Last January 14, drag racing legend Don Garlits celebrated his 87th birthday. At an age where most are content to reflect on their life’s achievements (of which Don has too many to list), Garlits is not: If all goes according to plan, on July 20 he’ll strap himself into the cockpit of the Swamp Rat 38 electric dragster at Florida’s Palm Beach International Raceway, stage the car, and then break his existing National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) record, putting down a pass at or above 200 mph.
After setting and breaking so many records in the sport of top fuel drag racing, it’s no surprise that Don can’t sit still. He was, after all, the first drag racer to break the 170-, 180-, 240-, 250- and 270-mph barriers, and may have set the bar for 200 mph as well (though some claim Chris Karamesines or Frank Cannon hit that mark first). In the aftermath of a devastating 1970 crash that cost Don part of his foot, he reinvented the top fuel dragster by moving the engine behind the driver (in Swamp Rat 14), changing the sport of drag racing forever. Over a driving career that stretched from the 1950s into the early 2000s, he racked up 144 national event wins and a grand total of 17 championships (including AHRA, IHRA and NHRA).
In the pits at Bradenton.
One thing Don’s not good at is retiring. He tried it after a 1987 blowover crash, serving as a commentator for TNN and NBC until 1991, when he went back to racing. A detached retina–the result of the violent deceleration from a dragster’s parachute—sidelined him in 1992, though he’d make temporary returns to the sport in 1998 and 2003. His last professional drag race came in May 2003, at the NHRA Southern Nationals, where he qualified 16th with a pass of 4.788 seconds at 319.98 mph. He was 71 years old at the time.
His museum in Ocala, Florida, keeps him busy, as do public appearances, but since 2011 or so, Don’s been focusing on electric dragsters. While some may see this as heresy, his interest is far more practical: The sport of professional drag racing has become too complex and too expensive, and electric drag racing represents a lower-cost path to travel. Add to this increasing government regulations regarding nitromethane fuel and the encroachment of suburbia on existing drag strips, and the writing is on the wall: In the foreseeable future, the sport of drag racing will change, and electric cars will become an integral part of its makeup.
Don’s first attempt to crack the 200 mph barrier in an electric dragster came in 2014, with the Swamp Rat 37, a modified top fuel dragster that initially ran a complex array of six electric motors to create the equivalent of over 2,000 horsepower. On August 10, 2014, Garlits drove this to a NEDRA DR/A3 class record of 185.60 mph, running the quarter mile in 7.24 seconds. Going faster would require a revised battery pack, but solving one problem created two more: The new pack added more weight to an already heavy car, and the increased output kept frying motors designed to operate at significantly lower voltages.
Various versions of Swamp Rat 37 had the torque from the motors going though a two-speed gearbox into a differential, or directly into the differential itself. The number of motors was decreased as performance improved, with the final iteration powered by two motors and two drive chains. Ultimately, the best option proved to be starting over with a clean sheet of paper.
Don tells us that Swamp Rat 38 is more or less a copy of Swamp Rat 14, with the basic frame tubing kit supplied by S&W Race Cars of Spring City, Pennsylvania but welded up in house to accommodate the electric drivetrain. Like Swamp Rat 14, the engine (motor, in this case) is positioned in the rear, but the spot immediately behind the driver is reserved for the car’s batteries. In SR 37, the battery pack weighed around 700 pounds, but in SR 38, the custom lithium ion battery pack handbuilt by Lowell Simmons (owner and driver of the “Black Pearl,” a nine-second electric Porsche 944) has been cut to 240 pounds. Overall, the SR 38 weighs in at 1,500 pounds, where the SR 37 tipped the scales at 2,500 pounds.
Propulsion for the SR 38 comes from a single 1,250 hp electric motor, but with an unusual pedigree: It’s already broken the 200 mph barrier, powering the “Rocket Bike” electric motorcycle to a 6.94 second run at 201.37 mph with Larry “Spiderman” McBride aboard. Owned by Shawn Lawless, his company, Lawless industries, has also provided the controller for SR 38.
In appearance, it’s a simple setup. The electric motor is mounted across the chassis, in a sidewinder configuration, and linked to a sprocket on the rear axle by a single (stout) chain. This facilitates quick changes of gear ratios, and Don told us that for the upcoming record run, they’ve already swapped from a 1.87:1 final drive to a 2.2:1 final drive. “The motor will rev to 5,000 rpm,” he said, “so the 2.2 gearing will make us quicker off the line but should still leave enough to break 200 mph.”
In initial testing, wheelspin at the 1/8 mile made SR 38 a handful to drive. The rear wing—salvaged from Swamp Rat 29—is an absolute necessity, providing both downforce and, acting as a rudder, a bit of directional stability. The zoomie headers used by top fuel cars are for more than just show, and without the downforce provided by escaping exhaust gasses, traction problems can limit top speed.
We asked Don about the difference in feel between a top fuel dragster and an electric dragster, aside from the noise. “Both fuel cars and electric cars feel similar off the line, and at the 60-foot mark electric cars are nearly as quick. Halfway into the run the electric car feels like its slowing down, while the fuel car just keeps accelerating,” he told us.
If all goes well on July 20, Don will run a few passes building up to a 200 mph run, at or around seven seconds, setting yet another drag racing record in the process. Long range forecasts are calling for rain, but in Florida during the summer months, such weather is usually temporary. Assuming he breaks the record at the Palm Beach International Raceway event, our next question was the inevitable “What comes next?”
“I’d like to take a breath for a little while,” he said, “maybe make a few appearances and recover the investment we’ve got into the car.”
Those appearances, we’d bet, will be one of the steps necessary to put the sport of electric drag racing on the map.