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                             ...My Tribute

On February 2, 2014, my wife of 61 years passed away, and I've thought
about what I could write as a tribute to her. Pat was so supportive through-
out my career. Ours was a true love story. There were lots of ups and
downs, but the one constant was the fact that she stood beside me all the
way. There are so many memories that reflect how much she meant to me
and my career. Looking back, two special times tell so much about this
remarkable woman.

I first met Pat in late May 1952. A friend of mine, Wayne Nieman, had a boat that he kept in nearby Lake
Magdalene. It was a favorite place to go, especially on muggy Tampa weekends. It was that kind of a day when
Wayne got off his shift at the gas station, and we took off for an afternoon with the boat. A lot of teenagers from the
Tampa area used to hang around the lake during the summer, so it was a favorite meeting place for kids.

That day there were two girls that Wayne knew, Pat and Jackie. I had heard the phrase, "love at first sight." That
day I experienced it, just like in the movies. When I saw Pat, I knew it was for real.We rode around on the boat that
day getting to know each other. I could tell that she felt the same way toward me as I did about her.
Her last name was Bieger, and her family had moved to the area from Kentucky several years before. She was soon
going to graduate from Hillsborough High School. I loved everything about her, the way she talked, her smile, her
charming laugh and the way her eyes sparkled when she looked at me.

She knew nothing about hot rods. Frankly, she didn't care anything about them. Strangely enough for a guy who
spent all my extra time working on cars and hanging out with other hot rodders, I kept it quiet. She didn't do it
intentionally, she gave me second thoughts about all the time and attention I'd been giving to my love for
automobiles. In fact, I kept quiet about my interest in both cars and "juking" (hanging out at the juke joints) that had
been such a part of my life. I wanted her to see me in my best possible light. Maybe I thought the good girls didn't go
for hot-rodders like me.

    It seemed to work for awhile, We started to see a lot
    of each other. My grease-monkey friends became
    less and less important. Pat came from a nice,
    middle-class family, and I increasingly felt downright
    uncomfortable when I wondered what her parents
    would say if they discovered their daughter was
    going out with a wild, law-breaking hot-rodder. I
    knew that Pat didn't seem to be the kind of girl who
    would enjoy drag racing at Zephyrhills or "juking" at
    Roy Lucas' Big Barn.

    I knew I'd have to change a lot of bad habits if I
    hoped to have a chance with her. I made up my
    mind that I was going to quit hot-rodding for good. I
    sold my souped-up convertible and bought a stock
    '50 Ford two-door sedan. Pat graduated from high
    school and got a job with the Greater Tampa
    Chamber of Commerce.

I settled down to a job at the American Can Company. Our year-long courtship was as All-American as apple pie.
We went bowling and to the movies. There was swimming and water skiing. I even learned how to dance.The word
went out among my buddies, "Don Garlits has gone square!" It was true. I was so changed that when I bought a set
of dual exhausts for the Ford, I couldn't even work up enough enthusiasm to put them on myself. I finally took them
to a gas station and paid the mechanic to make the installation.

Pat and I were married on February 20, 1953. It was a small wedding at the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
Reverend Harry S. Flickenger officiated. We had the usual cake-cutting ceremony, the rice-throwing goodbyes, and
the attention-getting car (complete with an array of shoe-polish graffiti slogans). After a short honeymoon, we
settled down to a normal life. Pat's pay as a secretary, coupled with my income at the American Can Company,
permitted us to live fairly well. As far as I was concerned, I was a family man. There would be no more hot-rodding
for me.

Well, almost.

Billy Herndon and I worked together at the can company, so I'd ride home with him each afternoon and wait for Pat
to pick me up with our car. She got off work an hour after I did, so that would give Billy and me a chance to sit
around and talk. He was deeply involved with drag racing and had a gigantic collection of Hot Rod Magazines and
speed equipment catalogs lying around his house. Each day I found myself becoming increasingly more interested
in finding out what was happening in the sport that I had abandoned for over a year.

Had things changed, or what?

Some of the West Coast cars like "Bean Bandit" were seemingly on the verge of flying, up to 130 MPH in the quarter
mile. It was unbelievable!

