, that’s a cause near and dear to my heart, and there was no way I was going to miss it.

The list of those doing the roasting was long and deep. Don “the Snake” Prudhomme. “TV” Tommy Ivo. Jerry “the King” Ruth. Ed Pink. Sid Waterman. Dave McClelland. Ed Iskenderian. All got their shots in at “Large Father,” but as anyone who's ever raced him, or seen him race, he's famous for turning the tables and should never be underestimated, and that proved true once again Saturday night. Some of the stories that were told I'd heard before or read about, and some were uniquely fresh, but the only thing that mattered was that we were getting to hear them straight from the people who lived them, which is a million times better than reading about them (which, unfortunately, is what you're stuck with here today, but I'll do my best to bring them to life).

The rest of the story by Burgess
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Prior to the 6 pm kick off time there was lots of mingling in the lobby including Tom Ivo and Big - these guys probably raced each other more than any other pair in drag racing history. The match race kings.


Tom and the incomparable Kenny Youngblood.


Blood did a special edition drawing for any roast attendee who wanted one and he personalized them. What a guy.


Bud Rasner and Manny Maldonado


"Fast Jack" Beckman with Robin and Orah Mae Millar.


To the delight of the Project 1320 folks the event was a total sell out.


Don Prieto, Alan Pinho and Don Ewald


Fast Jack and the lovely Linda Vaughan.


Two of the three 60's - 70's engine gurus Sid Waterman and Ed Pink. The third would be the late Keith Black.


Jerry Ruth, Gar and Harry Hibler




After dinner Linda Vaughn, as Marilyn Monroe, sang "Happy Birthday" to Don.





Leading off the roast portion on the program, after the roastee, the roasters were introduced by MC, Bob Frey.



First up was the one and only self-proclaimed King, Jerry Ruth.


After his series of adjectives to describe Garlits Ruth went into a story he'd heard about Garlits and his late crew chief Herb Parks, in Bradenton, Fla., that ended up with Garlits climbing out of his still-rolling car on the return road in mid-argument and getting run over by the rear tire. “Herb was a big guy -- 6-four, 230, much larger than ‘Large Father' -- I think Don pretended to get hurt so Herb wouldn't really hurt him, and an ambulance came and took him off to safety,” he chortled.




As the format called for, after every roaster Garlits got a rebuttal. With the exception of one emotional moment, the Old Man was funny while showing off his still sharp-as-a-tack memory.


Ed Pink, who recently celebrated his own 80th birthday, was up next and reminded Garlits that despite his ability to run quicker than everyone, it took him 80 years to get to 80, just like everyone else.



Throughout the roast was woven a live auction. Here Project 1320 founder Traci Hrudka holds up a special banner filled with famous autographs. By the end of the night the auction would net over $7,000 with over half coming from the wallet of John Force. John is legendary for supporting drag racing causes and charities. A very generous man.


It was a toss up between Ivo and Prudhomme for the nights funnies roaster. Of course everyone knows Tom is one of the sports greatest story tellers and he lobed some doozies at Don... most about their match racing days.

One quip, “Garlits,” he smirked to the audience. “How’d you like to make your living racing this guy 50 times a year? He used to drive me crazy with his flying-saucer stories. He’d say, ‘Look over there; there’s two of them!’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ even though a week before that I’d have thought they were airplanes. He told me, ‘I’m not the practical joker kind of guy’ ... well, he didn’t know who he was dealing with.”


"I beat him by this much."


Garlits was riveted to Ivo's tales that surly brought back some fun memories.


Don's rebuttal was not nearly as colorful as Ivo's jabs.


Another auction item was a large banner featuring M/T and Gar.



Never at a loss for words, Dave McClelland remembered his early dealing with the Swamp Rat. He acknowledged that it was Garlits who was key to his introduction to drag race announcing. In 1959, the golden-throated McClelland was working in radio and television, and it was at a race in Carlisle, Ark., that he saw Art Malone driving Garlits’ car (Garlits was still recovering from burns from his fire in Chester, S.C.) in a match race against Eddie Hill. McClelland was stunned that there was no one on the PA system talking about this great racer and his story. He mentioned to the track manager how weird that seemed and offered his services.




I'm sure this had something to do with his hearing aids which he was accused of turning off more than once during the evening.


Iskenderian, the legendary 90-year-old “Camfather,” spoke at length about his long relationship with Garlits in the 1960s, a partnership and successes that were the staple of tons of full-page advertisements in all of the drag racing publications. Then there was something about a $10,000 check that Burgess covers in detail in his write-up.



Getting ready for the 2012 NASCAR season to begin, Sid Waterman took a side trip to Pomona to sit on the Rat Roast dias.


Among his stories was tale from his youth about working for Mickey Thompson, who asked him to make a piston delivery to Garlits in Fontana, Calif. “I said, ‘Wow! A chance to meet Don Garlits! It was not an easy drive in those days because there were no freeways, but I finally got there and walked up to him all excited about meeting Don Garlits. He was at this old gas station, so I walk up to him, and he says to me, ‘About goddamn time you got here!’ That was my first meeting with Don.



The last roaster was the legendary Don Prudhomme who surly has a books worth of Garlits stories over the years. Like. “When I first met Garlits, I was a little intimidated by him because he was about 10 years older than me. I’m 20, and he’s 30. We were racing at Union Grove, Wis., and coming down to the final round. I was driving the B&M Torkmaster car, and this was it, for all the money, and we didn’t care about lights or anything like that at night. You could see OK. So we’re going down there, and, apparently, I got over into his lane and ran him off the track. I dunno; all I know is that the win light came on in my lane. Garlits was ranting and raving and just screaming at me at the other end. I was just this young kid, and I was so embarrassed; 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' So all the way back to the pits, I could hear him screaming, ‘He tried to kill me; he tried to kill me,’ and the spectators were booing me. I ran up to the ‘the Greek,’ who was taking care of me back then and letting me run out of his shop, and said, ‘Greek, what do I do?’




Before the last live auction item (the huge event banner behind the dais) Don got his parting shots in. As a side note, Force bought the banner for a substantial figure and then gave it to Garlits.


Learn more about Project 1320. What we do and how you can help. This is an ambitious program to preserve our founder, before they are all gone, on film for the ages.


Garlits Rat Roast by Phil Burgess on
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Photo Extra: Some random shots from Pro Eliminations by Bob Brown








This was the beginning of the second scariest incident of the meet. Well in the lead at about 700' Jack Beckman's car made a wicked move to the right putting him directly in front of Gary Densham.




A lesser driver would have been underneath the Valvoline entry but miraculously he just caught Beckman's wheelie bar before Jack whipped it back into his lane.



Hey, shit happens....






The second quickest 1000' run ever.












FC final, Force vs Neff





TF final - Massey vs Brown











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