KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- His hands are gnarled from 61 years of steering rocket ships on wheels down a quarter-mile drag strip. His fingernails are permanently darkened from tearing down and rebuilding engines in an hour's time.
The once-curly hair has turned gray, but Don "Big Daddy" Garlits, wearing a Swamp Rat leather jacket and black cap, still looks the part of drag racing's most legendary driver.
The man won 144 national event races -- including several in Kansas City -- surviving third-degree burns to his hands and face in one harrowing race in South Carolina and overcoming the loss of half of his right foot in an incident in California.
Garlits was the first to crack the 200-mph barrier in 1964 and was the first to exceed 270 mph in 1986 in his Swamp Rat XXX, which was parked at the Smithsonian Institution a year later.
This weekend, the 79-year-old Garlits will slide behind the wheel of his black Swamp Rat XXXV, a 2009 Dodge Challenger and race in the A Stock Automatic sportsman division as part of the NHRA Summer Nationals' 60th anniversary celebration at Heartland Park Topeka.
"We were black-leather, jacketed hoodlums . . . and I've never changed," Garlits said of the embryonic days of drag racing in his native Florida. "We wanted to go fast. That's what it was all about. And we went fast in our original cars which we drove back and forth to work ...
"And we realized if we put one of those engines in a roadster, it went faster, and if we took the roadster body off, it went even faster. ... The dragster is the evolution of trying to go as fast as you possibly can in that given distance. And the NHRA made it respectable. They took a bunch of hoodlums off the streets and made respectable citizens out of them."
Technically, Garlits won just 35 NHRA events. His 109 other national events and 17 world titles were with organizations such as the American Hot Rod Association and International Hot Rod Association, because the NHRA didn't approve of the use of nitromethane and used gasoline from 1957 to 1963.
"The NHRA tried to keep the speeds down. They wanted safety," Garlits said. "They didn't want crashes. But some of us guys wouldn't change. We liked the nitro. We liked the power. We liked the smell of it."
Don Garlits' legacy is not his record eight NHRA U.S. National victories or the speed records he set or the catchy nickname a public-address announcer tagged him with -- not because Garlits, at 5 feet 9 is a big man, but because he's a daddy of two daughters.
Garlits' biggest contribution was the result of a horrific accident on March 8, 1970, at Long Beach, Calif., when his transmission exploded. Debris ripped through the car, sliced off the front of Garlits' right foot and sailed into the stands.
A fragment cut off the right arm of a teenage boy named Tim Ditt, who was rushed to the hospital along with Garlits. With only one surgeon available, Garlits told him to work on the boy and save his arm, because there was little that could be done for Garlits' damaged foot. Six-and-a-half hours later, the arm had been reattached. Tim, with full use of the arm, even worked a year on Garlits' crew.
Meanwhile, as Garlits lay in a hospital bed for about eight weeks, he conceived the idea of a safer, faster dragster by moving the engine from the front to the rear. Garlits, whose father was a Westinghouse engineer who helped develop the electric fan and the electric iron, came up with his own revolutionary invention.
"I thought to myself, 'My God, they go around at Indianapolis in traffic at 200 mph with rear engines. Why can't we go straight for a quarter of a mile?' " Garlits said. "I went home, put it all together, went out and tested for three months."
At first the car careened off the strip, but once Garlits adjusted the steering, it went dead straight ahead.
"We went to California, won the Winter Nationals, won the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships," he said. "Then we put a wing on the back of it, and it dropped a full quarter of a second in speed and added an extra 10 mph. That was the end of the slingshot dragster.
"Sooner or later we would have had rear-engine cars, but it wouldn't have been then. And we were killing (drivers) right and left.
"That's probably the most important thing I ever did in drag racing, and it certainly did equate to lives, possibly even my own."
What made Garlits the fastest and most feared drag racer of them all? He attributes it to his mechanical know-how.
"I built my own cars and engines," he said. "I tuned my own cars. And I drove my own cars. At one time, that was a real advantage. That's no advantage today because they have all the computers getting the data, and all the information is shared."
When asked about his most memorable races, the dates, speeds and times flow from Garlits' lips as quickly as he accelerated from the starting line.
"Great Meadows, N.J., August 1964 . . . 201.34," he said of the day he broke the 200-mph barrier. "The experts said we'd never go 200 mph. There were several 200-mph runs recorded before that, but not on the NHRA clocks. NHRA has always been fussy about the records, and that was the real deal.
"What made it different was I told them, I was going to do it. ... It was just like Babe Ruth pointing to the stands where he hit the home run."
Winning in the debut of the rear-engine dragster at Pomona in 1971 was a significant triumph, but perhaps none tops Garlits' 5.63 elapsed time and 250.69 mph at the World Finals in Ontario, Calif., in 1975 -- considered by some as the greatest run in the history of drag racing.
"The record stood for seven years," Garlits said. "I went into that race 400 points down. Gary Beck was leading the championship. I had to win the race and set both ends of the record, and the experts said, we would never exceed 249. We set the record, both the elapsed time and won the race."
Garlits' career appeared over in 1987 after he suffered three broken vertebrae. He went to work as a television analyst and opened his Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., where about 300 cars, including most of his Swamp Rats and other memorabilia are viewed by about 60,000 visitors a year.
But in 2001 at 69 years old, he was dared to drive a top-fuel car 300 mph. Garlits hit 300 at Indianapolis and enjoyed it so much, he retrieved and refurbished Swamp Rat XXIV and went 323 at Gainesville in 2003.
"That's when the little lady put her foot down," Garlits said of his wife, Pat. "She said, 'You ain't driving these fuel cars anymore. They scare me.' "
And that was it, other than Garlits' ventures into the sportsman races against common folks who get up to 133 mph.
"The sportsmen love it," Garlits said. "Their whole lives . . . they dreamed they might get to race Big Daddy sometime. And now they are."