Then one Sunday afternoon, Pat and I took a leisurely drive up to Bok Tower. We had to go past the Lake Wales
drag strip, which had become a real center for hot-rodders' attention. I pulled in, intending only to watch the action
for a few minutes. I ended up entering the Ford in one of the stock classes. Before the day was over, I'd raced a
number of times and ended up winning a beautiful eight-inch winged trophy, my first ever!
I was hooked again.

It had been a nice try to "go square." I had been sincere. But I knew that afternoon that I had to race again.
I had almost quit racing forever. Almost!

Fast-forward from 1953 to 1970...

After the fateful Lions Drag Strip explosion (March 8, 1970) that blew off part of my foot, I went through a time of
horrible resentment. A race car driver believes he is immortal. Even when hurt, he knows that the injury will heal and
everything will be like before. Always it had been that way, but that was before. This was different. The moment that
explosion sliced away part of my foot, I knew I had a "chink" in my armor. I was no longer "bulletproof." I was
disfigured permanently. I knew that everyone would stare at me when I walked. They would know. I would know. I
hated myself. I hated that dragster with the hellacious engine placed just inches from my face and body.
So many of my friends had been killed or maimed in the front-engine slingshot. I wished there could be another way.
For a time I had to be content to lie around, then I was finally able to struggle around on crutches. Eventually every
waking moment was dedicated to building a safer dragster. So many had tried before and failed. I felt that I was the
one to do it. I had sat behind my last metallic dynamite keg. Things were going to change. No one seemed to
believe it was possible to build a rear-engine dragster.

Jerry Tiffin, a Goodyear representative, summed everyone's thoughts when he told me, "Doncha know every time
somebody has tried a rear engine car, it has spun out either right or left at high speeds? What makes you think
yours if gonna be any different?" It was true. No rear engine car had ever been successful. In fact, almost everyone
had crashed out of control. Maybe I was crazy to think that I could build one to be both safe and fast. All experts in
the industry knew it was totally impossible. Too many smarter, more advanced technicians had tried and failed.
What they didn't have for motivation was at the end of my leg. I had to lay my life literally on the line every time I sat
behind that behemoth power-plant. It had become too commonplace for engines to blow up and spit flames all over
the driver. It had happened to me too many times. Plus, I knew that I didn't want my feet near the transmission and
clutch of a front-engine dragster ever again!

My crew and I worked furiously putting our new rail together. Pat bit her lip and kept bringing freshly-brewed coffee.
The anxiety of that impending moment of truth grew with each step. As I sat on the chassis jig in front of the dummy
machine, I could almost feel myself flying down the drag strip with wind in my face and the incredible vision with no
engine in my face.

When we finished the car, our first runs were horribly disheartening. Just as predicted, the car did drift right or left at
high speeds. We kept trying. Nothing seemed to help. I found myself having to re-learn how to drive, since the new
set-up was so radically different from the more predictable slingshot dragsters.We carried the new car around to
local strips for almost a month. Every adjustment and modification seemed to compound the problems. It became
increasingly clear that I had been wrong, too, just like the others who had tried and failed.

"She's an ill-handling, evil witch!" I finally stammered to Pat. I'll remember that moment forever. It was the day after
Christmas 1970. We had spent the entire holiday season working with the car. And for what?

I was ready to give up. The dependable (and dangerous) slingshot was sitting under a tarp in front of my shop. It
seemed that the only solution was to throw out my tattered designs for the rear-engine car dragster and relinquish
my dreams. Almost everyone was still putting pressure on me to stop--my friends, my rivals, my sponsors, the press.
Needless to say, after all I had been through, Pat was against me climbing into the cockpit of any dragster, front- or
rear-engine. She had experienced too many fires, too many explosions, to many out-of-control tragedies. She loved
me, but she hated what those cars had done to me.

But that night after Christmas, when I was at my lowest moment and ready to give up, Pat spoke my dreams back
into existence.

