By Martha Maglone: 

Last month, February 2015, Don Garlits (83) popped the question to photographer Lisa Crigar, whom he met during a magazine interview in 2014. They plan to marry 25 July 2015 at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida.

Don Glenn Garlits’s mother had ambitions for her son; she wanted him to train as an accountant, and though he tried the profession it had no appeal. Inspired only by thoughts of racing, he went to work in an auto body-shop and later founded Don’s Speed Shop. It is likely Garlits would have succeeded in any form of racing, but he fell under the spell of drag racing while growing up in Tampa.

“In those days we all had hot-rods – cut-down Coupes were the top of the line. I had a 1940 Ford with a Cadillac engine, and we went racing on an abandoned army base in Zephyrhills,” he recollects. “We marked out a quarter mile, went flat out all day long, no clocks, just a guy who flagged us. That was June 1950.”

Occasionally, his pal AJ Foyt reminds him that in oval track or road racing if you’re a tenth off here or there you have the opportunity to recover and still win. In drag racing, if you’re a hundredth or even a thousandth off, your race is likely finished.

What makes the difference?

“Reflexes and focus are the two main elements—you’ve got to have those because there’s no second chance,” says Garlits. “Before a run I’d sit in the truck and take a power nap and come out fresh and sharp. You have milliseconds to get it right.”

Garlits’s achievements are seemingly endless. He first made his mark on the drag strips in 1964 when he won the US Nationals at Indianapolis and set a record at 200mph. Later he was the first to pass 200mph in the eighth mile, first to top 270mph in the quarter mile and became the first drag racer to be honored in America’s Hall of Fame.

A pioneer and an innovative constructor, Garlits was the first to perfect the rear-engine Top Fuel dragster; his record-breaking Swamp Rat Streamliner resides in the National Museum of American History. In May of last year, he set a record at 184mph, in a dragster powered by batteries.