Don Garlits:

Lead Image BigdaddyHow his severed foot led dragster design to its most defining moment

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.”

Don Garlits, Mongoose, Tom McEwen

Garlits & McEwen

“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.

Long-Shot-R Garlts TC lemmon lions_05


  1. “But it was in the hospital that he dreamed up the first rear-engine dragster.” So, none of the many other rear-engine dragsters, prior to 1970, was the “first?” No way Gar’s car was the first, and certainly not even the first successful RED. Sure, Garlits opened the RED floodgate with HIS first RED, but no where close to the first one period.

  2. Oops: not the first?
    Bruce, Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  3. The man behind the Rear Engine Dragster was actually Connie Swingle. Connie explained to me that the engine remained in the same place, and that all he did was move the driver seat to in front of the engine. Connie Swingle also came up with the ideas for slowing down the steering and the rear wing for down force. Please read this link for the story I had the honor of befriending Connie when he came to work for my brother in law in Aruba many years ago. Connie was a genius, and the best welder I have ever seen.
    He once cut an aluminum coke can in half, and then welded it back together for me

  4. Thanks for that insightful anecdote and for bringing Connie Swingle back to my attention. No doubt that Gar was the consummate show-man, but not the 1st. Cheers mate and regards from England.

  5. When Gar almost crashed the rear-engine dragster testing it, Connie called Pat Foster and told him how the car was acting. Foster asked what the steering setup was and Connie told him it was the same as the F/E cars. Pat told him that’s way too quick, you need to slow it down.
    From National Dragster:
    Former Editor Bill Holland, who was at the helm of ND during those years, remembers, “I saw the [Kaiser] car run at several WCS meets and at Ontario and Pomona – all before Garlits debuted his car. Fact is, this car ran straight and strong – but I believe it never won anything more than a Division 5 points race. If Junior Kaiser would have had a state-of-the-art Elephant motor instead of a budget cast-iron 392, who knows how history would have played out?”

  6. Connie was sharp, but Jerry Dawson of St Louis was clearly one of the first to build a rear-engine dragster. I have a faint recollection that Dawson and Connie knew each other. Sadly, intelligent inventors don’t always receive the credit they deserve.

    I conceived and produced the first billet 4-link system. It was adjustable in 1/8in increments. Although pictures were featured in an issue of a 1998 National Dragster after we debuted the design at the US Nationals on Labor Day weekend, it took NHRA a few issues to post it. Then miraculously, 3-plus years later, Don Ness is credited with inventing and patenting the first 4-link system with infinite adjustment.

    Actually, those were my exact words to National Dragster’s writer who wrote that exact phrase in the N/D issue, which featured a full-page article on the race car. Don’s patent used my exact verbiage to describe what everyone with an NHRA Dragster subscription saw years earlier.

    God bless Don, for Lord knows we all copied many of his innovative ideas. But he certainly copied mine, has sold millions of dollars’ worth of my intellectual property, and will continue to receive the credit because he patented it. Stealing intellectual properties is not just restricted to the dubious acts of foreign countries, it happens here everyday.


  7. Robert Brian (Jocko ) Johnson was years ahead of Don or Connie setting a national ET record in the 8s at Riverside in 1959. Garlits making the rear motor happen is not accurate. Jazzy Nelson supplied the engine for Jocko and was the shoe for that car, which had more to do with how quick it was than Jocko’s (may he rest in peace) pot-head engineering. There was also a dragster named the “Bustle Bomb” back in the ’50s that was rear engine and these cars are not exclusive to the rear-engine phenomenon, like the rear engine “Sidewinder” that Jack Christman tried to keep drive chains on. By the way, Woody didn’t throw the Cannon / Gilmore glass body over the fence. Gene Mooneyham tried it on but without the rear spoiler we had almost completed so the air pressure in the tail section made it fly. That body is in Garlit’s museum. By the way, Don, that body weighs 94 pounds, not much more than the aluminum bodies Jocko and Kruse hammered on in the ’60s.


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