Bad Blood Rising

by Todd Hutcheson

Indianapolis. The 17th Annual NHRA Nationals, September 1-7. In drag racing it is equal to the Oscars. The 'Big Cheese'. The best against the very best. For seven days they check-in with inspections, did runs and qualifying, the long lines, repairs and drop-outs were nothing new. Even Monday's rain delay was no surprise. But this drama started days before all this took place.
Don Garlits and Tom 'TC' Lemons had rolled out the Swamp Rat 14 the week before here at the same track and prepared for a few test runs with the boys from Goodyear Tire. It seems they had a fresh idea in traction. TC had the 14 set to 'Faster'. The big fat tires were rolled out and stacked and numbered. The men in white coats recorded everything from track temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind direction...well you get the point.

Goodyear was thrilled to see 'Big Daddy' with another winning car. At first they were understandably nervous. A rear engine dragster and not a very pretty one at that. They thought 'Big Daddy' had 'bitten off more than he could chew' with this one. It was no surprise that he had one. The surprise was that it worked and went straight and fast.

After Lions on January 10th and OCIR the 23rd, Pomona on Feb 7th and the Bakersfield March Meet, Team Garlits had the front engine boys placing orders for the new all-you-can-see front seat racer.

The testing went, shall we say...good for the lads from Seffner, Florida. Rumors from Drag News went out that Team Garlits with the new Goodyear tires turned in a few 6.35, 6.30 and even a 6.18 ET! True or false, the others would face the facts on race day. TC and Don were a happy lot at the end of the day.

Garlits: "I think we have them beat Tommy. What are you going to get with your share?"
TC: "I'll start with a beer, and think about it."
Garlits: "We got her dialed in just right Tommy, we can't lose."
TC: "And if we face Carbone, we'll give him the bone, and make it six in a row!"

Drag Racing, or any racing for that matter, had never seen a team like TC and Garlits. Garlits was obsessed with winning. A tough fighter. A 24 hour competitor, forward thinking inventor, and avid experimenter on new ideas. Plus he loved it all. He would say, "I just loved it. I liked the idea of two cars lined up side by side. It's one person against one person, one machine against one machine. There is a winner and a loser. It's real simple." No one person in any sport of any kind has dominated a sport as long as Donald Glenn Garlits. Love him or not, he is #1.

Tommy Lemons was equally tough, and didn't give a shit. He could go toe to toe with the old man any time any place. And besides, he said "I didn't want no damn job anyway". He once said, "I didn't want to tell my momma that I spent twenty years in drag racing, so I told her I was in prison." TC is loved by everyone. He is the Will Rogers of drag racing, one of the great storytellers we will ever see.

Under clouds and foggy skies the best 32 car field assembled at the famous track in Indiana. They were all here. Team Garlits ran the lowest elapsed time of 6.211, Steve Carbone - 6.394, Carl Olson - 6.419, Don Prudhomme - 6.433, Ronnie Martin - 6.483, Butch Maas - 6.492, John Wiebe - 6.493, Rick Ramsey - 6.584, Dennis Baca - 6.533, Kenny Safford - 6.539, Herm Petersen - 6.594 and on and on it goes. The qualifying ET's told the true story of how the tire testing went. Garlits was just that much faster, a 6.21 ET, almost 2/10 faster than the next competitor. The ones who didn't qualify for one or another reason, tried their best and stayed for the show.

The by one they fell to ET numbers by Garlits too low to understand - 6.21, 6.25, 6.28, 6.31 and 6.32. The finalists fared as follows:

Round One:
Steve Carbone (win) vs. Chuck Kurzawa (red light)
Don Garlits 6.28 (win) vs. Al Friedman (6.65)

Round Two:
Steve Carbone 6.39 (win) vs. Tom Kaiser (6.45) R.E.D.
Don Garlits 6.32 (win) vs. John Wiebe 6.46 at 232.55 mph, (top speed honors)

For Team Garlits it was all working out as planned. The new Goodyear tires, the clutch, the rear wing, the rear end all fell into place to put the power to the track. Maybe it seemed a little too easy.

