The newest rookie to racing on the salt flats also happens to be one of the greatest names in auto racing. Sunday, Don "Big Daddy" Garlits brushed the salt from his shoes, slid into the cockpit of his streamlined racer and made his inaugural run on the white salty track at Bonneville.
He was, said his wife, Pat, as she watched the routine from the sideline, "like a kid in a candy shop."On his first pass down the 7-mile track he popped his chute after two of the three measured miles and pulled off the course.
Things, he said, just didn't feel right to him.
After a few adjustments, a sandwich and a drink, he bushed the salt from his shoes again, climbed back in, and this time took the "Swamp Rat No. 33" the full distance, clocking his best time in the three measured miles of 197 miles per hour, 15 mph short of the record.
It was, said his crew chief, Richard Venza, a great start.
Garlits made his name in auto racing by taking rocket-like dragsters from a standing start to over 260 mph in a quarter mile. He is, in fact, recognized as the greatest drag racer ever. He holds, or has held, more records than any other drag racer past or present, and is credited with introducing many of the sports most innovative developments, including the rear-engine dragsters.
Following an accident last August that destroyed his 32nd car (with the exception of the latest racer, Garlits has built, numbered and named all his own cars "Swamp Rat") he decided to take some time away from the sport.
"I knew that," said Venza, of Lincoln, Neb., one of the chief designers of the new streamliner, "and I knew Don. I called him up and asked if he wanted to try something different."
Garlits said he'd heard about the speed trials on one of his trips to Bonneville Raceway Park, a dragstrip on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, and had always wanted to try it.
"It's different," he said. "It's not at all like drag racing. For one thing, this is more relaxed. Also, it's less expensive. This whole car was built for what it costs to make just five, six passes in a dragster."
Garlits will stay at Bonneville this week to try for four or five land speed records. According to Venza, the team has three engines they'll be switching for different speed records. All three, he said, are vintage 1949 Ford flathead.
Nearly 300 cars and crews are at the Salt Flats about 10 miles east of Wendover to try for land speed records. Record runs will begin at 8 a.m. each day. To post a record, cars must make two runs on the course with an average speed over the old record.
To make a record attempt, cars must first qualify at a speed greater than the record. Qualifying runs are made in the afternoon.
This year's track had to be shifted to the west to get the needed distance. Five miles of the salt flats buckled near the northeast end this year. Some believe the pumping of the Great Salt Lake into the West Desert is to blame.
Garlits' car, of course, isn't the only new car out for this year's event. Kenny Hoover and Ray Torrez have again combined talents to put a new edition onto the salt. Holders of 19 speed records, the team decided to build the new car last year. They started four months ago and finished it three days before the trials.
The move this year is away from the big, high-powered cars, and more to the smaller cars and engines. The challenge, said Elliott Estrine of San Diego, "is to get the most you can. It's a lot less expensive, but a lot more challenging."
The event will continue through the week with the last record tries Saturday morning.