Big Daddy and I, Revisited
By Todd Hutcheson

I never helped Don Garlits to win any races or championships. Never helped him in the pits or around the track. Never spent time with him away from the drag strip. I have only seen him race a dozen times.

I did buy his book, 'King of the Dragsters'. And he did sign it, "To Todd Hutcheson, from Don Garlits." And I actually spoke to him…twice, "Hi Mr. Garlits…" or so I remember.

But Big Daddy Don Garlits and I shared a historic moment that started the change in the design of future dragsters. I never told my Dad or my racing Uncle George "The Stone Age Man" Hutcheson anything about it. I would have gotten trouble for it.

My Dad and I saw Big Daddy in the pits. Lots of people were hanging around his rail the 'Wynns Charger'. For a great man he was very polite to the lookers and souvenir photographers. He answered all questions and kept working on his Swamp Rat. My Dad whispered to me, "Todd, that's Big Daddy", and with our camera said, "Don…" and he looked up, smiled and the photo was ours. (My Dad's photo on the right) He went right back to work. He loved Drag Racing, and the fans loved him. Big Daddy understood this relationship with all the fans. That is when I saw my first true champion and gentleman. I have never seen anyone like him since. I read his book so fast that the facts about his life seemed a bit blurred. But there he was. His Swamp Rat 13 was beautiful, strong and simple. I slide my foot over and touched the Swamp Rat 13 front tire. What a thrill! I stood back out of the way, like my Dad told me to and just watched the great man. He wasn't flashy or full of himself. He seemed to be just like anybody else. Except he wasn't. People were in his way, but he worked around them. Never bossy or loud. He had a job to do and he was use to all those eyes on him. Here was a man who moved the sport of Drag Racing with him. Through his developments and experimenting, and always charging forward, the sport followed him.

He was indeed the best. From his first big win in 1955, (I was 3 years old at the time), to this moment at Lions Drag Strip, California, March 1970. He wasn't a Rock Star or a Hollywood celebrity type, no he was much better. He was alone in his craft. At the top. There are other great drivers and engine wizards like Connie Swingle, Ed Pink, Art Malone, Chris "The Greek" Karamesines, Tom Lemons, Don Prudhomme, Mickey Thompson, Keith Black to name a few. All great men of timing and speed with exceptional skill. They were all a major part of the history of Drag Racing. But Don Garlits will always be King of the Dragsters; from the beginning of Drag Racing, to today and long into the future.

Uncle George was there to race in this big meet at Lions Drag Strip. He was not driving his 'Stone Age Man' AA/FD. He was doing the driving for The Syndicate AA/FD. With Garlits there, the other teams were hoping to go head to head with Garlits. That's the way it was for Don since 1955, anyone with a hotrod or digger wanted to say they beat Big Daddy. Sometimes he lost, but Don Garlits was never beaten. With the true support of his wonderful wife Pat, she kept him on track and never lost sight of his dreams. She was his pal, friend and defender when needed. The Southern California boys were not always polite to him or understood his capabilities. 170, 180, 200 mph. The west coast boys just didn't want to believe his times or speeds. Their pride and prejudice refused to believe that a nobody from the Florida swamps could regularly break their speed records.

Don Garlits was cool headed, family man, and a mixture of great courage and a humble attitude. A man in the history books. He was always experimenting. Even after horrific fires and crashes, he moved forward. The changes he developed made the sport safer for everyone.

Where do Big Daddy and I share history? I was there at Lions Drag Strip when it happened. It was the finals with Garlits and his Swamp Rat 13. I was standing right next to Garlits lane choice. Richard Tharp had the other lane. There was a spot at Lions Drag Strip where you could stand very close to the staging lights. Heavy boards stood about four feet high behind a chain-linked fence. That spot is where I stood. He was close. It was very loud. My Uncle taught me to open my mouth and breathe so my ears would not hurt standing so close to the monster engine at full scream. Why? Because to cover your ears was for little girls and wimps. I was neither.

Garlits did a full throttle burnout. It was wonderful! I was close enough to feel the heat from his headers as he passed by. Just before he did his final staging, Big Daddy looked at me and gave me the 'V' for victory sign. I waved back and smiled biggest. He may have been waving to the hundreds of fans on their feet behind me, but than again, maybe not. It was my moment with Don. But there was more to come.

