“Big Daddy” Don Garlits Restores Swamp Rat 13, the Dragster That Almost Killed Him

Would you restore a car that tried to cut you in half? What if the car settled for just taking part of your foot and breaking a few bones? Personally I might enjoy seeing such a devilish vehicle head to the scrap yard, but that’s just one way that I’m less cool than “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Garlits likes to keep a record of his racing history and Swamp Rat 13 (SR 13) played a crucial role in the development of modern drag racing, so despite an aching foot just from looking at the thing, Garlits recently gave it a complete overhaul. We could tell you about it, but why not let Gar give you the details? Real quick, if you don’t know, Don Garlits is one of the most famous of all drag racers, a real self-made man in the early days of NHRA, working on a budget and always at the head of innovative design. His cars were all known as “Swamp Rat.” Tommy “TC” Lemons was his main mechanic and good friend. The very late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of change for Top Fuel drag racing. Most of the top racers had switched to the 426 Hemi and big slicks, but there was still a lot of experimentation with gearing, transmissions, and burnout procedures. Racers were just starting to put a Reverse in the cars, before that they’d do a burnout and have crewmen push the cars back to the start. The cars were front-engine, and many drivers were injured or killed in explosions and crashes. The crash of Swamp Rat 13 is, in many ways, the beginning of the end of the front-engine dragster.

“The story of Swamp Rat 13 begins at the Napierville Drag Strip in Canada during June of 1969. TC Lemons and I were having a match race with SR 12 B, the beautiful Smothers Brothers top fuel dragster that had just recently set the world record of 240 MPH. It was the final round of a two-out-of-three match race with a local hero. As I pulled up to stage TC gave me the signal that no driver wants to see, “Kill the engine.” I had to shut down, allowing my competitor to make a single. TC shut me down because the lower frame rail had severed and was extending below the body panel, making it a death defying act to try to make the run!

TC and I loaded up and headed back to Florida to make the necessary repairs, as the prestigious NHRA Springnationals were being held the following weekend in Dallas, Texas. We knew we were going to have to get back on the chassis jig and it would take at least two days to repair the car and get to Dallas. We just had to make this race as I had won the 1968 Springnationals and the winner circle photo was on the cover of the National Dragster event issue that week.

We drove day and night, and about half way through the trip we looked into the trailer and were horrified to see the entire car had collapsed and was on the floor in two pieces. We had to have a whole new car for Dallas! We sped up to get to the shop, since I knew that working with Connie Swingle, who was a great weldor, the three of us could snap together one of these babies together in about 72 hours.

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As we pulled into the gate the next morning, Swingle was just driving out. I told him, “I have to have a new car for Dallas by this weekend!” He looked at me with a smirk and said, “Boys, you’re just going to have to do this one without me, the King are running,” and he drove away. For those of you who live in Loma Linda, the “King” is a beautiful sports fish and when it runs everyone wants to catch one.

TC and I were dead to the world, but with no rest we started the project. It was late Friday night when Swamp Rat 13 was finished, loaded and ready to go, but not in time for Dallas. I must have got 100 letters from irate fans wanting to know where the hell I was! Still, Swamp Rat 13 was a good car. Right off the bat, it won the US Fuel and Gas Championships held at New York National Speedway on Long Island. In the final round I raced the Dodge factory team, the Ramchargers, and that run was the beginning of the idea for a two-speed transmission in a dragster.

I was running the big rear tires that Goodyear had just introduced. I got the Ramchargers off the line and as the car pulled out to the halfway mark, they pulled right up on me and I was barely able to hold them off for the win. Driving down the highway after the event, TC and I discussed the run and I said, “TC, the gearing is too high for the tires but I don’t want to slow my speed down, what we need is a transmission.” TC said, “There’s a guy in California named Leonard Abbott that runs a Top Fuel dragster and somebody told me he had a homemade transmission in it made out of a 1949 Ford Overdrive.” TC said he wasn’t sure, but he thought Abbott was somewhere near San Diego, so at the next fuel stop I got on the pay phone and called my cam grinder Bruce Crower to see if he had ever heard of him. Bruce said, “Yes, he runs my cam, here is his phone number.” Well, I called him immediately!

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Abbott knew who I was and when I told him I needed a two-speed transmission, he excitedly said I could have the one out of his car and he would ship it right away.We picked up the transmission at the Chicago O’Hare airport and went to Ed Stoffels’ race shop on the north side of town to make the installation. TC and I then headed up to Union Grove, Wisconsin, for the test. The car was two-tenths quicker! Here is the funny twist to the story, we didn’t want anyone to know we had a two-speed yet. So we told them it was a Reverser because they were just starting to be used in Top Fuel dragsters. But of course, we didn’t have an actual Reverser, so we couldn’t back up! To make it seem real I would do my burnout and my crew would wait patiently on the starting line as if I was going to back up, but at the end of the burnout I would frantically wave my arms from the cockpit indicating the Reverser wasn’t working and then the crew would run out and push me back. I got away for that for three months! It was the wily old “Snake” that caught me, Don Prudhomme.

It was during a Goodyear tire test at Indianapolis that the secret got out, no one was there but me and the Snake testing, no crowds, no noise. SR 13 was running two-tenths quicker than the Snake’s car and he and Roland Leong were up on the starting line watching my runs. They wanted to know how I was going so quick. Since it was dead quiet with no crowd, about halfway down the track they heard me drop the RPMs on the shift. The Snake said to Roland, “What the F was that?” Roland replied, “He’s got a two speed!” He said, “Snake, I’ll tell you something else, you might as well withdraw your entry from the US Nationals because you aren’t going to get nothing there but your ass outrun!”

