Big Daddy recalls death of his first wife
By Greg Seubert
Don Garlits wasn’t sure what to do.
His wife, Pat, had just passed away in February 2014 at the couple’s Florida home after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases shortly before what would have been their 61st wedding anniversary.
“I kind of withdrew into my shell in my home,” the 83-year-old legendary drag racing driver said July 10 during a two-day stop at the Iola Old Car Show & Swap Meet.
“I didn’t eat very much and lost a lot of weight,” he said. “I really didn’t care about anything. My daughters tried to get me to go out and brought people by. I quit everything. I didn’t even go to the shop anymore.”
Pat Garlits was by her husband’s side during a four-decade career that saw him set several drag racing speed records.
“She supported me from the beginning and was by my side 100 percent of the time,” said Garlits, better-known by his nickname, Big Daddy.
He recalled working for the American Can Co. in Florida shortly after his racing career began in 1950.
“The union would make you put a buck in the hat on payday and there were 450 of us on that night shift,” he said.
“The guy that had the best poker hand on the serial number won the $450. I brought it home, laid it on the table and we paid all our bills.
“I said, ‘Honey, I won the paycheck poker,’” he said. “She jumped up and down and just screamed. I mean, $450 was like a fortune in 1954. I said, ‘We can buy those two lots in North Tampa to build a house.’ I eventually got those lots and I eventually built a house. She said, ‘Honey, why don’t you buy those Mercury cranks and pistons that you want so bad for your car?’ That’s how she was.”
The couple eventually opened the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., in 1984.
“She had Parkinson’s (disease) 14 years and the last five were horrible,” Garlits said. “I had her right at home and she died in my arms. About six months before she died, she said, ‘Honey, we’ve had this conversation a lot, but the tables have turned. You always said if anything happened to you for me to find a good man. I’m telling you to do that, find yourself a nice, Christian woman. Don’t live your life alone. You’ve got a lot of life left in you.’”
Lisa Crigar now travels with Garlits and was by his side as he signed autographs in Iola.
“She was a reporter and photographer with a paper (in Ocala),” he said. “My daughters must have talked to her. She said, ‘Why don’t we go to dinner?’ We went out to dinner and she said, ‘Do you have a bike?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I have a bike.’ She said, ‘There’s a really nice trail over here. Why don’t we go and ride that trail one night?’
“I thought it was a good bike,” he said. “It was a Mercedes bike that I’d won at a raffle at a charity I was at. I put a dollar in the hat and won an $1,800 bike. She had a Trek trail bike and I couldn’t believe how nice that thing rode. I had never done that before. It was kind of like I stepped into heaven and this woman was so sweet.
She understood the problem. She said, ‘Big Daddy, you will heal. Just give it time.’”
Garlits and Crigar became engaged earlier this year and will be married later this month at the museum.
“We’re going to get married and do exactly what my wife told me to do,” Garlits said.