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Don Garlits' Swamp Rat |

Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat

Swamp Rat March Meet Doug Peterson

The year was 1957, it was a time when Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis played out of car radios, beautiful tailfinned Chevy’s, Ford’s and Mopar’s flooded the road ways, Mickey Manlte was the best baseball player alive and Drag Racing was young and still in its infancy.

Big Daddy Don Garlits started making a name for himself in the drag racing world in 1957. It was the year that Don Garlits would make his debut in a slingshot in the young dragster class, he would make his debut in a slingshot that he nicknamed Swamp Rat. Swamp Rat was a project that Don began working on in 1956, she was a project that started out as nothing more than rails, wheels and a motor.

Swamp Rat at an event in 1959.

Swamp Rat at an event in 1959.

However, Swamp Rat would soon transform into the fastest Sling Shot in the world because Don would get serious about drag racing. In 1957 when Swamp Rat made her first pass when she was powered by nothing more than a naturally aspired early Hemi that had 8 carbs stacked on top of the motor. The Hemi was hooked up to a 2 speed transmission with a full rear end, and the best ET Don could get her to run was a time of 10.5 seconds at 145 miles per hour!

Swamp Rat ran in the 10′s for most of 1957, this would last unitl August when Don attended the ATAA World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, IL. At the event Big Daddy would discover that his Swamp Rat wasn’t fast enough to compete with the other Dragsters. While his dragster ran in the 10′s most were breaking into the High 9′s! Don need some help, which luckily came his way. At the World Series of Drag Racing Don meet Emory Cook and Cliff Bedwell, these two gentlemen would help Don Improve Swamp Rats performance. Emory and Cliff helped Don with his tune up which allowed Swamp Rat to run almost 100% Nitro fuel in the engine which would shave a lot of time off of Don’s ET.

An early appearance of Don and Swamp Rat. Circa 1958.

An early appearance of Don and Swamp Rat. Circa 1958.

Both Emory’s and Cliff’s help really payed off at the world series because Don would beat both of them during the Elmination rounds. Swamp Rat was running the best she ever has and turned a then career best ET of 9.60 seconds at 155 MPH! However despite this vast improvement Big Daddy would lose to man by the name of Setto Postoian in the final round.

After Don returned home from IL, he made several changes to Swamp Rat using ideas that were inspired by the other dragsters at the event. He lowered the front of the car, had the engine lowered, replaced the transmission and installed a narrowed Olds rear end. He would also replace the front wheels with new wire spoke front wheels that he made and he would add a new Nosepiece to the front of the dragster which would help the Aerodynamics while racing.

All of his modifications would pay off because in November of 1957 Don would set the drag racing world on fire. Don was able to make a pass of 8.79 seconds at 176.40 MPH in Swamp Rat! Do to the success of the mods, Swamp Rat would remain in the same configuration until March of 1959. In 1959 Don attended the first ever Smokers March Meet in Bakersfield, California. Despite being a record holding Slingshot for the past two years Swamp Rat wasn’t able to keep up with the new dragsters because they were supercharged.

Don would stop by Iskenderian Cams to purchase a blower and have it installed. After his blower was installed he went off to Kingdom Dragstrip where he shut down the entire field! During this event Swamp Rat yet again set a new record!

Swamp Rat with the added Blower. Circa 1959

Swamp Rat with the added Blower. Circa 1959

Sadly, tradegy would strike on June 20th, 1959 at a race in Chester, South Carolina. While Don was making his first pass Swamp Rat’s blower exploded and Don was seriously burned! He was rushed to the hospital, he was alright but he vowed that he would never race again.

Don’s friend Art Malone would take over racing duties in his place.  Swamp Rat’s cockpit had to be extend since Art was taller than Don after this Modification was made, the dragster became known as Swamp Rat 1B. A couple more changes were also made to the car, the 8 Stromberg carburetors were replaced by a Hilborn fuel injectin system. The fuel injection system made the car much easier to tune and it allowed her performance to improve. On August 23, 1959 Art Malone would set a new speed record of 183.66 MPH all thanks to the improved tuning from the fuel injection.

