Racing Innovators and Their Eureka Moments Part 2-Don Garlitts.

garlitts-1By David G. Firestone

Last week, I discussed the eureka moment that lead to the new parachute design that led to the creation of Simpson Race Products. This week, I will discuss the eureka moment that helped the purchaser of the first Simpson parachute, Don Garlitts, design the current dragster design.

Don Garlitts was born in Tampa Florida in 1932. He built his first car in 1954, and instantly took to the sport. Since many of the drivers were from California, and Garlitts was from Florida, he was given several nicknames, before accepting the nickname “Swamp Rat” after the giant swamp rat, or Myocastor coypus. He adapted the Swamp Rat name for each generation of dragster he designed and built. This was not a time of multimillion dollar teams, with special development programs. This was literally a group of guy building dragsters in rented shops.

The eureka moment for Garlitts came at the 1970 AHRA Grand American Nationals. That day, he was racing Swamp Rat XIII, known as the Wynnscharger. This was a front engine rail dragster. The transmission exploded, severed the car in half, and took off part of Garlitts’ foot. Again, while you are recovering from an accident like that, you have a lot of time to think, and as Garlitts thought, he realized that he could design a safer dragster, one with the engine behind the driver. In the 1970’s, this was unheard of. Garlitts designed Swamp Rat XIV in the hospital and started racing it in 1971. Publicly, it was mocked at first, until it began to win, and prove the design effective. Since then, this has become the standard design.

One incarnation that Garlitts worked with before he settled on Swamp Rat XIV was Swamp Rat VIII. Swamp Rat VIII was built in 1964. Swamp Rat VIII was designed to use the Dodge 426 Elephant Hemi engine. The 426 was a lot harder to tune than the old 392, so Garlitts did not have a good year, though once he figured it out, it was an impressive car. The 426 Hemi was such a good design, it is still the car used by the NHRA to this day, in Top Fuel and Funny Car. Garlitts cut the car in half, and used the front half to make Swamp Rat X. In 2005, Garlitts rebuilt the car, and in 2006, took it to a few vintage races.

This is a set of spark plugs pulled from that recreated car. The set of 8 plugs comes in a Styrofoam case, which has been autographed by Garlitts. garlitts-1 garlitts-2 garlitts-3Each plug shows some wear, some more than others. garlitts-4 garlitts-10 garlitts-9 garlitts-8 garlitts-7 garlitts-6 garlitts-5I often look at it, sitting on my coffee table, and think about the legend, the greatest innovator in drag racing history picking up these plugs, one by one, putting them into the rebuilt engine, taking the car to the track, and firing it up. He takes the car for a pass, and then adjusts the engine, with the care and detail of a Swiss watchmaker crafting a timepiece. Once these plugs have finished their lifespan, they weren’t just thrown away, but kept, and sold to a collector, who sold them to me. It really is holding a piece of history in your hands.

Next Friday, we will take a closer look at Spark Plugs as memorabilia items.