The sold-out racing forums during the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance have become the weekend’s can’t-miss events. It’s a simple formula: a panel of racing greats and a probing interviewer. This year’s Saturday forum brought together drag-racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, NASCAR’s King Richard Petty, and Carroll Shelby. Imagine Garlits with his short Florida drawl, Petty in deepest North Carolina twang, and ol’ Carroll Shelby with his rich east Texas accent, all masterful tellers of tales in a magical hour with racer/writer/commentator Sam Posey as moderator.
Don Garlits, on how he got the name Big Daddy: “When Chrysler intro’d the Max Wedge engine in 1962, they asked me to build a gasoline dragster and compete at the Nationals in Indianapolis. My brother had run gasoline, but me personally, I was nitromethane. I believe that gasoline’s for washing parts, alcohol’s for drinking, and nitromethane’s for racing.
“I got there and I wasn’t running too good, just kinda blah I couldn’t get the feel of this gasoline deal. The competitors were much younger than me. I had my toddlers around the car. So they started making remarks about, ‘Daddy Garlits, he’s got his kids here, he’s over the hill.’ I was thirty years old!; This went on for a couple of days, and it was Daddy Garlits every other word. They were saying it over the PA system: ‘Here comes Daddy Garlits up to the line to make a run. Let’s see what he’s gonna break this time.’
“Finally, I got a handle on it, and I had a good run. There were no scoreboards back then, just the announcer. There was silence. And the announcer says,; ‘Wellll,; ladies and gentlemen . . .’ And in the pits we were shouting, ‘Give us the time!’ And he says, ‘I guess we’re gonna have to call him Big Daddy from now on! He just set the world record!’ I’d taken it from Tommy Ivo. He’d had a 180 and I went 180.36 [mph].
“And that was it. Drag strips started to advertise that Big Daddy Don Garlits was coming. In 1969, my boss at Chrysler said, ‘You’d better register that name, or someone’s gonna steal it.’ So we did. And he was right. The following year, Midas came out with a Big Daddy muffler. We took them to court, won the case, and I got royalties for years on it.”
Carroll Shelby, on the first Cobra: “I brought the first car over from England. We painted it yellow at Dean Moon’s shop for one magazine. Then we painted it blue to take to another. I acted like we had five or six cars when we only had one of them. I still have that car. It’s still that original blue, got the original tires, got the original 260 engine, got the original seats that are all rotted out. I hate to tell you what I been offered for that first Cobra, but it’s more than I ever dreamed it would ever bring-it cost less than $10,000 to build. They built the bodies out of used beer cans. Those first 100 cars, you just touch them and they cave in. The people who have those things still call me to say they gave two million dollars for their Cobra and when they lean on the body, they put a big dent in it. I say, ‘That’s ’cause they’re built outta used beer cans.’
“I guess I should say the Cobra’s my favorite car. The six Daytona Coupes sell for ten or fifteen million dollars. People say, ‘What the hell didya sell them for?’ I say, ‘Because I needed $4000!’ My favorite car is the next one that we build. I always look forward to tomorrow. Yesterday is history.”
Richard Petty, on his short-lived political career: “I was county commissioner for sixteen years, and once I retired from driving, they talked me into running for North Carolina Secretary of State. It was going along pretty good. I was coming home from some appearance, driving down the road, 65-mile-an-hour speed limit, and I was running about 75. This car right in front of me, when he hit the next traffic, he’d slow up to about 60. I was running right up on him. And then when it got open, I’d pull out on the right hand to go by-well, he’d speed up. He done that for about five or six miles, three or four different times.
“So the next time I caught him, I didn’t let off. When we come on up behind the car beside, he let off and I didn’t. Soooo he was a little squirrelly there, OK? He pulls off, and I just went on down the road, no big deal.
“Well, thirty mile later, here comes some flashing lights. They pull me over. The guy I run into, he done found the police. The state man, he looks at the car. No dents on my car. But the back end of his was beat all to pieces and done rusted and all that.
“They never did give me a ticket. They couldn’t find that I’d done anything wrong. But the Democratic Party took that and really chewed it up. I don’t know that I would have won the thing, but it definitely put me on the sidelines.”
This and previous forums are available on DVD through firstname.lastname@example.org.;
Written by: Jean Jennings
Photo by: Steve Robertson