I heard some guy behind me say, "Hey kid, you'd better get back." No, not me. I'll stay until Big Daddy is long gone. I wanted to be as close as I could get. This was Don Garlits. This was drag racing. Whaaap! Rup! The Swamp Rat spoke loud and clear. Swamp Rat 13 was a thing of beauty. Garlits was down to business. He rolled gently to the lights. I looked right into his facemask. Whaaap! The engine Rpm's went up and the amber lights came down.

Whaaaaaap! Boom! 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? Did you see that? My God, look at that! You OK Don?" These were the things I heard from the rushing crowd. There was no way I could fight my way back to the front to see for myself. There was oil on my arm and oil spots on my Pit Pass. I too was hurt, hurting for Don Garlits. There was nothing I could do. The man I admired so much was hurt and I was helpless and confused. The pit of my stomach housed my fears for 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits. Things happened fast. I worked my way back to the pits. I ran into my brother Jay and my Dad. "Did you see what happen to Garlits?" I looked up and said, "Yea, I saw, is Garlits OK?" The talk was more like nervous chitchat. Question with no answers, confusion and fear for Big Daddy Garlits. I was in shock and fearful that I might say, "Are you kidding, I was right there. I saw it all. I got hit with hot oil and stuff. Man-o-man it was like a bomb!" But I said nothing of my personal brush with Don Garlits. It was a horror of a time to think of. A teenage boy was hurt real bad in the arm by flying parts and went to the hospital too. I could have been hurt. I had better not say anything. My Uncle came up and said Garlits was on his was to the hospital. He had hurt his foot really bad. George had the inside track information. He always did. So we headed back to our cars. For the long drive back to the Valley, I kept thinking about Don Garlits 'V' signal to me, and the photo my Dad captured in our camera. For that short moment in time we connected. I never told anyone how close I was to Garlits terrible accident.

With that injury and time to recover, Don Garlits re-designed the classic behind-the-engine cockpit dragster into the much faster and safer forward cockpit racer of today. Garlits went on to bigger wins and a thicker part of history. I wish I could have seen him again later in life, but I went on to my own few lines of history. That's the thing about Big Daddy, he never gave up. He redesigned his rail and moved on. And every driver and pit crew benefited from it. That's the way Don Garlits was. An evolutionary and revolutionary all in one. All this from his hospital bed in Long Beach, California.

 

From Don Garlits web site (garlits.com) this is how it he described Swamp Rat 13 incident:

Swamp Rat 13: While at Naperville during a match race, the frame on SR 12-B was damaged, TC and I rushed back to Seffner to build a new car, Swamp Rat 13. As we pulled into the gate, Swingle was leaving, we explained the problem, but Swingle said that he couldn't help out this time as the "King fish were running!" TC and I tried to build a car in a few days for the 1968 NHRA Spring Nationals at Dallas, but just plain ran out of time. SR 13 was a good car, won the 1969 Smokers US Fuel and Gas Championship at Long Island's New York National Speedway and it was there that TC and I decided to install a two speed tranny. The tranny worked well, winning many races, but was soon to be a major problem. At Long Beach CA for the 1970 AHRA Grand American, in the final against Richard Tharpe, the tranny exploded, cutting the car in two and severing my right foot. I sold the wreckage to TC and Connie Swingle, who repaired the car while I was recuperating. They took #13 on tour and I joined them at Bristol TN for the AHRA Spring Nationals. I made one run in the car for them, setting Top Time and Low ET in the process and I was back! I drove for TC for the rest of the year on percentage! During the fall of 1970, TC sold the car to Art Malone, who later sold it to a Bracket Racer. I spied it at Bradenton a few years later, purchased it and TC and I restored the old girl back to "the way she was" in 1970, the day of the "Accident". It is on display in the Drag Racing Museum.

In addition Garlits wrote to me:

The only thing wrong with the story in Drag News is: Richard Tharpe red lit, but my exploding transmission not only hurt a spectator, but also cut the timing light power source and hence the red light in Tharpe's lane went out, I lost!
Don

This is excerpts from Don's book 'Tales from the Drag Strip'.

