Racing legend meets fans, fires up car
By Greg Seubert
His nickname is Big Daddy, but he’s also known as Mr. Dodge.
That’s why Bob and Vicki McMillin of Clintonville brought their recently purchased 2015 Dodge Challenger to this year’s Iola Old Car Show & Swap Meet.
After meeting drag racing legend Don Garlits at an autograph session at the show July 10, the McMillins had a special request. Garlits was more than happy to oblige and signed his name and nickname under the bright green car’s hood.
“I ordered it special from Klein’s in Clintonville,” Bob McMillin said. “It’s a 2015 Dodge Challenger Scat Pack Shaker. It’s got a 6.4 engine in it, 485 horsepower. I have everything in it that I could get.
“I remember Don growing up,” he said. “I lived in Chicago for many years. Back then, Don’s name was synonymous with racing. When this car and model came out in 1971, I said, ‘Someday, I’m going to have one of those.’ It wasn’t until now that I was finally able to afford one.”
Events like the Iola Old Car Show, now in its 43rd year, gives Garlits and other celebrities a chance to meet their fans.
“When I was racing, it was so intense that I could never do that,” he said. “We never had ropes up, but we just told fans, ‘Please, stay back.’”
Garlits, who spent four decades behind the wheel starting in 1950, made a name for himself as the first drag racer to surpass quarter-mile speeds of 170, 180, 200, 240, 250 and 270 mph.
“You couldn’t spend time with them because it’s such an intense sport,” he added. “I was focused and that’s why I was able to win. I couldn’t even hear anybody talking to me. They would talk to me and thought, ‘Well, he’s stuck up because he won’t even answer me.’ I couldn’t hear them. The world was blanked out. This was all I did.”
Garlits doesn’t attend as many shows as he used to and spends much of this time in his native Florida, where he and his late wife, Pat, opened the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala in 1984. It traces the evolution of drag racing from the 1940s.
“When I started doing this in ‘88, I was really having a good time,” he said. “I was really trying to promote the new museum, so I was doing them every week. I could book every week if I wanted to, but I book once a month now. I try to pick a place that I’ve never been. I did a lot of racing in Wisconsin at Union Grove and that was a yearly thing for me. I was there every year from ‘58 until almost the end. I just did a 60-year reunion down there last year.”
Garlits spent July 10-11 at the show. Besides meeting fans and signing everything from the McMillins’ car to books, T-shirts, hats and posters, he also started up one of his Swamp Rat dragsters for his fans.
“It means a lot and that’s why I do it,” he said. “I’m 83 years old and I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t enjoying it. I really enjoy it because I get to see so many people. A lot of them have gotten quite old, but some of the guys are 40 or 50 and say their dad brought them out and they’re bringing their little kids out.”
Garlits is amazed that fans still remember his accomplishments.
“I remember my first drag strip in Florida,” he said. “Me and some of my buddies went up to Zephyrhills, talked with the city fathers and asked if we could use the runway, which was out in a cow field. We went out there and scraped grass off the cracks, painted two lines and raced all day long. We had a sheriff out there to make sure we didn’t do anything crazy. Hotrodders didn’t have a real good name in 1950. They were quite impressed and we used that track for many years.”
Bringing his car to Iola was a no-brainer for McMillin.
“He’s Mr. Dodge,” he said. “He’s one of Dodge’s biggest representatives. To have the king of drag racing sign a muscle car of mine goes beyond saying. It’s pretty special.”