‘Big Daddy’ And ‘The Snake’ Talk Drag Racing
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Born and drag-raised on opposite ends of the country, they were destined to become the embodiments of East Coast innovation and California cool, with iconic nicknames to match.
“Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme were 19- and 9-years-old, respectively, when Wally Parks floated the idea of organizing the emerging, post-World War II hot rod phenomenon into the National Hot Rod Association. Parks, himself a hands-on automobile enthusiast and editor of “Hot Rod” magazine, broached the subject in a “reader letter” that appeared in the publication’s March 1951 issue.
As NHRA begins a year-long celebration of its 60th anniversary, Garlits and Prudhomme were selected to kick-off the tributes and activities planned to pay homage to the evolution of the hot rod, the impact of the sport’s legendary characters and drag racing’s ever-passionate fans. Beginning with this weekend’s 51st annual Kragen O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, each stop on the 22-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule will showcase the sport’s colorful history with vintage car shows, Cacklefests, tribute car races and meet-and-greets with legends from all generations. A resident of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., Prudhomme was the logical choice for honors on the West Coast.
Prudhomme’s 47-year tenure in the sport – a combined 32 years as a Funny Car and Top Fuel driver and 15 as team-owner – are the centerpiece of the “Snake Pit” display at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. A four-time Funny Car world champion, Prudhomme posted 49 national event victories, including 35 in Funny Car, before retiring from the cockpit in 1994. His highly successful venture with Mattel’s Hot Wheels brand in the 1970s made his Funny Car one of the sport’s most recognized vehicles.
Garlits’ impact on the premier Top Fuel division has been monumental. As one of the pioneering drivers in Top Fuel, Garlits basically engineered the modern rear-engine dragster. After a horrific transmission explosion severed half of his right foot and knocked him out of competition for a year, Garlits rolled into the 1971 Winternationals and debuted the rear-engine rail that paved the way for the Top Fuel machines that define the sport today. A three-time Top Fuel champion (1975, 1985-86), Garlits’ 35 career victories are still fifth on the all-time class list.
When NHRA heads to Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway for the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals next month, Garlits, a resident of Ocala, Fla., will be the highlighted legend and will launch the 60th celebration on the East Coast.
Garlits, who turned 78 on Jan. 14, and Prudhomme, who will turn 70 on April 6, addressed a number of issues during a national teleconference previewing the prestigious Winternationals:
Question: “Snake,” you’ve seen and helped push the growth of NHRA drag racing throughout these years. What are some of the feelings you have heading into this anniversary season?
Don Prudhomme: “Well, for it to last 60 years, it’s pretty good for starters. When a lot of people in the early days didn’t think it would fly, you know? It just wouldn’t happen. There was no money in the sport and we were all running junkyard parts. To see where it’s at today is quite amazing.
“So I’m just pleased to see it carry on. I’m pleased to see drivers like Ron Capps, and several of the drivers in the sport, making real good money and making a living. It’s something that was a hobby with junkyard parts with Garlits and I, the way we started out. So it’s quite amazing to me, and I’m thrilled to play a part in the 60th anniversary. It’s an honor to be honored at the track, how’s that?”
Q: “Big Daddy,” how excited are you to be a part of this 60th anniversary for NHRA, especially the kickoff in Gainesville?
Don Garlits: “Well, to start off with, I’m just happy to be here. I mean, we lived dangerous lives, ‘Snake’ can attest to that. But like ‘The Snake’ said, a lot of people thought this sport would never amount to anything. It was just a bunch of hoodlums in black leather jackets. But it took Wally Parks to organize it and put it all together and put that professional touch to it which is what made it great today.
“But we did have a lot of fun back then with the junkyard parts. I have to defend that just a little bit. A lot more people could race. But it was more dangerous because the parts weren’t up-to-speed, so to speak, like the parts we’ve got today. We sent over a lot of stock rear ends and transmissions and stuff like that that were very dangerous.
