By Sam Logan
Don Garlits’ front-engine race car career ended at Lion’s Dragstrip in 1970.
“His 2-speed transmission exploded and severed a portion of his right foot—from the middle of his foot to his toes,” Tom McEwen explained.
“We rushed him to a hospital immediately where he remained for a month. His wife, Pat, flew to Los Angeles and I gave her my Cadillac and put her in a hotel. We visited Don each day and took him sci-fi books—he enjoyed science fiction: outer space, black holes and all that. But it was in the hospital that he dreamed up the first rear-engine dragster.”
“Big Daddy” of innovation
Always influential, constantly seeking a technical advantage, Garlits was determined to reduce the driver’s exposure, particularly feet and legs, to exploding engines and transmission parts.”
By eradicating the conventional rear axle, Garlits’ rear-engine dragster was the greatest innovation since 1954, when Mickey Thompson moved the driver’s seat behind the rear axle that marked the creation of the slingshot era. “We had a lot of success with front-engine cars,” said Don Prudhomme, “then Garlits came out with the rear-engine dragster and that changed things overnight. It made the front-engine cars obsolete.”
Garlits sold his first rear-engine chassis to Tom McEwen, who won the Bakersfield March Meet soon after. In 1971 Don Garlits returned to professional drag racing with his Swamp Rat XIV and won two of his next three Top Fuel Eliminator events. The only remaining impediments to the success of his engineering prowess lay in changing the steering ratio and adopting aerodynamic down force: once he lowered the steering ratio and added wings he looked invincible.