Garlits: "Tommy, I don't even have to watch the light. I can watch their front tire move and still beat them."
TC: "You're driving dead nuts on, just don't do any of that Déjà vu shit."

Garlits had his demons from March 8, 1970 that visited his mind at the worst opportune time. At Lions, January 10, 1971 the debut of the new Swamp Rat 14, the final race against Gary Cochran. Garlits began to see the exploding transmission in front of him as the lights descended to green. He left late, giving Cochran the victory. It was best to not bring it up. The real pain would return and cause Don to wrestle the nightmare over and over again.

Round Three:
Steve Carbone (win) vs. Gary Cochran (red light)
Don Garlits 6.25 (win) vs. Arnie Behling (6.44) R.E.D.

This time it looked like Carbone might finally meet 'Big Daddy' again. Steve was ready for a rematch with 'Big'. Garlits had beaten Carbone in the finals three years ago right here at Indy. He used a slow stage technique against Steve. Seems 'Big Daddy' took his time getting to the line, and then beat him with a 6.87 at 226.70 mph to Carbone's up-in-smoke 7.58 at 191.86 mph. That gave Garlits his third Indy Nationals win. Carl Olson adds this, "Since Kuhl & Olson were very close to the Carbone camp (Steve had formerly driven for Kuhl, and they'd formed a strong bond), we were aware that Steve felt Garlits had "taken his time" staging in their '68 final round encounter. He vowed that he would never stage first against 'Big Daddy' again. He was very much looking forward to a final round Nationals re-match."

Garlits: "Looks like we might face Carbone again, but I think Kenny can take him out."
TC: "Too bad, like I said, I'd like to make it six in a row."

A week earlier at Marion Ohio, at an AHRA event, Garlits faced Carbone in five straight races. This unusual turn of events was because of the 'break rule' that stated the lower ET loser from the previous race could come back if anyone broke and couldn't make the next round. Garlits beat Carbone in the first round. Steve returned in the next three rounds being beat by Garlits in each comeback round. In the final Don 'Mad Dog' Cook did his burnout and shut it down, leaving Carbone to step in with his fueler already started and pulling up to the line! Funny stuff? I guess so. Garlits thought, "OK, we'll make it five in a row." Steve Carbone with his fifth shot at Garlits that same day, red lit as Garlits ran a strong 6.46 at 223.32 mph. Steve Carbone was humiliated.
Round Four: The Semi-Final
Steve Carbone (win) vs. Kenny Safford (red light)
Don Garlits 6.31 (win) vs. Carl Olson (7.29) R.E.D
(The Kuhl & Olson's rear engine car suffered broken rear end ring and pinion gears in our semi-final match against Big. It was a very good race up to that point. - Carl Olson).

Carbone's crew knew that they couldn't out run Garlits even with their big Ed Pink engine. It was luck and three red lights that got Carbone to the finals. After giving it much thought Steve said, "If I can't beat his machine, I'll beat the man. I won't stage until his engine is so hot that it will fail him. Get word to Gar that I won't stage until he does." Would Garlits bite? Steve knew that Garlits had way too much ego, and it would get the better of him. So Carbone taunted him and drew him into his trap. They had a history of tough match races. The word had been sent to Camp Garlits that Carbone wouldn't stage first.

It was a respect thing with Garlits. "How can he out run a 6.21 car with a 6.60 car, can't be done. I won't stage first, that son-of-a-bitch; I'd rather burn that engine to the ground than stage first."

The swifter fly can be caught by a much slower and craftier spider in a web of pride.

Garlits' German temper reasoned, "My engine can run just as long as his can. My engine's got aluminum heads and will stay cool, but that 426 of his has iron heads and, in fact, was pinging and detonating all day long, so I have nothing to worry about!"

