From The Editor’s Desk……..
I doubt there are but a few with any interest in our sport that have not heard of the passing of the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” Don Garlits’ wife, Pat, on February 2 of this year.
While some use that term with the lovely Linda Vaughn, Shirley Muldowney or even Barbara Parks, the late wife of NHRA founder, Wally Parks, Patricia Louise Bieger Garlits, to me and many others, deservedly wore that First Lady mantle for many reasons.
With almost 61 years of marriage, Pat was side-by-side throughout her husband’s career. Suffering through early catcalls of “swamp rat” directed to him at races (which, of course, he turned into his famous naming of his cars) to an eventual admiring racing public that donned him with the “Big Daddy” moniker, she was with him at every step. There were the bad times, such as the serious Chester, South Carolina fire, the sprag gear failure at Lions in 1970 and the heart-stopping – but thankfully with no injury – “blowover” at New Jersey in 1986. And, of course, the good times: multiple national event wins along with hundreds of others over the course of his five decades of racing. Swamp Rat 30 going to the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 after winning the 1986 World Championship (the same car rebuilt from the blowover). The founding of their very successful and internationally known Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. His well-deserved selection as #1 on the NHRA’s list of the top 50 drivers of the sport. And the list goes on…..
In between were the years of logging hundreds of thousands of miles as they toured the country, competing at tracks large and small. Early on, and well before T.C. Lemons and Connie Swingle showed up, Pat was his only helper. She was counsel to his on-and-off contentious relationship with the NHRA and Wally Parks and was there when he became president of the AHRA. His founding of the Professional Racers Association and the 1972 “National Challenge” Tulsa race, with its first-time huge payout to the winners in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. It was not well known, but she also took a few turns behind the wheel of stock-class cars over the years as well. Certainly not to be forgotten is that Pat, by all accounts from everyone close to the couple, was a great mother as well, raising two beautiful daughters - GayLyn and Donna.
The photograph you see here is one I took at the 1958 Texas State Championship at Caddo Mills, Texas. It shows Don and Pat working on their original Swamp Rat #1, the same car that stunned the world the year before when he set new records with his 8.76 elapsed time at 176.40 mph. They towed the car to the Lone Star state on a two-wheel, open trailer with their ’55 Chevy sedan and took home the big Top Eliminator trophy by beating local hero Bobby Langley in the final.
I know that Don and his family have had a very rough time coping with the disease that took their beloved wife, mother and grandmother from them. My stepfather of 30 years also had Alzheimer’s and I saw firsthand and remember well the struggle he had and the strain it put my mother, three other brothers and myself under. It is an insidious disease that we can only hope will have new treatments and preventive measures arriving in the near future.
I, along with our readers and staff here at Nostalgia Drag World, wish to send our deeply felt condolences to Don and his and Pat’s family.
Kudos to Todd Martin and Keith Haney, owners and operators of the Osage Casino Tulsa Raceway Park, as the NHRA has selected their facility as the “2013 Track of the Year!”
I’m particularly proud since I’ve considered that my home track since it was built. Finally, a real drag strip where we were able to quit dodging the Cessnas and Piper Cubs with which we had to share the old Tulsa North runway! The same happened on occasion at my former “home” track - the old military training field at Caddo Mills, near Dallas - before moving to Oklahoma.
It’s a track where I’ve raced my brother’s ’64 Olds 442, my ’57 C/MSP Corvette and AA/GD, as well as a couple of cars for others. I’ve covered and photographed the World Finals, rooting for two-time champ, local boy Bennie Osborn, and Garlits’ 1972 PRA “National Challenge.” Hardcore racing as good as you’d find anywhere! Along with that, however, we also got to see some “sideshow” vehicles such as “Cap’n” Jack McKay’s amazing, hydrogen Peroxide-powered tiny go-kart that ran just under 200 mph, the “Spirit of Australia” rocket car, Hurst’s “Hemi Under Glass” and the “Little Red Wagon.” There have been downers as well. John Martin. Sitting in the stands and hearing the announcer telling us of the passing of August “Hands” Hartkopf, an old Caddo racer from Austin, Texas. Fortunately, I was not there the night in 2005 when my old high school friend (a sophomore when I was a senior) Shelly Howard and her son, Brian, died in that horrific accident.
With the multi-million dollar improvements made a few years ago and the great racing programs Martin and Haney have instituted – featuring everything from the throwback Senior Drag Racing Association cars and doorslammer bracket action to the Pro Mods and nitro burners – they certainly deserve the honor. If you’ve never raced or spectated here, put it on your calendar for the 2014 season for sure!
Connell R. Miller
Nostalgia Drag World - by Connell R. Miller
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