Art Malone in the Cockpit and Don Garlits standing next to him and the dragster.

Art Malone in the Cockpit and Don Garlits standing next to him and the dragster.

Art would soon be on a record setting track because in September of the same year he would set a new ET record of 8.23 seconds at the AHRA Nationals in Great Bend, KS! At the next several drag racing events Swamp Rat ran better than she ever had before and Art Malone would go undefeated! His winning streak would last until the end of the year, because a Partnership of Chris Karamesines and Don Maynard would come along and beat Art Marlone in their dragster nicknamed the Chizler.

Don and Art’s partnership had only been arround for less than a year but in that short time span they became the most feared drag racing team in the world! They would race one more event in December of 1959 at Riverside Raceway in California. Art would be a race man with the same name; Art Chrisman (driver of Husler 1) in the final round with a solid but not record setting ET of 8.51 seconds at 181.81 MPH.

Don, and Art would start off the 1960 season with a bang! At the March Meet in Bakersfield, Art would set a new speed record of 185.56 MPH in Swamp Rat. The very next week Art would set another speed record of 187.10 MPH! It seemed like every week a picture of Swamp Rat was in the newspaper of the town they raced in! All over the United States fans loved Don, Art and Swamp Rat!

Fans drooling over Swamp Rat in Bakersfield.

Fans drooling over Swamp Rat in Bakersfield 1960.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1960 Don and Art attended a drag racing event in Union Grove. Promoter Bob Metzler was putting on the largest drag racing event he could and he invinted every fast car in the country including  Chris Karamesines’ and Don Maynard’s the Chizler.

Don and Art wanted to get their revenage on Chris Karamesines and Don Maynard for ending their winning streak last year. Art Malone and Swamp Rat were able to get their revenage from Chris Karamesines not just once but two different times at event! Art beat Chris once in a Match race then a second time during one of the Elmination rounds! At the end of the day Art would make it to the finals and win the event!

Art Racing at Great Bend in 1960. Look at all that Smoke!

Art Racing at Union Grove in 1960. Look at all that Smoke!

After the event at Union Grove Don couldn’t stand watch the races from the staging lanes any longer. He remodifed the cockpit of Swamp Rat to fit him and began to drive the slingshot dragster himself.

One day, while Don was working on Swamp Rat back at his shop in Florida he received a visit from his friend Smokey Yunick. Smokey was shocked to learn that Don was using a Passanger Sedan as a Tow Vechicle and not a truck! He told Don that he should get a truck but there was no room for one in Don’s budget.
After his talk with Smokey, a few days later Don got a call from the local Chevy dealership  telling him that “his” 59 GMC Carryall was there and he needed to come pick it up. Don didn’t own a GMC Carryall and tought it was a mistake! When he drove down over there he found out the the Carryall was bought for him through curitosity of Smokey! The Carryall would go on to become Don’s famous tow truck for the next several years.

The famous GMC Carryall pushing Swamp Rat with Don driving.

The famous GMC Carryall pushing Swamp Rat with Don driving.

1961 would be the last year that Garlits would run Swamp Rat I. Don would replace the Hilborn Fuel Injection system with a newer Enderle Barndoor injection which gave him even more control over Swamp Rats tuning. This would allow Don to set a speed record of 204.54 MPH and this record would make Don the first drag racing to reach 200 MPH in the Quarter Mile.

Don would retire Swamp Rat 1B in early 1961 before replacing her with Swamp Rat III. Even though Swamp Rat I was only used for, 4 short years it left beyond a huge legancy in the Drag Racing world. It was the first car to break the 180 and 200 Barriers and the car went undefeated for a while. Swamp Rat’s legency would be carried on by 32 other Swamp Rats.

Swamp Rat 1961

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