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See Don Garlits Fix Swamp Rat With a Soda Can and “Win” the Goodwood Festival

Posted in How To: Engine on August 14, 2015
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Contributors: Elana Scherr
Photographers: Lisa Crigar

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is one of the most badass car guys in existence. If there was a comic-strip universe populated by gearhead superheroes, Gar would be a main character, arriving at the exact moment to save the day and then disappearing in one of his Swamp Rat dragsters before Batman could even get his pointy mask on.

One of the reasons Garlits is so high on our list is because he never stopped. Never stopped racing, never stopped building engines, never stopped saving the day. You can easily find stories of his triumphs over the past six decades, but here’s new proof of how he’s still going strong today at age 83.

The Goodwood Festival of Speed is a British racing event held in West Sussex, England. It was started by Charles March (Lord March), whose grandfather ran races on the Goodwood property in the 1950s. The current Lord March started the festival in the 1990s to celebrate motorsports history during the Formula 1 offseason. Vintage and modern race cars of all sorts drive up the estate driveway, a 1.16-mile hillclimb. Over the years, the event has expanded to include American race machines as well as classic European cars, and in 2015, Big Daddy brought Swamp Rat 1 over the ocean to take on the English hill. Here’s what happened, in his words:

“My visit to the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed began in November 2014 while I was visiting England during my induction into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame. I had lunch with Lord March, who owns the Goodwood Estate. He invited me to attend the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed with one of my Swamp Rats. I told Lord March I would give it some thought. I was not real anxious to do it, as the flights back and forth are long and obnoxious. I hate flying with security such as it is. The problem is the bridge is out between here and England, so I can't drive.

The Goodwood Festival showcases racing cars from all eras and sanctioning bodies.

When I returned home and mentioned to some friends about being invited to the Goodwood Festival, everyone got real excited, so I got back in contact with the event organizers and we shipped SR 1B [Swamp Rat 1]—the blown version.

Upon arrival in London, we decided to go to the Goodwood grounds and check on SR 1. We found the car intact and the Goodwood grounds were quite impressive. We returned to the hotel and got some much-needed sleep after flying all night.

Friday morning we were scheduled for a couple of long burnouts up the hill, but, unfortunately, after the first burnout, the 2-inch blower belt broke and left the engine. Fortunately, while packing for the trip I had thought, ‘what would happen if we blew a blower belt?’ and I packed an extra belt, so we were good to go.

That afternoon, we returned to the track for another burnout, but at the end of the first burnout, the intake valvespring broke and dropped the intake valve into the cylinder, damaging the cylinder head and a piston. We returned to the pits and pulled a couple of spark plugs and determined that the damage was so extensive it could not be repaired.

Participating cars do exhibition runs and timed runs up the 1.16-mile Goodwood estate driveway. After Garlits’ first burnout kicked off a blower belt, his second dropped a valve.

That evening during a photo shoot with Lord March on the Cedar Lawn of the Goodwood Estate, I disappointedly informed him of the catastrophic failure and the fact that I did not have my tools or spare parts with me. The Lord March offered his condolences and said, ‘There is always next year.’

Lying in bed that evening, trying to sleep, I kept going over in my head what might be wrong in the engine and what I could do to make it possible to do another burnout perhaps on six or seven cylinders. We arrived at daybreak to the pit and borrowed some tools from the pit next to us, and our push-truck driver, Davie, and I took the SR 1 completely apart.

I found that only one cylinder was hurt. Number 5 had a hole in the combustion chamber where the piston had pushed the intake valve through. We cleaned everything up, took the lifters and pushrods out of number 5, and put the heads back on. I cut a small square of a Sprite soda can to seal off the number 5 intake port and was able to glue it on the intake port with a fan’s tube of Fixodent [for teeth]. I reinstalled the intake manifold and completed the engine repair as fans 15 deep around the car cheered me on. They were not to used to watching drivers repair their own cars!

We then started SR 1 in the pits and you should of [heard] the crowd roar when the old girl came to life on seven cylinders. Word spread like wildfire that we were able to start the car, and we were put back on the schedule for the grand finale run!

Rather than call it done, Garlits closed off the damaged cylinder with soda can aluminum and denture glue, then went back out and smoked the tires.

The timing was perfect as we towed the car down to the starting line for the final run of the event. I signed Davie to push me to the starting line and, unbelievably, the push truck would not start. Something had happened to the starter!

My fiancée, Lisa, jumped down and came and told me, ‘the push truck won't start,’ and my heart sank. After all the work repairing SR for the final run!

Lisa ran with camera equipment eighth of a mile to the marshals’ private cars and frantically asked if they could push Swamp Rat to the starting line. They said they would not push me, but offered a tow.

Meeting of the kings. Lord March isn’t the only titled nobleman at the Goodwood Festival.

Everyone knows in Top Fuel it’s very dangerous to pull a Top Fueler to start it, but I had no other choice—we had to make the run. The announcers were waiting along with fans and it was live streamed!

The tow-rope was attached. The car was pulled 25 feet and came to life like it did so many times before. It was like the memorable day in December 1959 back in Riverside, California, during the East-West Challenge

The rope was unhooked and I drove Swamp Rat up the hill in front of the main viewing stands, where thousands of roaring fans cheered as I made the final spectacular burnout and run of the event.

The trip was a complete success, and as we write this story, Lisa and I are on our way to Charleston, South Carolina, to retrieve SR 1 to bring her home safely to the museum for the proper repairs so she will be ready for the next event.”

No matter what age, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits always wants to win.

That’s what Garlits did this summer. What are your plans for when you’re 83 years old?

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