“Big Daddy” Don Garlits shakes his head all the while thinking of what could have been.
The Kid, the nickname Garlits bestowed upon Darrell Gwynn, was a racer of largely untapped nitro talent, a star on the rise and certainly a threat to Garlits' throne as king of the Top Fuel dragsters. Garlits knew an up and coming star when he saw one.
Coming to Gainesville Raceway always reminds Garlits of Gwynn, the facility the Floridians both claim as their home track.
Gwynn, who made his nitro debut at 23 year old , was winning national events and establishing world records during his meteoric rise through the ranks. A year later, he challenged Garlits for the world championship and fell short despite winning four races and finishing in the runner-up spot thrice.
Then on Easter Sunday 1990, while making an exhibition run at Santa Pod Raceway in England, the drag racing world watched Gwynn’s dragster break apart as it crossed the finish line. The end result of the accident - Gwynn was paralyzed.
Garlits admits one of drag racing’s most promising nitro racers could have and would have been a driver for the ages.
“He would have been a champion,” Garlits said. “He’d be giving these guys a fit. The Schumachers, the Dixons, he would have been right there with them. It was a terrible thing.”
Starting on Friday, during this weekend’s NHRA Gatornationals, Garlits will meet up with Gwynn in a best two-out-of-three match race series while driving specially-prepared electric dragsters. The races will be for charity aimed at raising awareness of the Darrell Gwynn Foundation and the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.
There’s a part of Garlits who wants to go after the jugular against Gwynn in the special competition and then there’s the compassionate side towards the “Kid” he believed would one day take the sport to the next level.
“It’s a tough deal,” Garlits admits. “I’m just doing it for the charity. I don’t want to outrun him because I feel sorry for him. It’s a terrible thing. He’s really done a lot with his life. I ain’t taking that away from him. I know because a long time ago, I saw the potential he had. But then again, I don’t want him outrunning me either. I don’t know how to handle this thing exactly.”
Gwynn’s last Top Fuel victory came at the 1990 NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville.
GARLITS: THE WAY IT USED TO BE - Don Garlits can’t help it. He’s prone to call things as he sees them.
With Garlit's words, applause erupted from the audience in the general public section of the Top Eliminator club. Garlits has this kind of effect on the race fans still, years after retiring from active nitro competition.
“You don’t even need a parachute here because there’s so much distance,” Garlits added.
Garlits will be busy this weekend handling his duties as the NHRA’s legend for the 60th anniversary, running a special electric dragster match race against former rival Darrell Gwynn as well as racing his A/Stock Automatic Dodge Drag Pak Challenger.
Garlits has embraced racing the sportsman competition.
“It’s fun racing, it’s a lot of fun and they are a bunch of super guys just like the old days,” Garlits explained. “They will come over and help you and loan you parts. It’s not as corporate and reminds me of the days when we started racing.
“We did this [drag racing] for a long time before money had anything to do with it. We just loved running it and that’s sportsman racing. We do it because we love to run our cars.”
And then there’s his relationship with the NHRA, it’s much better.
“We get along real good now; it’s not like the old days when there was a lot of eephus going on,” Garlits said.
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