Garlits was racing Richard Tharp in the Creitz & Donovan T/F. Tharp had red-lit but Garlits exploding transmission sent shrapnel out and it cut the electronic equipment shutting down the beams. Tharp when to the tracks end and had a huge explosion of his own and was seriously burned. With no ambulance to go down to help him, because they were tending to Don's serious injuries, Richard had to walk all the way back to the starting line by himself.

At the same time young Tim Ditt was hit in the arm by a part of Garlits exploding transmission. His arm was just about cut clean off, it has hanging by some skin. They took him to the same hospital as Don.
At the hospital Dr. Larson told Don that the teenagers arm could be saved if he got to work right now. The doctor asked Don if he could wait, since his foot could not be saved. Don Garlits said it was a no-brainer and let the young teenagers be operated on first, saving his arm. More than that Don Garlits tried to get young Tim Ditt's hospital bill ($16,000) paid for by AHRA and Lions Drag Strip. But they wouldn't do it. The settlement paid Tim $50,000. He even got to work with Garlits in the racing pit a year later; he seemed to function very well.

This is very typical of Don Garlits, his concern for others and his fans. Like I said he is humble and very heroic. Four days after his operation on his right foot he went to therapy to try walking again. That is when he found his left leg was too painful to walk on. More x-rays showed that his left leg was broken in five places. He never gave up. From his hospital bed he planned the new rear engine dragster.

From Don Garlits web site (garlits.com) this is how it he described the next nine months of planning:

"Swamp Rat 14: While I was in the Pacific Coast Hospital in Long Beach CA recuperating from injuries sustained in the tranny explosion in SR 13, I laid out the plans for the Rear Engine Top Fuel Dragster, Swamp Rat 14. From my wheelchair in Seffner, I made parts for this new car. Swingle, Lemons and me completed the car in October and testing began. Run after run I drove off the strip at the Orlando Speedworld and after 3 months we parked the little RE Car in the back of the Seffner shop and the three of us built Swamp Rat 15, a slingshot for the 1971 Season. My wife Pat saw what we were doing and went ballistic, she wanted to know why would I give up on the project? She told the three of us in no uncertain terms to get back on the RE Project! We did, determined that the steering was too fast and the rest is history. Swamp Rat 14 set the all time quickest ET at Indy, a blistering 6.21 Seconds and ran over 240 most of the time. It was retired in the fall of 1971." - Don Garlits.

Drag Racing changed, I changed and the world moved on. His rear engine dragster was ridiculed and again the others said Garlits was washed up. Rear engine dragsters didn't work well in the past, Garlits
was done. Still they under estimated the man and his determination. Each time they said Garlits was a
has-been, time after time Garlits not only came back but set another speed record. It is no surprise that
the world of Drag Racing followed the lead of Don Garlits. 'If you can't beat him, join him'. In Drag News that year there were countless ads for top fuel dragsters for sale, big names too. Many were ordering Garlits new rear engine frames. Garlits never lost the front seat of history or innovation. From Swamp Rat 1 at 180 mph, to Swamp Rat 13 at 240 mph, all the way to Swamp Rat 34 at his best final speed of 323.04 in 4.73 seconds, Garlits sometimes dragged the sport along like no one else could or ever will again.

Finally the speeds became faster than the 1320 tracks they raced on. At those speeds, some 300 feet per second, it takes longer to stop safely. The old track designers never dreamed of those speeds when they were built. Plus the human body just can't take those kinds of accelerations and sudden stopping all within 4 seconds. There is nothing on earth that can compare to the modern Top Fueler in acceleration, speed and stopping distance. Thanks to Don's brilliant career it finally reached it limit.

Again from Don Garlits web site (garlits.com) this is how it he described the future:

"Swamp Rat 34: After running SR 32 for one year, this was an experimental car, Murf McKinney and I built Swamp Rat 34, the most modern, aerodynamic Top Fuel dragster ever built, even to this day. It ran very well, even on my small budget. I never oiled the dragstrip, never sent a blower into the stands and the car ran 323.04 MPH in 4.73 Seconds. Had this design been accepted by the other teams with their large budgets, we would have had speeds of well over 340 MPH! But this was the problem, SR 34 came at a time in our sport when the NHRA was trying to slow the T/F cars down, so they politicked against the design. At Indy in 2003, I made my last run in #34 and in Top Fuel for that matter, 310.81 MPH and my wife asked me real nice, not to do it anymore, and I haven't. Swamp Rat 34 is here on the Museum floor ready to "make one", alive and well!" - Don Garlits

