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Drag racing's 'Big Daddy', Don Garlits, turns 80

January 14, 2012 |  2:52 pm

'Big Daddy' Don Garlits in 2007
Don Garlits, a three-time champion in drag racing's premier top-fuel class who also revolutionized the sport with a new car design in the 1970s, celebrated his 80th birthday Saturday.

Known as "Big Daddy," Garlits designed a safer, faster rear-engine dragster after being seriously hurt in 1970 when his front-engine dragster exploded at the old Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington. The rear-engine design, with the engine behind the driver's cockpit, is still used today.

Garlits, who lives in Ocala, Fla., went on to win the top-fuel championship in 1975, 1985 and 1986 in his series of "Swamp Rat" dragsters, was the first to break the 270-mph barrier on the drag strip and became one of the best-known figures in the history of National Hot Rod Assn. drag racing.

The NHRA's season-opening event this year, the Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, takes place Feb. 9 to 12, and on Feb. 11 a fundraising event in Garlits' honor -- dubbed a "Rat Roast" -- is scheduled in Pomona.

Proceeds will benefit the Quarter Mile Foundation, which has programs to preserve the history of drag racing. Among those expected to attend include drivers who competed against Garlits, including Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.

-- Jim Peltz

Photo: Racing legend Don Garlits at his Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., in 2007. Credit: Sara A. Fajardo / Orlando Sentinel