“Big Daddy” Don Garlits has always been an innovator, and has always liked going fast.
At 82, he is still involved in creating the next generation of high-powered race cars and is still gutsy enough to strap into a dragster and blast down a race track in pursuit of speed and time records.
Garlits on Wednesday was at the Bradenton Motorsports Park in eastern Manatee County testing his new SR-37 “Quest for 200 MPH on Batteries” dragster.
SR stands for “Swamp Rat,” the moniker given for years to each incarnation of Garlits' racers. The vehicle was designed to be the first battery-electric dragster to exceed 200 mph on a quarter-mile strip.
Donna Garlits, the youngest of Don's two daughters, and the general manager and chief financial officer of the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing Inc. south of Ocala, said that her father did set two new world records—184.01 mph for speed and 7.25 for elapsed time.
She said the former world records were 156 mph and 7.95 ET.
Everyone considered the day of testing a success. She said Garlits made four runs, but on two of them “the batteries shut off, which blew a fuse and activated a governor that powers it off.”
On the final run, the parachute did not deploy and Garlits ran off the end of the dragstrip.
“We were screaming, 'It didn't come out, it didn't come out!” she said. “I saw it run off the track and there was a puff of smoke. It went through a fence and wound up in a recently plowed field. I was crying. My son, who is part of the crew, was distraught because he's a father figure to him.”
When the crew got to the car, Garlits' first words were: “I guess I need a tow rope.”
“He was cool as a cucumber,” his daughter said.
The car's team hopes to set the 200-mph speed mark this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Garlits' historic first official 200-mph pass in 1964, in a top-fuel dragster.
Many things have changed in those 50 years. Garlits went on to set a long list of records and amassed a number of championship titles. The innovations he implemented after an explosion in a rear-engine dragster nearly killed him and claimed part of his right foot in the early 1970s led to a radical change in the way top fuel cars were configured, and in much-improved driver safety.
Garlits again is in the forefront of change.
Randy Cannon, the Las Vegas-based media manager for the project, said the team will still try for the 200-mph record as soon as possible.
“That will depend on Don's schedule. He's busier than everyone; at his age,” Cannon said.