Garlits edges Force for top NHRA spot

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF

    The NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) has released the final picks in the countdown of their top 50 drag racers of all-time. "Big Daddy" Don Garlits from the Top Fuel ranks edged out 11-time Funny Car champ John Force for the coveted number one spot on the list.
   Following are brief profiles on the top two NHRA picks.
   No. 2 -- JOHN FORCE
   As a high school football quarterback in California, John Force lost 27 straight ballgames. From that experience, he learned that a quarterback is only as good as the team around him, a premise he applied in 1985 when hired former Chi-Town Hustler co-owner Austin Coil as his crew chief. He subsequently filled each position on his team with the best talent available and maintained that formula each time his racing stable grew.
   The Force-Coil duo has combined for 11 Funny Car titles including the last nine straight. Force's nine consecutive NHRA Funny Car championships is unprecedented in all of sports. The Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA basketball titles, the Montreal Canadiens won five straight Stanley Cups, and the N.Y. Yankees won the World Series five consecutive times.
   In auto racing, the only one close is Steve Kinser, who won six straight World of Outlaws sprint car titles. The record in NASCAR Winston Cup racing is just three in a row by Cale Yarborough - the late Dale Earnhardt never won more than two straight; ditto for Richard Petty.
   Force, the only drag racer ever to be named national motorsports Driver of the Year (1996), owns a bevy of NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series records, including most final rounds in a season (16), most wins in a season (13), most round-wins in a season (65), most career final rounds (153), most career round-wins (755), and most rounds run (1,006).
   Since 1990, almost all of Force's seasons have been great, but few could match his 1996 campaign, when he won 13 of 19 races, appeared in 16 final rounds, and won 65 of a possible 76 eliminations rounds.
   In 2000, Force broke a record that was once considered untouchable when he claimed his 86th national event victory to surpass Bob Glidden's mark of 85. Ironically, the decisive victory came at the sparkling-new Route 66 Raceway in Chicago, Coil's hometown.
   In winning this year's Winston Funny Car title, his 11th, Force broke Glidden's record of 10 championships - no other Funny Car racer has won more than four.
   NO. 1 -- DON GARLITS Longevity doesn't guarantee success, but success over a long period of time can elevate a person to the top of his or her profession. In drag racing, that person is Donald Glenn Garlits, also known as "Big Daddy."
   Garlits won the first organized drag race he entered with the first race car he built.
   It was 1955, and the NHRA Safety Safari had come to Lake City, Fla. A short three years later, the garage and body-shop owner was racing professionally with the first of 34 race cars he would tag Swamp Rat. He didn't stop until 1992, when eye trouble, the result of deceleration G forces, forced him from the seat at age 60.
   Driving chassis he fabricated , Garlits won 144 major open events and 17 national championships in the sport's three major hot rod associations.
   By any measure, Garlits belongs at the top of NHRA's Top 50 Drivers list. Scores of wins? Check. Numerous championships? Check. Technological breakthroughs? Check. Popularity? Check. Innovations? Check. Contributions to the growth of NHRA? Mention drag racing to the man on the street and if he knows only one name, it surely is "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.
   He came from Florida -- the wrong side of the drag racing tracks in the 1950s -- and he wasn't rich, nor did he have a college education. But his desire, intelligence, confidence, strong work ethic, and will to succeed propelled him to the top of the sport as quickly as he blew off the sport's early hotshots from Southern California.
   NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge tagged Garlits with the "Big Daddy" nickname at the 1962 U.S. Nationals when he advanced to his first of 43 career NHRA national event final rounds.
   In 1964, Garlits won his first of 35 NHRA national event titles. That same year, Garlits became the first to record an official backed-up 200-mph speed. The next month, he drove Swamp Rat VI to his first of eight U.S. Nationals titles.
   When a transmission explosion cut his car in half and took a portion of his right foot with it, it was the last straw for Garlits, who had been sitting behind fire-spewing engines for more than 10 years.
   Garlits was faced with quitting or making the novel rear-engine dragster design competitive. He chose the latter, resulting in his second major accomplishment.
   Exactly one year later at the race where he was hobbled, Garlits took his rear-engine Swamp Rat XIV to the finals. Several weeks later, "Big Daddy" became the first to win an NHRA national event with a rear-engine dragster setting the Top Fuel class on a new course by winning the Winternationals.
   Within two years, the front-engine dragster was extinct.
   By the end of the 1970's, Garlits had won 16 of 20 NHRA national event final rounds, including two more U.S. Nationals, all four of his IHRA (International Hot Rod Association) championships (26 national event wins), and six of his 10 AHRA (American Hot Rod Association) titles.
   He further contributed to the sport opening the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., in 1984.
   By summer 1984 and with the approach of the U.S. Nationals, Garlits had been mostly absent from the NHRA tour for four years. Nevertheless, Garlits arrived unannounced in Indianapolis and repeated his come-from-behind U.S. Nationals win of 1967. He followed with another win at the World Finals in Pomona, and Garlits was stoked for a return to full-time NHRA competition.
   In 1986, Garlits became a three-time NHRA national champion. Call him what you will -- "Big Daddy," "Swamp Rat," "the Old Man" -- but with his status as the top driver in NHRA's first 50 years, call Don Garlits "the Best."
   The top-50 NHRA drivers were selected by a panel of 37 drag racing journalists and historians of the sport.
   Special thanks to Anthony Vestal of the NHRA with the Top 50 picks.