“Big Daddy” Don Garlits Restores the Dragster That Nearly Killed Him


Avid drag racers and enthusiasts alike are well aware of just exactly who Don “Big Daddy” Garlits is. For those of you who don’t, we’re more than happy to spill the beans on the man, the myth, and the legend.

Garlits’ is an original of sorts in the context that he’s one of the most well-known NHRA racers in the history of the sport, and for good reason. Having owned more than 13 cars, Garlits had a certain passion for drag racing, naming all of his fourteen of his cars as a new, numerical version of the original “Swap Rat”. His most memorable claim-to-fame was of course during the era of Top Fuel drag racing, when many racers back in the ‘60s to ‘70s migrated to front-engine 426 cubic-inch Hemi powered dragsters on giant slicks.

Fast forward to 1969, and the famous Swap Rat 13 was born; a car that won the US Fuel and Championships held at New York National Speedway in Long Island, New York on its first run out. At the time, Garlits was running an experimental two-speed transmission built by a gentlemen out of San Diego named Leonard Abbot (later known as Lenco); initially having great success as time moved on. Little did Garlits know, the transmission would be SR13’s downfall during one fateful race, nearly taking his life in the process. At the Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, California, during the finals of the event, the transmission in SR13 had failed due to a lack of fluid pressure; over-revving the engine and causing the transmission drum to spin backwards at more than 30,000 RPM.


With a force so incredible, the drum punched through the transmission — severing the car in half and taking Garlits’ right foot and all of his toes in the process. Down but not out, Garlits spent six weeks in the hospital recovering, and even sold the car to a friend who restored it. After a year or two of additional racing, new owners, new homes, and even laying to rest at a museum, 2016 was the year it would see a final resting place, for now.

After sitting static on display for nearly 40 years, the owner of the Harley Davison museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin paid a visit to the Don Garlits museum and offered to restore the car. Garlits and shop foreman Chris Bumpus brought the car back into the shop area, and began immediately disassembling the SR13. Repairing the original heads, block, crank and intake manifold were achievable, while adding a distinct Hampton supercharger and Crower fuel injectors also played a role in the restoration, as well as a Taylor-Vertex magneto courtesy of Ray Motes.

Six weeks of welding, grinding, and overall repair later, SR13 was restored and ready for its first start-up since it had been sitting at during the Cacklefest in Great Lakes Dragway. When all was said and done, it looks like the final journey for the famous SR13 is the Harley Davison museum for the summer Drag Racing display. How’s that for one heck of a restoration? Check out the full story available here on Roadkill for yourself.

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Kevin Shaw

Editor-in-Chief – kevin.shaw@shawgroupmedia.com Kevin Shaw is a decade-long powersports and automotive journalist whose love for things that go too fast has led him to launching Mopar Connection Magazine. Almost always found with stained hands and dirt under his fingernails, Kevin has an eye for the technical while keeping a eye out for beautiful photography and a great story. He's also the co-author of "The Chrysler B-Body Restoration Guide."

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