A.J. Routt Photo
Don Garlits hogged so much of the ink spilled throughout 1959 that, in fairness to everyone else, we’ll devote two of these installments to drag racing’s biggest season yet. Garlits gets his own story because his first trip from Florida to the West Coast—indeed, the first cross-country tour by any drag racer—was the story of the year, if not of the young sport’s history thus far.
Camshaft sponsor Ed Iskenderian negotiated with three Western promoters to create open events in California and Arizona. Win, lose, or fail to stage for first round (Don’s fate at Bakersfield), the stranger was guaranteed today’s equivalent of around $40,000. The late Pat Garlits often remarked that nice homes in Tampa could be bought for less. Her husband often reminded reporters that Wally Parks had been giving away some real nice trophies, a Norge washing machine, tools, and other donated merchandise to Top Eliminators of recent NHRA Nationals, but no dough whatsoever. The young couple still held nearly all of that loot when their worn-out ’53 Buick limped back home, too, because Mr. Isky sponsored new speed equipment and new racer friends offered lodging and meals at each stop.
Their historic season was best documented by Drag News contributors and advertisers, particularly Iskenderian Cams. The accompanying clippings track drag racing’s first touring professional from March's humbling Bakersfield debut through December's triumphant California return at Riverside. Next time, we'll steer the column back into the groove and review what the rest of the sport was doing while the Swamp Rat was hogging these headlines in 1959.
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In 1959, all that the Smokers of Bakersfield needed to attract the biggest-by-far turnouts of dragsters and spectators ever was a single, half-page ad in Drag News (Feb. 21 issue)—and the irresistible bait of the much-hated Don Garlits, who'd never been further west than Texas. [Note: Digital pages of all 1955-71 Drag News issues are available on multiple CDs from WDIFL.com.]
Ever since hearing late-1957 reports of a cam customer's unprecedented 176.40 in far-off Florida, crafty Ed Iskenderian had been playing puppet master. Behind the scenes, Ed pulled the strings that brought his latest star to national attention and, ultimately, to California. Had it not been for Isky’s preceding barrage of "hero" ads in Hot Rod (Mar. '59 shown) and Drag News, word of this unblown fueler's suspicious 1957-58 "world-record" speeds on the concrete Brooksville strip may never have reached across country, let alone inspired the big Bakersfield bash. Even after the Smokers offered a three-track contract and guaranteed either $4500 or $5000 (memories vary), payable in three parts, Don delayed signing until the cash was delivered, up front and in full, to his camshaft sponsor—"the only Californian I trusted," he explained, though he and Ed had yet to meet.
The historic February 23, 1959, Tampa departure of Don, wife Pat, and brother Ed Garlits was documented in the March 1 edition of South Florida Drag Strip Drag Racing News, a nice newsletter produced by NHRA's Southeastern Division.
Ed Iskenderian's post-Bakersfield Hot Rod ad (May '59) rightly recognized the overnight transformation of what the public—and even supporters of other motorsports—had seen as a participant-based, semi-outlaw activity holding negligible fan appeal. For once, nobody could accuse Isky’s advertising of exaggeration; indeed, initial guesstimates of “30,000” and “31,000 fans” (as per conflicting Drag News counts) may have been conservative. Fewer than 5000 were anticipated by the overwhelmed Smokers Inc. club members. As for his new hero's humiliating debut, leave it to Isky to polish the proverbial turd, spinning Don's off-pace 9.04/172 Bakersfield times into "a new Calif. strip record" for unblown cars.
Kingdon’s ad appeared before Chrisman won the March Meet and Garlits blew on his first-round push-down (some “Bakersfield Battle”!). Two weeks later, the advertised Hustler I was conspicuously absent from Don’s second appearance.
Two weeks after the disastrous Famoso show that wounded his pride and mortally wounded both of his bullets, Garlits rebounded in Lodi with his biggest win yet, upsetting March Meet runner-up Tony Waters in the final. Despite a new supercharger and half-inch C-T stroker (454 c.i.) that doubled available horsepower, the Don's Speed Shop Special could only duplicate its 9.04-second Bakersfield best, while slowing from 172 mph to 165.74 here. Nevertheless, Garlits capitalized on a small entry field and breakage that sidelined favorites including Bill Crossley, who'd set overall low e.t. (8.98) before losing fire in their first-round showdown. Garlits was further fortunate to survive Saturday's wild ride off the end of Kingdon Airport's runway that necessitated abbreviating the aluminum nose section for Sunday’s eliminations. (Photo from the Bill Butler Collection/Courtesy of Walt Huff)
One week after his first California win, Garlits dominated the final tour date near Phoenix. Still sporting the familiar eight-pack of Strombergs, he paced Saturday's Top Fuel time trials at 8.70/174.06. On Sunday, a sizzling 8.43 set low e.t., broke the track record, and advanced him to a lopsided Top Eliminator defeat of Top Gas winner Glen Ward in the twice-motored Howard's Cams Special.
The absence of a related race report and/or current photo never stopped Drag News from devoting a cover to breaking news. Other than a fresh listing atop the paper's Standard 1320 Records, the all-time-fastest believable speed isn't mentioned inside—until Page 13's inevitable Iskenderian ad, which reports Don's clean Houston sweep of Top Eliminator, Top Speed (182.56), and Low E.T. (8.48). Ironically, this event that otherwise went reported in Drag News was named the Drag News Invitational!
Not even Garlits (behind car), temporarily retired from driving with burn injures, believed the speed that Dunkirk (New York) Drag Strip announced for his young substitute, Art "The Green Kid" Malone. Ed Iskenderian evidently did, as documented by the bold-faced number advertised in the Oct. 3 edition of Drag Racer magazine. Nowhere therein is the dubious 195 (!) mentioned by publisher-editor Dan Roulston, who’d edited Drag News before launching his own slick magazine. [Tune back in next time for a closer look at this short-lived 1959-60 publication.] Nor has our research turned up anything in print or online about Dunkirk's so-called World Champions Drag Race, other than a promotional postcard (count the lies!) from the collection of Dr. Robert C. Post, the retired Smithsonian curator and author of High Performance: The History And Technology Of Drag Racing. Note the new Hilborn injector and extended roll bar of the late-'59 configuration that Garlits now refers to as Swamp Rat 1B (and has reproduced as a cackle car)
Less than nine months after failing to make it to Famoso's starting line for Round One of the March Meet that he inspired, Garlits returned to SoCal and totally dominated the best of the West at Riverside (plus Chicago's Chris Karamesines, his final victim). Fifteen strong fuelers competed for $1000 cash, one of the largest prizes yet. Sweetening the revenge was a long-anticipated showdown with Art Chrisman, whom Garlits upset in the semis with the quickest and fastest of seven full passes crammed into that single Saturday (8.50/181.45).
This same, final 1959 issue of Drag News also shows Garlits & Malone atop the only record list that really mattered during the fuel-ban years (1957-63).
A half-century after young Mickey Bryant witnessed the inaugural United States Fuel & Gas Championship, he devoted a 94-page book to that lifechanging experience. Three Weeks In March chronologically documents the month-long tour in clippings and rare photos. A big bonus is 1959 photography by Doug Peterson, including the first color shots ever published of several famous slingshots. [Order at www.backinthedaystore.com or “dial” (615) 294-7128.]