The next thing Roland saw was Prudhomme’s mad dash to the pay phone to call California. 
When we arrived at Indy a month and a half later, there was the Snake and his Top Fuel dragster and in it was a brand-new aluminum case Lenco two-speed transmission by Leonard Abbott. The Lenco company was born and I was livid because the Snake had the first really nice transmission and I was still running the experimental one! Incidentally he won Indy.

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I headed back to Chicago to Ed Stoffels’ shop to design the Garlits Drive which was a much better transmission, made from sturdy Chrysler TorqueFlite transmission parts. We sold five or six to customers and kept two for myself and they served me well for the remainder of 1969. TC and I opted not to build a new car in 1970 as SW 13 was just six months old. We freshened everything up and got ready for 1970, first stop the AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix, Arizona, and then to the Grand American at Long Beach, California’s famous Lions Drag Strip.

I had the field covered but in the semi-finals I broke the rearend in the traps. I still won the round and was in the finals. TC and I put in a new rear in the car and opted to change the transmission because the shock of breaking the rear could have damaged it. These transmissions ran filled up with oil, and it took a while to put the lube in. They were rushing me to get to the line for the finals so I left without having it completely full. I was not worried about this as I already designed a pressure system that was oiling the transmission bearings with oil from the engine. Little did I know that the transmission oil acted like a shock absorber if anything went wrong inside. When the sprag in the transmission failed as I let the clutch out, the engine over-revved and spun the transmission drum backwards at three times the engine speed. As the drum approached 30,000 rpm it came apart, and sawed the car in two pieces and severed my right foot, taking off all my toes.

I spent six weeks in the hospital and was sent home to recoup. I sold SR 13 to TC, complete with engine for $4,500. TC and Swingle put the car back together and took it out on the road on tour. I hired Marvin Schwartz and he painted his car like mine and I loaned him my enclosed trailer so that he could fulfill my contracts till I recovered. I went home until TC told me they were taking SR 13 to Bristol for the AHRA Spring Nationals. I told my wife I was getting stir-crazy and was going up to watch. She said “Don’t you drive that thing,” and I assured her I would not.

Swingle had a hard time qualifying and on Saturday evening Swingle and Lemons were not in the show yet. I heard Swingle say to TC, “The car is no good since we repaired it.” I said to Swingle, “Give me your fire suit, hat, gloves and goggles, I want to show you something.” I put on the racing gear and with my right food in bandages, still leaking, got in the old girl for the final qualifying pass of the event and set top speed and low ET on the run. I handed Swingle his stuff back and he was in the show. I finished the 1970 season driving SR 13 for Lemons.

We finished the year out on the same engine and started building SR 14, the rear engine car, sometime in September of 1970. T.C sold SR 13 to Art Malone at the end of 1970. Towards the end of 1971, Art sold the car to a kid with a small block Chevy to make a gasoline-powered “C” Dragster and that was the last I thought of it.

A few years later in 1976 I was racing at Bradenton, and while walking in the pits I saw a chrome roll bar sticking up. Not many dragsters had that type of roll bar so I ventured over to take a closer look. There was the signature dimple on the bar where it hit the injector at Long Beach on March 8, 1970 when it blew in two. I asked the kid about the car and he confirmed he bought it from Art Malone and he was about through with it.

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I had already started my museum and was looking for all my old cars so I asked if he would sell it. He said, “Sure, $300 and it’s yours.” 
I took it apart and put the chassis on the trailer top and took her home. We still had most of the parts that blew off the car so we made a museum display. In 1983 we moved the museum to Ocala, Florida [Where it is today] and the car was on display in the booth surrounded my photos of the accident along with the parts, newspaper and magazine stories , the original helmet, fire suit and gear from the horrific wreck.

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In 2015, the curator of the Harley Davison Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin visited the Don Garlits Museum and really liked the car. He told us they were going to do a drag racing display in 2016 and would like to display SR 13. It just so happened that my fiancée Lisa Crigar and I were doing a show at Great Lakes Dragaway in May 2016, so it made sense that if we were going to loan the museum a car that we would use SR 13 for our cackle car at Great Lakes. That meant it would have to be completely restored after sitting as a static display for 40 years.

Chris Bumpus, my shop foreman, and I brought SW 13 into the shop area for disassembly. We were able to repair the original heads, block and crank and intake manifold. I had a nice Hampton blower sitting nearby and the original Crower injectors. We did install a brand-new Taylor-Vertex magneto compliments of, Ray Motes [A record-holding racer in his own right].

The restoration took about six weeks to complete and Bumpus did an excellent job welding the intake manifold, the crankshaft and repairing the window in the block. The boys at Fast Tech machine did the crank grinding and line-bored the block. Lisa got to sit in SR 13 when we fired up the old girl during the Cacklefest at Great Lakes Dragaway. I did get her a new face mask and goggles for protection during the event. All went well and Monday morning SR 13 went to Milwaukee to sit in the Harley Davison Museum for the summer Drag Racing display where you can see it now.”

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How’s that for a project rebuild? Even though Garlits continued racing the front engine SW 13 through the rest of 1970, from the moment he woke up in the hospital after the crash, he was thinking about how to solve the rear-engine problem–which he did with SW 14, but that’s a story for another day.

Just for the fun of it, we asked Don “the Snake” Prudhomme if he remembered the tire test where Garlits’ two-speed secret came out. “Oh yeah. I had to have one, I heard it was built by this guy Abbott. He had a junkyard and he built me one on this greasy bench in the back. And now that’s Lenco. Oh by the way, we won Indy that year. I think Gar got so pissed off at Leonard for building us one that he had someone else build his after that.”

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