Don had many close partners, his brother Ed, Connie Swingle, Art Malone, Tom 'TC' Lemons, Emery Cook, and a few others. But it was his lifelong partnership with a sweet girl named Pat Bieger from Tampa that was Don's best investment. Of all the great blessing God can give a man, it is his soul mate, and Pat was Don's. With their two daughters Gay Lyn and Donna the family moved along the highways from track to track making a living and paving the road to immortality. Pat was Don's strong arm and soft shoulder. It was her gift of a leather jacket that she wanted him to wear just before his fiery crash in Chester that saved his life. She was the one who insisted that the rear engine dragster project continue. She is the one that said 'that's it Don, no more.' Until someone writes a book about Pat Garlits and her influence in Don Garlits life, we will just have to thank her for all that she has done for him.

From the first time I stood there and watched Big Daddy race and in the pits working he has never left my heart. I guess I still feel bad after the crash at Lions Drag Strip. First admiring him in the pits and then at the fence line feeling the explosion that left Garlits hurting and in such pain. I will always have a soft spot for the Big D.

A few months ago I received a book in the mail from Mickey Bryant. It is a beautiful glossy book entitled 'Three Weeks in March'. At first I thought it was a mistake. I took great care as to not mark it. After a while I read it cover to cover. It was the story of Drag Racing in 1959, when Don Garlits answered the challenge. The Book by the Southern California racers to see who was king of the strip. The fire in my belly was lit again. I took it to work the next day and read it again. It was a great read. I found my old book 'King of the Dragsters' by Don Garlits and Brock Yates. The cover was sun faded but in good sharp. Inside cover it said, "To Todd Hutcheson from Don Garlits". The book has survived my life time of moving around the world. Recently I found that photograph that my dad had taken years ago of Garlits. There are some things you just keep. This was one of my best. I have re-read it three times now, and I am still re-reading Mickey Bryant book. The photos are priceless as is the story. I emailed Mr. Bryant to thank him; it was no mistake being sent to me.

As a photojournalist for United Press International, I have lived all over the world, I've met Kings and Queens, photographed presidential hopefuls and flew on Air Force One with the President. Photographed the Hollywood legends and some Rock & Roll legends too. Covered the Olympics and I was the first to photograph the terra cotta soldiers of the First Emperor of Chinese for LIFE Magazine 1979. It was just something I did and did well. But I never got over the feeling of awe as my Dad and I watched Don Garlits at work all those years ago.

I hope someday soon to take that trip to Ocala Florida with my son Scott and walk the rooms of history at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. I would like to slide my foot over and touch the tire of the Swamp Rat 13 again, just to complete the circle. What a thrill!

Maybe, just maybe I'll see Pat Garlits or the man himself. I would like to thank him personally.

Big Daddy and I, Revisited
by Todd Hutcheson, 1998 / 2009 Revised
[email protected]
425 778-7578
Lynnwood Washington

E-mail from Mickey Bryant:

Todd...thanks for the copy of your Big Daddy and I, Revisited. I remember reading this a while back when I was in the middle of my book, and thinking "this guy needs to get a copy - we have a lot in common".

More than you know actually. I had a big laugh when you described sliding your foot over to touch the Garlits car. There was a few thing I left out of the book about March Meet 1 in 1959. Here's one. My buddies and I were strolling thru the pits, Coors in hand, checking out this huge array of race machines and happened upon a very large crowd. At this point we had not seen, "Him", and figured this has got to be the man. I eased my way thru what was at least 10 deep and as I cleared the last person I bumped right into Swamp Rat 1's right side headers -- and there he was sitting in the cockpit, no helmet, trying to push to the starting line. I literally gasped. I had waited two years for this moment. I needed to touch something. I actually had the presence of mind not to touch those long swooping headers since they might still be hot from the warm-up.....so I reached waaaaay over and managed to touch the right rear slick. In doing so, it probably looked to Garlits like I was reaching for his helmet, but he saw what I was doing, he chuckled. DON GARLITS CHUCKLED! I, to this day, can recall that moment in full color. Last year, when I went to the Museum to see it for the first time, I recreated that moment with Swamp Rat 1 there on display. I did look around first to make sure no one was watching.

 

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