There are few if any other singular race cars on the planet, in any form of racing that were the catalyst for as much change as Don Gartlits’ Swamp Rat 14, his first rear-engine dragster.
On March 8, 1970 at Lions Drag Strip, Don Garlits suffered a horrific transmission failure in his front-engine dragster. The explosion resulted in a partial amputation of his foot and shrapnel nearly severing the arm of a woman in the stands. It also wounded a young boy.
One must remember, though, that Garlits had suffered through horrible fires, wrecks, and other badness in his career, but this time it was different. This was a permanent, disfiguring, potentially disabling injury. Something had to be done. While in his hospital bed watching episodes of Star Trek with Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, Garlits formulated his plan for a rear-engine car that would be competitive, quick, and most importantly, safe.
While recovering and considering the project, Garlits actually climbed back into his freshly repaired front-motor car in Bristol, Tennessee, only a scant three months after his accident. He was still not cleared to drive by medical people but with doubts lingering in his own mind about his future in drag racing, he saddled up and promptly went low ET of the meet.
Had it not been for one of the most horrifying wrecks ever caught on film at the 1970 US Nationals, Garlits may well have shelved the whole idea. Having lost to Jim Nicoll in the semi-finals of that race, Garlits watched with interest as Nicoll raced Don Prudhomme in the final. At the traps and at full song, the clutch in Nicoll’s car exploded, rip-sawing the chassis in half just in front of the drivers’ area and sending the front of the car on an eerie track next to Prudhomme’s slowing machine. Meanwhile, Nicoll was flipping like a bowling ball and most everyone suspected he was dead. That’s the way those things tended to end. Shockingly, he lived. Having seen that, Garlits left the track with the stated purpose of bringing out a rear-engine car.
Upon arriving backing Florida, Garlits sat down with his trusted cadre of advisors, TC Lemons and Connie Swingle. Swingle suggested maintaining the then-standard wheelbase of 215 inches, Garlits decided on the driving position being reclined and very low in the car. By the winter they were making test laps and running into a problem that had vexed constructors of rear-engine cars to this point: they were unsteerable at speed. No matter how light the touch, the car would veer wildly from side to side.
Finally Garlits let Swingle know of this problem, and without hesitation, Swingle suggested slowing the steering from the normal front-motor ratio of 6:1 to a far slower 10:1 ratio. That was the ticket.
In December of 1970, Garlits dragged the new car to Orlando and promptly laid down a monster 6.80 lap and secured the track record. Mystery solved.
Garlits was quoted as saying of the event, “We drove back to Tampa that afternoon and if anyone had been with us they would have thought we were drunk. After the long hard hours of work, the success of that last run had put us all on a natural high. Swingle kept saying, ‘Gar, you’re gonna kill ‘em,’ and TC just smiled and said ‘Wait till them Californians see what the ‘Okies’ built. Myself, I was just plain happy and very excited. I knew I would be racing a lot longer now and the fear of sitting behind a fire-breathing, nitro-burning Dodge Hemi was ‘behind’ me. In fact, all my troubles were behind me.”
The boys took the car out to California a couple weeks ahead of the Winternationals to sort out any last-minute bugs. The results of the tune-up races were two final-round appearances and two final-round losses (To the same guy! Gary Cochran can forever tell his grandkids that he whipped Garlits two weeks in a row, a rare claim indeed) which Garlits blamed on himself as being a bit gun shy. He was reliving the accident in his brain every time he mashed the pedal.
The two races got him comfortable and when he rolled into Pomona he was well equipped to kick ass. And he did, winning the race in relatively easy fashion. The guys who snickered when they rolled through the gate were now examining the car and making plans for their own. They needed to. The rear-engine car was so successful that the last NHRA National event win for a slingshot dragster happened in 1972 at the NHRA Grandnational in Canada with Art Marshall at the helm of the digger.
As the LA Times famously wrote after Pomona, Garlits’ car had turned the collective group of slingshots into, “a million dollar junk pile.”
It’s kind of an accepted deal that if you’re a drag racing geek, slingshots are supposed to be your “favorite” type of rail. Well, I’m not buying it.
My absolute favorite cars are the very early rear-engine cars like Garlits’. They are spindly and low and look like long go-karts with blown Hemi motors. Just the sight of a rear-engine car idling gives me the shivers. They heave and jiggle and bounce around like they’re made of wet spaghetti and I love it.
That’s the story of Swamp Rat 14 in a nutshell. Garlits would churn out a bunch of improved designs on this theme and his Swap Rat 22 would become the first car to 250 mph in the quarter mile and set ET records that weren’t touched for years.
Yeah, this piece of iron qualifies as historic.