Date of Publication: July 21, 2019
It’s a rare thing to hear silence at a busy race track. But between the soft purr of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ electric dragster and a crowd trying to remain as respectfully quiet as possible, outside of a few encouraging whistles, it would be hard to tell that there were hundreds gathered at the Palm Beach International Raceway on Saturday night.
Garlits, the 87-year-old drag racing legend who has piled up what seems like more records than can be counted in his decades-long career, was looking to add one more mark. He hoped to be the first racer to reach 200 mph in a battery-powered dragster.
But after several attempts over a span of more than five hours, Garlits’ final try of the night ended with a thud as his dragster appeared to give out while he raced toward the record.
“When we really were gonna go for it on this last run, we think a hub broke because one wheel spun and I felt that immediately because the car stopped accelerating,” Garlits said outside his trailer after giving up for the night, with several fans still milling around despite the long day. “And it’s got to go to the shop and be repaired.”
He may have not reached his goal of 200 mph, but he still captured the new fastest speed in a battery-powered dragster on his second-to-last attempt, topping out at 189 mph. But for someone who’s been racing for more than half a century, earning a record isn’t enough when you know you could have done better, and he made clear that he absolutely plans to race again.
Garlits, who was also the first to break 200 mph in a Top Fuel dragster, has had an illustrious career that spans all the way back to the mid-20th century. The drag racing pioneer has won 17 World Championship Titles and has 144 national-event wins.
He has accumulated a large and devoted fan base over the years, with plenty of them clad in “Big Daddy” t-shirts present to watch him break one more record.
58-year-old John Tortella, who has been a Garlits fan since he was 15, never thought that he would see him still racing in 2019.
“No, not at all. God bless him, he’s 87 years old. I hope I could do that at 87,” he said. “It brings back memories, a lot of old memories.”
Tortella even brought along an old photo of the racer’s first trailer that Garlits autographed.
“It would mean everything,” Tortella said of Garlits breaking the record as he geared up for another run. “I just get goosebumps thinking about it. I hope he does it.”
Despite the sometimes hours-long breaks between runs, many fans stuck around late into the night, just for the chance to see those few seconds where Garlits revved up his dragster and raced down the track. His impact on the crowd was hard to miss, with stands that had been mostly empty for other races during the day suddenly filling in an instant as his dragster was wheeled up to the track.
“Oh I love that,” Garlits said of his fans. “They’ve been really nice. I’ve really appreciated everybody coming out today.”
Garlits made plenty of time for his supporters, even as he continued to work to get just that little extra bit out of his dragster. An endless parade of fans surrounded his trailer throughout the day, and he happily signed everything from books to t-shirts before drifting back to his crew to offer suggestions or even make some modifications himself.
But despite falling short, he plans to be back to try again — and possibly very soon.
“Well it’ll take a few weeks to get everything squared away and then we’ll be back,” he said. “The track is really nice and smooth so we like it here … so we’ll be coming back.”