“And people like ‘The Snake’ and myself and some who have passed on, paid the ultimate price…and Pete Robinson comes to mind. We profited by their mistakes. In my particular case with the rear-engine car, I was lucky enough to live through it and able to make some changes.
“So 2011, I never thought I’d be writing that date on anything, and I’m signing autographs with 2011 underneath it. I’m just really tickled to death to be here.”
Q: When did both of you know that you had “made it” in drag racing?
Prudhomme: “I think when I beat ‘Big Daddy’ some place (laughing). When I made it? I don’t know. I don’t think you ever really think you ‘made it.’ There is something about drag racing that the following week, no matter how well you’ve done or whatever, someone’s there to kick your butt. It brings you right back down. So you keep trying each and every week.
“I don’t know how to answer when I made it. I guess perhaps you could say the Hot Wheels (deal) in 1970 when ‘The Mongoose’ (Tom McEwen) and I got together. It was probably one of the first non-automotive sponsors in the sport, if not the first.
“We had a sense of accomplishment right then when I knew I could set the spray can down or spray gun down and wouldn’t have to paint cars anymore, and this is going to be…I could make a professional living out of the sport of NHRA and Hot Wheels and everything it brought me.”
Q: As a follow to that, having really started the era of drag racing sponsorship, how gratifying is it to know where your Hot Wheels deal has brought the sport today?
Prudhomme: “Yeah, it is quite amazing. They’ve been talking about doing a movie about it, and we’re looking at some rights on the script and so on. Yeah, it was a time and point in the sport that changed everything. Some people said it changed the sport completely. Some people agreed with it and some didn’t because there was big money coming into the sport when other cars didn’t have or teams didn’t have it. But I think it showed a lot of the teams that it’s out there. You know, we can make a difference. We made a difference by bringing in sponsors, and once again they were able to go out and find sponsors also.”
Q: And Don Garlits, when did you feel like you’d made it?
Garlits: “Yeah, I knew exactly when it was. I won that Winternationals in 1963. They put me on the cover of “Hot Rod” magazine, and my phone was ringing off the hook for appearances. And I didn’t have to change the rod bearings in the 6-cylinder Chevy anymore or paint a car. I could actually tour and make a living, and that was the start.
“Then the following year in ‘64, I won the U.S. Nationals and that was the icing on the cake. I never had to do a regular job again. I was a professional touring drag racer.”
Q: Following-up that question, “Big Daddy,” you really are the father of the modern rear-engine dragster. How does it make you feel knowing the many lives that you’ve saved by the determination to make that concept work?
Garlits: “I’ll answer that just the way I told a guy just recently. He told me if you could go back to Long Beach and do something where that transmission wouldn’t blow your foot off, would you do it? And I said, I’d be really afraid to do that because I don’t know exactly who would still be with us today if I hadn’t gotten on that project.
“Sooner or later, we would have had rear-engine cars, but it wouldn’t have been right then. And we were killing them right and left. And it might even have cost me my own life. That whole scenario was probably one of the most important things that happened in drag racing. That transmission exploding when it did and what it did, in other words, not fixing me where I couldn’t race anymore, but just really giving me an incentive to get out there and find out what the deal was.
“I think that’s probably the most important thing I ever did in drag racing, and it certainly did equate to lives _ possibly even my own.”
Q: For both drivers, how special is Gainesville and the Gatornationals to you? And what are some of your favorite memories there?
Prudhomme: “My Funny Car days, driving the U.S. Army car and winning there back-to-back several times setting records. I just had a lot of good ‘goes’ there. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but we won more than once, I can tell you that. (Prudhomme scored five victories at Gainesville Raceway).
“It was a thrilling place because of the air down there. The air conditions are always so good, the track was good. It was a place that you could lay the numbers down, and it was in my heyday. It was in the days during the ’70s there when I won four championships back-to-back (1975-78). So Gainesville played a big part in it.”