Final: 1971 Indy Nationals
Don Garlits vs. Steve Carbone

TC push started Garlits first, and did his burnout to further soften the tires. TC would later say "Our tires were worn out. We had been running all day and they were marginal tires at the finish. We had made 7 or 8 runs that day." Steve Carbone waited, then started a few moments later, keeping his engine, tires and clutch as cold as possible. Garlits rolled up hot and stopped short of the pre-stage lights. Carbone stopped a little further back. The spider watched and waited for the fly.

In the right lane was the beautiful full body, painted black, silver & blue, front engine 'Mickey Mouse' dragster of Steve Carbone. A show car from Don Long Chassis, powerful Ed Pink engine. Every detail was perfect. It was called the 'Mickey Mouse Car' because it had the friendly Mouse on the cowling. Carl Olson remembers. "The Mickey Mouse logo on Carbone's car was a tribute to Steve's father, Michael "Mickey" Carbone. Michael's nickname was the result of the fact that for many years, he had a very successful business delivering bulk newspapers to businesses in the Anaheim, California vicinity, and his favorite stop was at Disneyland. He absolutely worshiped Walt Disney. The logo on Steve's car had Mickey flashing the "V for victory" sign, which Steve felt was a good luck symbol."

In the left lane was the plain black rear engine dragster 'Swamp Rat 14' of Don Garlits. Nothing fancy, 426 Keith Black motor, 1,260 pounds, big wing. It had a swamp rat on it. It was rarely clean. The only thing missing was a skull and cross bones, 'Arrrr!'

The duel of wills commenced. The Mouse and The Rat. Both eyeing the big cheese.

TC: "Come on old man, stage it." TC signaled to Garlits, who shook his head no.
Garlits: "I'll be damned if I stage first, ain't going to happen."
Carbone: "Wait, wait…"
TC: "Let's go, what's the matter?" Using all the sign language he knew to get his point across.
Garlits: "No! That son-of-a-bitch stages first!"
Carbone: "Just a little longer…"
TC: Now very angry he throws his arm out wide yelling, "Don't blow it old man, screw Carbone, stage that thing!"

What Garlits couldn't see was the oil smoke and water steam from his rear engine car. It was hot, and the tires were cooling off. Buster Crouch, the official line starter knew this was a dangerous situation. Wisely he started to clear the area, much to TC's objection.

Buster: "Come on TC clear out, everyone out."
TC: "Garlits! Don't do this man, make the run and beat this dude!"
Buster: "Out TC, out…now!"

TC now fully disgusted flips Garlits the bone and clears out. It had been just under three minutes long, too long for these Top Fuel machines to run safely. Finally, Garlits relented and crept forward to stage.

Carbone: "Look at that! Look at that…I got you now old man!"
Garlits: Now seeing Carbone's trap. "Damn...stupid. I should have known better! Damn it!"

When the green lights lit up, the air filled with white tire smoke from both dragsters, only Garlits couldn't find enough traction to hold on, as Carbone reached the finish with a 6.48 to Garlits' 6.65. Carbone's gamble paid off. Had Garlits staged normally and posted an ET like he had been running all day, he would have beaten Carbone easily!

Years later, Garlits remarked, "I didn't make the right decision. I'm only human. I should have gone bink-bink and staged and he wouldn't have known what happened to him. I could have had nine U.S. Nationals Championships instead of eight. That's the one race I'd like to do again. But it was my own fault."

Two track officials watching the situation summed it all up.
Jerry: "I can't believe it, Carbone beat Garlits!"
Dave: "Carbone didn't beat Garlits, the beast did."
Jerry: "The beast? What beast?"
Dave: "The beast within his own ego beat Garlits, Carbone just won the race."

