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Chasing Big Daddy – from New Jersey to Florida over 40-plus years

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I wanted to meet “Big Daddy” Don Garlits when he raced Swamp Rat-I at Atco Dragway in 1962. But it wasn’t to be, and I had to wait 41 years for it to happen. Photo courtesy Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.

[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden of Richardson, Texas, is a lifelong fan of drag racer Don Garlits. This week he sent along the decades-long story of how his appreciation for “Big Daddy” developed.]

I’ll never forget “Big Daddy” Don Garlits burning up the track in his “Swamp Rat-I” dragster.

It was a warm spring night in 1962, as my buddies and I, tired and sweaty, stood for hours at the edge of the Atco (NJ) “Dragway” waiting for our idol, Garlits, to beat his quarter-mile record.

It had been a long journey in my 1951 Mercury on two-lane blacktops to reach Atco, a south-Jersey hamlet–the movie Eddie and the Cruisers was filmed there—on the western edge of the “Pine Barrens.” The black Merc, painted by Earl Scheib ($19.95), was nosed, decked, and fender-skirted to look like James Dean’s ’49 hotrod in Rebel Without a Cause. Its dual glass-pack mufflers rumbled through 6-inch-long chrome extensions.

We stopped at a gas station to check the flathead’s oil level. As usual, it was dangerously low. The car’s oil thirst—about 100 miles to the quart—required carrying 10 cans in the trunk at all times.

I transformed my ’51 Merc into James Dean’s ride in Rebel Without a Cause with a $19.95 Earl Schieb paint job. The car took me and my buddies to Atco Dragway to see Don Garlits attempt a new record. Photo by the author.

There was nothing more exciting than Atco Dragway for car-crazy teens. Now the oldest drag strip in New Jersey, it was two years old in 1962 and had already built a reputation for attracting America’s fastest cars. My friends and I read about Garlits setting the quarter-mile world record—180 mph in Swamp Rat-I—in December, 1958. Four years later, we were anxious to see him go faster.

Better than Palisades Park
My memories are vague now, but I laugh when I recall how primitive Atco Dragway was back then. Two asphalt lanes with small, wood bleachers on one side and “pits,” an unpaved area bordered by trees where racers tuned cars, on the other pretty well describes it. Spotlights on poles barely lit the track. Tinny-sounding speakers drowned out conversations with incomprehensible commentaries provided by nasal-sounding announcers.

A food stand behind the bleachers pumped smoke and delicious odors into the air that stoked primordial hunger responses. Men wearing grubby aprons flipped burgers while race fans, pushing and shoving, impatiently waited for their dinners. Tiny restrooms required those obeying nature’s call to traverse a dirt parking lot, dust from tires coating everything with a brown patina.

As basic as it was, Atco Dragway was the most exciting spot on earth for this young man. I thought it more than rivaled New Jersey’s Atlantic City boardwalk or Palisades Amusement Park on the Hudson River. The latter was made famous that year by Freddy Cannon’s rock-and-roll hit by the same name. In his song, Cannon falls in love with a girl and they ride the “Shoot the Chute,” “Rocket Ship” roller-coaster, and “Loop the Loop.”

We were “loopy” by the time “Big Daddy” lined up for his first pass of the night. It was getting late—about 10:30—and our ears were numb from high-decibel revving of engines. The “pits,” which cost a dollar to enter, was a gearhead’s heaven. Amidst the chaos, hotrods were prepped by mechanics in overalls bending over hoods, cigarettes dangling from lips. When rods were ready to race, they jockeyed in a long line—drivers’ tempers flaring and horns blaring—at the track’s entrance.

Garlits’ Swamp Rat-I caught fire and he was severely burned years earlier. He attempted to beat his previous quarter-mile record in a rebuilt Swamp Rat at the Atco Dragway in 1962. Photo via Atco Dragway.

Standing in a crowd and straining to see, we watched “Big Daddy” don his helmet, wave and squeeze into the Swamp Rat’s tiny cockpit. I wanted to muscle through and shake his hand. But assistants were already pushing Swamp Rat-I, its Chrysler hemi engine blasting sonic sound waves from three-foot-long pipes, into position for its first attempt at the world record.

Rushing with the mob and lining the track, we stood—dangerously close and without fear—a short distance from the dragster. Forget about ear-noise protection. There were no computer “tree” timing lights, either, just a pole with a timer-box attached at the bottom.

A brave guy wearing jeans and t-shirt stood with a flag next to the dragster. Pointing at Garlits, he raised the flag high and dropped it with flourish while jumping two feet off the ground. Melting tire rubber, smoke and flames all but engulfed his body. I wondered if he was still there after the dragster took off, its roaring pipes permanently ruining my hearing.

About eight seconds later, an enormous cheer rang out as “Big Daddy” safely completed the attempt. But disappointment set in when it was announced he had cleared the traps at 178 miles-per-hour…two less than his world record. Subsequent passes produced the same results and Garlits decided to call it quits for the night.

It was all over around midnight and my friends and I, tired and disappointed, piled into the Merc for the drive home.

‘Big Daddy’ and my ‘dream car’
Returning to high school Monday morning, I encountered my 12th-grade English teacher. Stodgy and gray-haired, sort of how I look today, he wore spectacles and liked to read Shakespeare’s plays.

You must be kidding, I thought, listening to him describe our final essay assignment. But I knew it was important. A good performance might elevate my grade from “B” to “A,” which I needed if I expected to go to college.

“You will write an essay about something you’d like to see changed in life,” he told us. “Essays are due in one week.”

What would I write? My car-saturated brain suddenly had an inspiration. Why not transform my favorite car, the 1953 Vette, into my “dream car.” The essay would describe how it would have the hottest Chevy engine available, the “409,” which would be supercharged to produce 500 ponies. Bye-bye slow, two-speed PowerGlide…hello close-ratio “Muncie” four-speed with quick-shift “Hurst” linkage.

The essay focused on building my “dream car,” a 1953 Corvette with 409-inch V8 engine, four-speed Muncie and upgraded suspension. A fictional “Big Daddy” Garlits bought the car at auction. Photo by Jeff Koch.

The suspension would be upgraded, too, with heavy-duty springs and shocks. Wider wheels and tires would improve cornering. And front disc brakes, then a new option on some cars, would replace drum brakes and stop the Vette on a dime.

I knew instantly what I wanted to write. After all, I had studied the subject for half my young life. Lining bedroom bookshelves were car magazines dating back to 1955. They were my reference library, an invaluable font of knowledge about motors, engine swaps, supercharging, suspension upgrades, wheels, tires and equipment suppliers.

The next day, revitalized and excited, I confronted the teacher with my “big idea.”

“You want to write what?” he said, eyes boring into mine. “What could you write about a Corvette that would interest me or your classmates?”

The ‘snow job’ worked
My “snow job” of facts and information, delivered with teen energy, worked. He readily accepted the essay concept. We shook hands and I walked away smugly…but scared. Now I had to deliver. Sitting at my typewriter, car magazines spread on my desk, I began writing. I didn’t need a week…the essay was done in a day.

Titling the essay “My Dream Car” and naming the Vette “Blaze” to match its new, bright-orange color, my fanciful fiction took the car from junkyard wreck to custom show-winner. It was the fastest Vette on the planet, the essay proclaimed, and the most powerful, too. Car magazines couldn’t get enough of “Blaze,” featuring it in articles and filling covers with its image.

The essay included my “idol,” “Big Daddy” Garlits. Not too modestly—and fictionally, of course—I described Garlits bidding on “Blaze” in auction competition. He won in a battle of wits and dollars with a bid of $10,000…a “fortune” back in the day.

“I’ve graded your essays,” my teacher announced weeks later, every student rigid with anticipation, eyeballs focused on the stack of essays in his hands.

Handing them out, he arrived at my desk and, with a wry smile, gave me mine. I don’t remember now, but he might have said “Your crazy dream car is amazing.”

I was sure of one thing, however. The essay got an “A” and boosted my grade average. By summer’s end I was on my way to college. I never built my “dream car.” But Chevrolet upgraded the 1965 Vette much the way I described in the essay, installing a big-block V8 and getting serious about high-performance transmissions, brakes and suspensions.

We finally met
More than 41 years later, my wife, Grace, and I did a vacation car journey to Key West, FL. The 4,000-mile round-trip provided spectacular ocean views and fun. On the way back, I spotted a highway sign advertising Don Garlits’ “Museum of Drag Racing” in Ocala.

Thirty-minutes later, I walked through buildings filled with every dragster Garlits raced, as well as 300 cars once owned by other racing legends. Spotting the museum’s curator, I asked if Garlits visited the facility.

“Yes, he’ll be here in a few minutes,” she told me. “Do you want to meet him?”

The short man wearing a Summit Racing cap with hand extended didn’t look like the Garlits I remembered as a teen. We shook hands and I pointed at his “Swamp Rat-I” dragster.

“I saw you race that car at Atco in 1962,” I said. He was surprised when I told him his elapsed time and speed. We talked non-stop and shared memories about the early days of drag racing.

I wondered if I should tell him about my essay…how he bought my fictional dream Vette, “Blaze,” for $10,000, and helped me, indirectly, achieve an “A” that paved the way for my writing career?

“I need to leave now…others are waiting to talk with me,” he said…and he was gone.

I finally met Don Garlits when visiting his Ocala, Florida, car museum in 2003. I wanted to tell him about my high school essay, in which he bought my dream Vette, “Blaze,” but didn’t have time. Photo courtesy the author.