Garlits: “One of my favorite memories is Gainesville in ‘72, and I was running against Clayton Harris and his “New Dimension” Dragster and it was a well-funded car, and always my funds were down a bit. It came up to the final. And Jack McCabe was the owner, and he was a well-to-do guy. He had a really nice fancy silver dollar that he really cherished. And we flipped for lane-choice in those days, and he flipped that thing up in the air and said, ‘Call it, Big.’ And I said, ‘Heads.’ And it fell down there heads. He said, ‘I don’t want that silver dollar anymore. It’s all yours now.’
“So I got my lane of choice and I won the race. That was the final for the race, and I’ll never forget that day.”
Prudhomme: “I was thinking of the time when you had that rear-engine dragster, and it was enclosed. The nose was enclosed and the cockpit, you ended up winning the race and beating Joe Amato and running how fast?”
Garlits: “272.56 (mph) and I didn’t have a good enough run for a backup so it didn’t stand as a record.”
Prudhomme: “That changed a lot with the aerodynamics, and he’s been quite the innovator through the years and always waiting to see what Garlits would do next.”
Garlits: “Yeah, I had a good time. That’s what I really liked about the sport. You could always make some new stuff and go out there and try it. It’s a little more restricted now because of the high speeds and safety and everything. But back in the day, you could just about run what you’d brung.
“And, yeah, I’ve still got my plate full. I’ll be running my 2009 Dodge Challenger in the A-Stock Automatic class. That’s all my wife will let me race anymore. It only goes 135 miles an hour, so that’s OK.”
Q: Don Prudhomme, after shutting down your Top Fuel team in January 2010, is there any possibility you may come back as a team-owner?
Prudhomme: “You know, I was with (NHRA President) Tom Compton and Gary Darcy (NHRA senior vice president of sales and marketing) the other night. We were having dinner and talking about that. Geez, I don’t know. You know, if the right thing happened, I suspect.
“Since I’ve retired I’ve kind of really started a new life for myself. I was so involved with the sport until it was everything, so you have to start a new life. I got real involved in IndyCar racing. I’ve been involved with several other things, trips, appearances and so on and restoring some cars and doing things like that. So I don’t know.
“If the right opportunity came along…but I know what it takes to win. I can tell you that. My last driver was Spencer Massey, who _ with all due respect to Tony Schumacher _ I’m kind of picking him to win the championship this year because he’s in a terrific car (with Don Schumacher Racing). He won Rookie of the Year the year he drove for me (2009) and won two national events. So once I broke up that team and Spencer was gone and the team I had and all the equipment and so on, it’s really hard to get restarted up again. I can tell you that. I wouldn’t look for it to happen.”
Garlits: “Let me just say something. We miss you, ‘Snake,’ and we surely hope you do come back.”
Q: Taking into consideration all the changes that have come on-board since you gentlemen began racing, what is your view of NHRA racing today? How much has it changed since you two raced?
Garlits: “All right. This will be a controversial answer because I think there are some changes that have been made that I don’t agree with, but I’m old so what do I know. Some of the changes that are good are some of the safety things that have caused these drivers to be able to survive in these high speed crashes. But there are some things that they’ve done that I think they shouldn’t have done. What can I say, it’s happened. It’s modern drag racing. It’s different from when I was there.”
Prudhomme: “And I feel somewhat the same. I think the racing is terrific now. I think the people that are doing it are fit. They’re more fit. They’re younger. They’re professional drivers; they’re not crew. Like when Garlits and I drove, and I think that was the beauty of it, what I enjoyed the most, you jumped out of the car at the other end and you knew exactly what to do at the next run.
“Nowadays a driver gets out of the car, and he pretty much doesn’t want to say anything because the computer’s going to tell him something different when they’re back at the pits. So it’s all up to the computer. All those drivers drive the same down the course nowadays.
