Don Garlits’ Path To An Electrified 200 MPH

08/02/2022

Don Garlits’ Path To An Electrified 200 MPH

08/02/2022

Tucked away between the shelves of accumulated hardware and speed parts sits a quiet riot of a machine. Don Garlits’ back shop isn’t a part of his usual museum experience, but it’s where Swamp Rat 38 rests, his latest in a long line of dragsters that fell out of his imagination into the staging lanes with innovative ways to go about breaking timing beams as quick as possible. It’s hard to tell if his museum is a case study in what to behold or what not to do, as in a sense, “many of those cars weren’t successful, there’s failures in there,” Don explained. “But what that told you was what direction not to go.”


Swamp Rat 38 is the result of this distillation of speed, a step in his path to 200 mph in an electric dragster. For Don, who rode the unraveling envelope of the sport as it pushed through its most radical phases of growth and development, EV drag racing is something of a final frontier for drag racing. It opens up new avenues to the sport, cuts down on some of the negatives that comes with the brutality of today’s Top Fuelers, and opens the door to a new era of innovations and challenges. Having been credited with being the first to take a Top Fueler past 200mph, it seemed like a natural fit to set the bar in EV drag racings.


“I live by speed,” Don proclaimed. “See, why I started drag racing, we didn’t live by the God of E.T., speed was it. That told all your buddies who had the most power, and the best car, the one that was running the fastest at the end of a race.”

However, Don’s path to EV drag racing wasn’t just in the pursuit of speed, it was a solution to getting fellow Top Fuel racer Darrell Gwynn back behind the wheel after suffering a paralyzing spinal cord injury. Darrell has been a promising young star in the driver ranks by the age of 28 when something broke in his dragster during an exhibition pass at Santa Pod Raceway, resulting in his life-altering injury. Years later, one of Darrell’s crew guys, Mike Gerry, worked with Don to build a pair of EV “dragsters” for a series of races during the 2011 season, to help benefit. They weren’t much more than “exonerated golf cart drivetrains,” according to Don, but Darrell’s was unique in that it used a joystick to control the steering, throttle, and brakes. It was painted like one of Darrell’s fuel cars, too — and, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, nobody thought Darrell would be on the track again.” This gave Don his initial exposure to EV powertrains in 2011, which set him on the path to develop Swamp Rat 37, his first real attempt at a 200mph electric dragster.


SR37 built upon the momentum of what a Top Fuel racer knows, but it was saddled with weight it didn’t need from a chassis overbuilt for their intended goals. And though being one to always play with aerodynamics, the fairings up front proved to be sources of unnecessary ballast too. These considerations would be what ultimately set Don into motion to build SR38, but even with its hefty curb weight, SR37 began pushing records deeper and deeper down the scale. In its initial configuration with six motors ran in tandem through a two-speed B&J transmission, SW37 worked itself up to an EV record of 7.258 at 184.01, besting an old record of 7.95 at 156 MPH. Later, SW37 was updated with a larger pair of motors in a Garlits-approved side-winder configuration (a ’la Swamp Rat 27), but with the new power under the relatively heavy chassis, the chain-drive to the rear axle became troublesome.


Garlits Swamp Rat 38 DC Motor

The DC motor spins up at least 1000hp while pulling more than 1,000 amps from the 200-volt battery pack.


With everything learned in SW37, Don and his team regrouped under the purview of Chris Bumpus. It was decided that a Top Fuel-style chassis was unnecessary for the lower output figures of their current powertrain, so the new S&W chassis was built more svelte to save weight, more like something from the Top Alcohol divisions. The powertrain was simplified too, moving away from chain drive after initially bumping the EV MPH record to 189, reverting to a typical top fuel center section that’s hard-mounted to the chassis, with the motor directly ahead of it. Further ahead of the powertrain sits the lithium battery pack, whose contents change periodically as Don’s crew experiments with different suppliers and configurations. The new package weighs in around 1,400 pounds, close to 1,000 pounds lighter than before, but still churning out over 1,000 horsepower.


While the 200 MPH barrier would eventually be first broken by Steve Huff, Don hasn’t given up on his own quest. While they had a small fire during a recent test, currently, they’re working to source a new battery partner to support the output they need to twist those washing machine-sized Goodyears, but like much of the world, supply chain issues have them in a never-ending game of: “Hurry up, and wait!”


Garlits Swamp Rat 38 Holley HP ECU

A Holley HP ECU controls the basic motor variables of Swamp Rat 38.


A part of Don’s argument here is that EV dragsters have a lot of advantages over some of today’s programs. Turn-around time can be fairly immediate, even if a battery-swap is required, cool down is less of a concern and there’s less chance that there will be a rebuild between rounds. With less moving parts and combustible situations, the initial cost of the powertrain should amortize longer through increased reliability. In his own record runs, they were essentially hot-lapping the EV Swamp Rats without concern over having enough charge to back the times up.


Garlits Swamp Rat 38 cockpit

Don’s dash is pretty basic, with the main point of interesting being the “valet” mode, which deadens the throttle for staging. You can also see the shut-off handle on the right for the battery’s safety contactors, which physically pull the battery cables apart, like a fuel cut-off in a typical car.


Even on a human level, Don — who has suffered just about every kind of mechanical brutality that the body can take — appreciates that they’re a little less violent on the senses. “It is exciting when they’re loud, but it’s hard on you, it’s hard on the crew,” Don mentioned.


For now, though, it’s a tease. The crew hopes to resume testing by the end of the year with their new battery supplier. With the company already working with endurance race cars, they should be a natural fit for the demands of Don’s program, supplying enough juice to break the 200mph barrier.


Don Garlits


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