The Turning Point - March 8th 1970
By Todd Hutcheson and Mickey Bryant

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 35.

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 gives up.
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.

From our book Don Garlits R.E.D. / Sea Nash Publications
By Mickey Brant & Todd Hutcheson


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.


Don Garlits
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 Wilmington track.

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 be OK."

"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 lights wire."

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 Side Stands

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 in horror.

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 side

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 the car."


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 cage.

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 aftermath.

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 molly cage.


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 in.

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 him inside."

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 meet her.


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 to Lions


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 him.

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 once again.

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 the archives.

If you enjoyed this edited narrative to the beginning story to our book,
Don Garlits R.E.D., please let us know at




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