“But back then it was way more involved with Garlits and myself. We would tune the cars and drive the cars. It’s a completely different world, but I think it’s a lot safer situation now. I think the racing is tremendous. I think the 1,000-feet (distance), I’m in big favor of that. I think that did a lot to elevate the sport, to help the sport as far as safety and costs.
“I think from here on out you’re going to see a lot of things happening. I think the safety stuff, oil downs, NHRA is already cracking down on that and trying to work it out so the crowd gets a better shot at it, you know, so we don’t have downtime. But that’s all part of racing and things you learn along the way.”
Q: As part of NHRA’s 60th anniversary, they’ve released a list of the 60 Greatest Moments in NHRA history. Could each of you select what you think is the greatest moment in NHRA history?
Garlits: “OK, I can name a couple. My moments, I hope they’re NHRA’s too. One was winning the 1967 U.S. Nationals and shaving the beard on the starting line. Then the other one would be the 1975 finals at Ontario, California. I came into the race over 400 points down, set both ends of the national record and won the race to become the first Winston World Champion. Those are two great moments in my book.
“For somebody else, I think we just had one. I think that John Force win in Funny Car last year (for his record 15th title) was an absolutely great moment in NHRA history. Those are three of my choices.”
Prudhomme: “I’m the same about Force. I’m a huge fan of his. To see him come back and see a guy like him succeed all these years. You’re talking about a guy whose dad didn’t have any money. He went out and hustled everything he’s got. He started with nothing, and to still be competitive at his age (61) and come back and win a championship was pretty remarkable. So, I’d say that is one of the most outstanding things that I’ve ever seen in the sport, except for Don Garlits and his rear-engine car when he won the Winternationals with no wing on it. Pulled up to the start line and that changed the sport forever. So moments like that.
“For myself, I’ve had a couple of pretty good runs. Actually, I’ve had a lot of them, so I don’t know which one someone would like over the other, including myself. But those are things I remember.”
Q: We’ve been talking about the mechanical and the racing end of things. One of the biggest deals with the Winternationals and the Finals out here as well in every drag event you go to now are the huge crowds. When you come back to the races, are you surprised at how big the crowds are and the response? Does that fire you up?
Garlits: “That’s true. The crowds do inspire us. I don’t think anybody goes out there and is so focused on what they’re doing that they don’t see the crowds in the stands. It really gives you a good feeling that there are that many people that like the sport that much who come out there and pay all that money to watch you, and then they crowd around the pits. It is very inspiring.”
Prudhomme: “Yeah, I think the crowds are huge. But I think the drivers today, it’s a good thing, and I think they’ve had a lot to do with it. Tony Schumacher and Ron Capps, they’re really crowd-friendly. They work the sponsors real well and the crowds real well.
“Back in the day we didn’t really _ Garlits and myself _ didn’t really have time for that. We were working on the cars trying to get them ready for the next run. Today’s world, the drivers are such a huge part in it, their personalities. I mean they’ve proven that. That’s what drives the crowd and makes drag racing is the access in the pits to the drivers and of course them being friendly.
“Garlits – see how much fun they’re having? Remember when we raced, they used to flick us the finger when we’d do a burnout. And a girl would run over by the side of the track and pull her top up or flash you or something just to try to distract you. Yeah, now it’s all ice cream and candy out there, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s totally different. We’d do a burnout on the track, and they’d come over in Seattle, come over the guardrail and tap on the hood of the car while you’re backing up. As you’d run down through there, they’d step back so you could hustle down through there with the pipes lit going down through there. Those were the days. Then they had a little Rock ‘n’ Roll music going on at the same time in the background and free T-shirts and halter tops.”
Q: Don Prudhomme, whom did you like to race against the most?
Prudhomme: “Oh, Garlits for sure was the guy to beat. Mongoose, I enjoyed racing him because I beat him up all the time, which was fun. But Garlits was as tough as they got. I would say all in all it was him. You can tell he’s still full of piss-and-vinegar; I think he can still do it now, don’t you guys?”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment