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THE CALIFORNIA CHALLENGE, Part 2
...Showdown in Houston!
1958. Word was spreading like wildfire about the upcoming challenge in Houston. It was going to be the biggest
thing to ever hit the drag racing world - more like a wrestling" grudge" match—the big guys against the little hotshot
from Floria with the big mouth.
Everyone seemed to be pointing to the stiff opposition I would face in the touted "California/Florida Challenge," lots
of famous names with fabulous dragsters: Pete Ogden from Oakland in Romeo Palamides' new streamlined car;
Jack Ewell driving "Big Jim" Kambors' Jado Special ("Big Jim" was a wealthy Los Angeles caterer); and Red Case in
his radical little Cagle and Callahancar. The Texas delegation was going to be led by Bobby Langley in his much-
improved "Scorpion II."
The word was out; Ewell, Case, and Ogden weren't as concerned with winning the meet as with getting Garlits. If
they could return to California with the news that they had put this Florida wise guy in his "place," it didn't make a
speck of difference to them which one of the three ended up being "Top Eliminator."
And even though he didn't care about the California/Florida issue, Bobby Langley had his Texas pride at stake. He
made it clear that there was nothing he would rather do than send both Garlits and the Californians back home in
defeat. Plus, he was particularly incensed about my win over him the year before at Wichita Falls in front of his
We reached Houston two days prior to the big race, but by
the time we drove into the pit area of the Freeway drag
strip, a big crowd had already gathered to watch the
As I pulled into the pit area, I could see the special roped-
off section for the California cars. Who could miss
Palamides' glistening car? Money had not been a factor
in its preparation.
Every bit of the dragster was covered with gleaming
chrome or hand-rubbed lacquer- from the futuristic body
to the exotically curved intake stacks on its fuel-injected Chrysler powerplant. It was a truly beautiful car. The West
Coast guys were funded by some of the wealthiest men in southern California. Their cars were so clean, so
expensive looking, that my dented black campaigner suddenly looked like a cheap, out-of-place imitation.
My mouth was dry as we unloaded the "Swamp Rat." My heart was pounding as I tried to ignore the stares and
disparaging comments. I kept telling myself, "I came to race. I know I can run with these guys. Or can I?”
As it turned out, the showdown almost didn't come about. I was having mechanical problems and the West Coast
guys were roaring with laughter at my turtle-pace practice runs.
"Hey, Garlits," one sunburnt driver shouted, "where's all those 176's?"
Another Californian yelled, "See what honest clocks do, hotshot!"
"Some Florida threat," I muttered to myself, turning to diagnose my troubles.
Ed and I worked most of the day before the meet changing some of the equipment. Finally, we knew we had to try
again. The practice time was coming to a close. I was jumpy as a cat when I donned my helmet and climbed into the
cockpit for my final try.
"This time she'll go," shouted Ed over the drone of the engine. He was right - I could feel it from the start. The
engine was throbbing with power like we knew it could do all the time. I knew the time would be competitive
even before I sped through the timing lights. Sure enough—167.91 MPH at 9.11 seconds—a far cry from the 176 I'd
run in Brooksville, but fastest of the weekend so far.
As we returned to the pit area, the Californians were strangely silent. Hunched over their own engines. Not talking.
The run was symbolic of the entire challenge. In my first race, I got beaten out of the gate, but surged past Ewell at
the finish line.
Ogden beat home-town favorite Langley in the next round, so I knew that of the front-runners, it was just me,
Odgen, and Red Case left.
One down and two to go!
The match-up between Red Case and I almost ended in a fatalistic tragedy. I jumped ahead at the line, then saw
him careening out of control, veering right at me, then disappearing behind me out of sight. I held my breath, hoping
not to be hit. He missed the rear end of my dragster, barely, and somehow managed to manhandle the car back
onto the track, but I finished the run and won by disqualification. It was unfortunate for Case, but I would take it
however it came.
"Two down and one to go, the toughest of the bunch—Pete Ogden!"
It had built to this incredible climax. Me against him. The Florida upstart against the most-powerful of the
Californians. Everybody knew that this race was for all the marbles—the "gold," the money, the fierce rivalry,
I was keyed up like never before. My stomach felt queasy. I paced around the car making final adjustments, running
the entire emotional gamut.
It seemed like that announcement would never come. Finally, the loudspeakers boomed: "FINAL CALL FOR TOP
A roar exploded in the stands!
I felt a wave of relief come over me as I was belted into my black dragster.
“At least it will all be over in a few minutes, win or lose…at least I'll be out from under the incredible pressure that
has been building up for all these months and months of waiting and talking...”
The Palamides' car sparkled as it rolled to the line. Pete Ogden was almost completely hidden in the high
Only his helmeted head shone through. What a car! When I thought of all the hard work that had gone into my rail,
and all the rank comments I had heard about my dragster, something welled up within me as I was pushed to the
line. I wanted to beat Ogden even more than before. At that moment, it became an almost overwhelming obsession.
“Let's get these rich guys…just like back in the old days when Grady and I went over the bridge to St. Pete. I wanna
shut down these California wise guys for once and all!”
The start! That awful fraction of a second when everything really important happens in a drag racer's life. The flag
comes down. Every nerve screams, "Do something!!"
Hurry! It's time! Hit the throttle. Pop the clutch. It's taking forever!
Ogden had a picture-book "wheelie" start. The Palamides' speedster arrowed ahead. My knee ached from the
incredible pressure as I slammed my right foot against the metal.
“Faster! He's ahead. I'm not going to make it. It's hopeless. Faster!”
My deep-throated Chrysler engine bellowed a torturous roar.
The powerful acceleration shoved me flat against the back of my cage. Ogden and I seemed to
hang permanently suspended, side-by-side, his sleek car just ahead of mine.
“Faster! I'm not gonna get him. C'mom baby!”
Then suddenly I pulled alongside him. As we swept past the finish line, I nosed ahead by inches.
A miracle! I had won it!
I got him, just barely, but I won! Three for three—we got the rich guys!
It was the greatest victory ever. 165.24 MPH at 9.13 ET.
That night, as we towed the dragster out of the pit area, headed for home, the Californians were
over in their special roped-off area. Some sat in silent clusters on the grass. A few were lying on
their backs looking dazedly into the cloudless Texas sky.
The whole day had been a shocking disaster for them. They had all come to Houston totally
convinced that I was a braggart and upstart who would be blown off so badly that no one would
hear of Don Garlits and his ugly black thingamajig again.
"Why didn't you guys beat him?" one crewman yelled at a lying form.
"Us!" The guy sat bolt-upright. "Why couldn't you guys shut him down? You had the best chance."
So it ended, the great California/Florida challenge. It had been a showdown of monumental importance, at least for
me. And a bunch of Californians learned that all the drag racing secrets weren't hidden on the Western side of the
Rockies. Not by a long shot.
And for me, the best and the worst was still to come.
|1958...Don Garlits arriving in Houston for the
BELOW: Houston Chronicle, March 1, 1959 - Buildup to the California/Florida Challenge
|Savoring the Houston Victory...
Art Malone, the Swamp Rat Dragster
and Don Garlits
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