"Kuhl and I did not see the final round at the '71 Nationals. We were back in the pits replacing the third member in our rear end in preparation for the following week's commitment at Wichita Dragway in Kansas. We did, however, enjoy the excitement generated by NHRA announcer, Bernie Partridge, and the sounds emanating from the starting line. The sound of the ever increasing spectator cheers, punctuated by a huge roar when 'Big' smoked his tires, made this an absolutely "electric" moment that's seared in my memory bank." - Carl Olson

TC adds the epilogue. "Because our tires were worn out. The tires cooled off and the engine got hot and got better. It went out of sequence when he sat there all that time, about two and a half minutes. That meant the clutch got hotter and it was going to grab faster. The engine got hotter, it was going to make more horsepower. The tires got cooler and lost the traction. It was a chain of events mechanically. We were screwed!"

"He didn't spin the tires like we did. He had a better set of tires. Of course he knew he was going to go up there and set a long time. So he set the clutch and engine differently. We didn't know we was going to sit there. We would have set the car up differently too. He won and got that trophy. After the race I went over and had a couple of beers with him and his wife. It was a bad day for me. I lost a paycheck cause he won."

"After a week I went into his shop in Tulsa, and he had that trophy sitting there, I tried to steal it. He laughed, we were good friends. And every time I visited him there I would avoid looking at the thing. But Steve would always say 'TC...have you seen my new Indy trophy, I just got it all shined up'."

The 1971 Indy Nationals was the last race for the little rear engine car. The Swamp Rat 14 was retired. It was not the first rear engine dragster, but it was the one that worked, and it would forever changed the way drag racers would see into their future. One month later Swamp Rat 16 roared on the scene and started another winning chapter for Don Garlits, Tommy Lemons and Connie Swingle.

History's scrapbook is littered with stories of winning in spite of the odds against them; David and Goliath, King Kong vs. the airplanes, the tortoise and the hare. The story of Garlits and Carbone has been told in short form many times. Explaining the 'why' took some digging and many calls to those who were there. Don Garlits raced with only one thing in mind; to win. With his Swamp Rat 14 in top form and running unbeatable speeds, there was nothing stopping him from a fourth Nationals Title. It was true, he was that much better on that day than anyone else at the track. Steve Carbone knew this and used Garlits' Achilles heel to bring him down in a cloud of white smoke. Will it happen again? Oh yeah, for sure. History also has proven that the same story repeats over and over again for our amusement.

Sometime in the future you may see another single arrow or smooth stone stopping the next unbeatable champion from the most unlikely contender.

Ooops! Never say we learn from history. After the great showdown at the Indy Nationals in 1971 between Steve Carbone and the 'unbeatable' Don Garlits, it happened again. Only two months later this same little trick worked again at the NHRA Supernationals, Ontario Calif, November 21st.

Hank Johnson fastest ET run at 6.68 was well behind 'Kansas John' Wiebe's 6.53 ET of the day. Hank was out gunned by Wiebe and his revolutionary Donovan all aluminum 417 cubic-inch engine. He knew he had to do something unexpected. So, Johnson uses the same Garlits 1968 'slow stage' - and Carbone's 1971, 'I won't stage first no matter what' play book, and guess what, it worked - again!

After another long wait and slow staging trick the quicker John Wiebe went up in smoke with a slow 7.30 ET at 182.55 mph to Hank Johnson's 6.61 ET at 218.44 mph. Does any one remember our history? No we dont. Three times a charm.

That race is still discussed in earnest to this day. The results don't change but some say now Garlits and Carbone waited there at the staging area more than 20 minutes! I think these same people have Carbone running four engines.

This race was significant for a couple of reasons. This would be the last race for this original and historic rear engine dragster of Don Garlits, Connie Swingle and TC Lemons dubbed Swamp Rat 14, and it will make way for a brand new car to be SR 16. (Remember #15 was that front engine car sold to Goodyear back in January). The torch will be passed to the new stalwart from the Garlits Group which will debut soon since it is actually finished.

Editors Note: Having been at Indy in 1971 I can attest, all the cleaned up language aside, this is a good account (from old and somewhat bias minds) of one of the most talked about races in our sports history.

For the full story on this and others stories, go to the book Don Garlits R.E.D.

By Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson



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