She didn't want me to drive. I knew that, but down deep she knew I had to race. She didn't know if my ideas wold
work or not, but she realized that her husband had always insisted on trying to do something, even when I had
failed, rather than never attempting anything at all. She knew I was driven, and that I'd probably never be happy
doing anything else.

She could have killed the dream that night. I was vulnerable after the days and weeks of trying and failing. But she
sat down beside me, wrapped a tender hand around my neck, looked gingerly into my scar-lined eyes, and began
speaking with an emotion in her voice that I'd never heard before.

"Don," she began, "you know how I feel, but if you believe in that car, don't listen to anybody else but yourself. Just
keep trying. If anybody in the world can do it, you'll find a way to work it out!"

The very next day, her words still ringing in my head and heart, i decided to try a steering adjustment. It drastically
changed the handling. On the very next run, the dragster went straight as an arrow. It ran a strong 6.8 ET, 230
MPH, a new record for the Orlando Drag Strip!

A year and two weeks after I had lost part of my foot, I took the 1971 Pomona Winternationals title and stepped into
the record books as the first rear-engine car to ever win a national race. I took nearly every major event of 1971,
was named Car Craft Magazine's "Top Fuel Drive," "Man of the Year" and "Chassis Builder." Drag News tabbed me
"Driver of the Year." Popular Hot Rodding Magazine honored me as "Drag Racer of the Decade." I was a guest at
the White House, then asked to go on a once-in-a-lifetime Christmas tour with Richard Petty, Wally Dallenbach and
other top drivers to honor our armed service men and women in Vietnam. I was named the AHRA's "Driver of the
Year" and finished the year by being selected for the "All-American Award" given by the American Auto Racing
Writers and Broadcasters Association.

All of it was largely due to the rear-engine car that almost everyone said wouldn't work. People were already
pointing to the new design as making the biggest impact of any innovation ever in our sport, especially in terms of
potentially saving lives.It was a design that would carry me to new heights, a fulfilled dream that almost died
December 26, 1970.

If Pat hadn't believed in be, if she hadn't re-convinced me that great people are just ordinary people with an
extraordinary amount of determination, it's likely that none of the great things during 1971 and beyond would have
happened. But Pat was there. She believed in me. Like so many other times, she was at her best when I was at my
worst. Especially with the front-drive, rear-engine dragster, her belief made all the difference for me and future top-
fuel drag racers.

I've thought a lot about the difference Pat made during recent months, and I've tried to stand by her as she did for
me throughout our life. She was an invalid in our home for a time. I would take care of her at night, and a nurse
would come in at nine in the morning and would relieve me until six in the evening. Before the nurse arrived each
morning, I would get her cleaned up and ready for the day.

    One morning I was there with her, and she said,
    "Honey, why do you do this? You don't have to." We
    had insurance that would have paid for everything
    in a senior care center. "Why don't you put me in a
    nursing home?" she asked. "Then you won't have to
    do all of this."
    I thought of all she had done for me and had meant
    to me throughout more than six decades together. I
    said, "Honey, on February the 20th, 1953, when I
    said 'For better or worse, in sickness and health, till
    death do we part,' I meant every word of it."
    She started crying. She knew that's how our
    marriage was. If it had been me in bed, and many
    times it was, she would have taken care of me.

    That's how it was at the end. I was holding her. Our
    daughters were there, as was her sister. Glenn
    Miller music, her favorite, was playing in the
    background. Her little dogs were lying beside her.
    As she left us, I kissed her goodbye.

The loss since then has been immeasurable, but I've soldiered on, just as she would have wanted. Again and again,
I've heard the words she spoke to me back in 1970 still ringing in my ears: "Just keep trying. If anybody in the world
can do it, you'll find a way to work it out!"

That's what I'm trying to do. It's my tribute to Pat, my beloved wife, a precious mother and grandmother, and a
remarkable woman who truly made a difference!
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Click here to watch the
Close Calls
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(Special Thanks to
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Click here to watch Garlits!
one of the best biography
videos, hosted by
Steve Evans. joins the racing world in continuing
to mourn the recent passing of Pat Garlits, beloved
wife of drag racing legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.

Click here to watch Don's touching tribute to his
remarkable wife of 61 years.