Winternationals Memorable Moment No. 1: Garlits Kicks ’em in the Rear (1971)

The near end of Don Garlits’ driving career marked the beginning of a new era in Top Fuel after the cagey Florida veteran, horribly injured in an early-1970 transmission explosion that cut both the chassis of his front-engine Top Fueler and his right foot in half, went back to the drawing board to try to improve on the previously unworkable rear-engine Top Fuel chassis design.

Although rear-engine Top Fuelers had been tried for years, they were cursed, ill-handling machines, and even Garlits’ first passes in the car that he designed from his hospital bed were white-knuckle trips during late-1970 testing. He finally hit upon the right steering ratio, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Just days before the Winternationals, at the same AHRA event at Lions Drag Strip where he had been injured a year before, Garlits rolled out the car to much derision from his fellow stars yet scored runner-up honors.

Then in Pomona and still running without the rear wing he would later add, Garlits qualified No. 9 in the 32-car Winternationals field with a 6.80. He ran progressively quicker in each round before the final, posting low e.t. in three of the five rounds.

Garlits defeated Tommy Allen, 6.85 to 6.89; John Nichols, 6.72 to 6.85; Carl Olson, 6.72 to 10.61; Jim Dunn, 6.70 to 7.58; and, in the final, spun the tires to an uncontested sixth NHRA national event victory at 7.03 against a broken Kenny Safford.

Garlits showed them all the way home and the way to the future, and within two years, the front-engine dragster was extinct in Top Fuel.