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Smithsonian Magazine, January 1988

Around the Mall and Beyond

It is at rest. It really is, though you walk gingerly around its long, sinuous form in the Museum of American History’s Hall of Road Transportation, half expecting the Thing to explode into thundering, sizzling, smoking speed. Instinctively, you try not to get in front of that low, black nose, shaped like the head of a rattler. It looks ready to strike and knock you into the 22d century.

But it’s not the future that you’re looking at. It’s a present-day device designed to see just how fast a four-wheeled vehicle with an internal combustion engine can go in a quarter of a mile from a dead stop. Some 275 mph is how fast. And it takes a fraction over five seconds to get there.

That’s what a modern top-fuel dragster can do these days. With its 3,000-horsepower engine gulping special fuel such as nitromethane, with its 17-inch-wide tires heated by a spin on the tarmac so they’re extra sticky, and with that snake-like nose aerodynamically designed to hold the wheels on the ground, this monster of engineering genius moves off almost as fast as an aircraft carrier’s catapult can fling a fighter into the wild blue.

If you remember the 1950s and James Dean and the youths who tinkered endlessly with their jalopies in family drive-ways, you’ll recall drag racing. What you’re looking at, folks, is the (at present) ultimate drag racer. Swamp Rat XXX is the already legendary winner of the 1986 world championship of this highly specialized, monstrously expensive activity.

Last October this 29∏-foot-long Thing-one hesitates to call it a car-was donated to the Smithsonian by its equally legendary designer, builder, owner and driver, an engineering innovator and racing competitor whose name is Don Garlits, but who is better known as Big Daddy.

It all started in California where the kids in their driveways, improving their junk heaps, learned, and spent, more and more, and came up with wonderfully powerful cars. And their highly illegal drag races-screaming away from a stop-light in suburban Los Angeles-became legalized competitions at airports. The people who have followed that bellowing call since then are now generally in their 50s. They remain dazzled-if not hear-impaired-engineering buffs, fascinated by finding out how far an engine can be pushed.

One of them-one of the most famous -is Big Daddy Garlits. Another is the man who got Big Daddy’s mean machine for the Smithsonian: Robert C. Post, historian, museum curator, technology scholar and for about 35 years a bright-eyed devotee of drag racing.

I’ve known Bob Post for a long time. He was the altogether excellent editor of a Smithsonian book about the Presidents, and the curator of the Hall of Maritime Enterprise, about which I’ve written with admiration (SMITHSONIAN, November 1978). I’ve always thought of him as a charming academic, happy reading forgotten biographies of arcane figures from the past. I never in the world pictured him as a former drag racer.

I learned better at lunch, hastily arranged after I first laid eyes on Swamp Rat XXX. When he talked about this and other flame-belching mechanical dragons, he was the biblical prophet pointing the way.

“I was one of those Southern California kids,” he told me. “Pasadena. My folks had come out from Detroit years before-my dad was a salesman-and found clean air and blue sky and orange blossoms and snowcapped mountains in the background, and said, like so many other people, ‘Why are we living in the East?’”

By his mid-teens, Bob was a regular at what is now John Wayne International Airport. “We felt we owned drag racing,” he recalled. “Nowhere else in America did kids do it so well. I had a ‘32 Ford V-8, lightweight, but packed with more than 85 horsepower. That was the classic California hot rod, chopped and channeled to sit low and look good. The ‘34 and ‘36 Fords were almost as good. but didn’t have quite the same esthetics.”

Bob is a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, now grown grayish. He makes me think of Garrison Keillor. Now his brown eyes flashed with enthusiasm behind his aviator spectacles. I knew he’d get away from me if I didn’t bring him back to speaking English.

“Chopped and channeled?” I asked

“You wanted the body to sit low, right: So you chopped out part of it around the windows; and then you detached the whole body from the frame and set it lower, OK?”

If Southern California owned drag racing back then, how to explain Don Garlits from Tampa, Florida? “We’d heard about him winning in the East.” Bob remembered, “and we really thought he could never compete with us. Some Bakersfield smokers-the Smokers were a car club--paid his way out to race in 1959 just to see if he was for real.”

At first Garlic, lost. The Californian had “blown” their engines-supercharged them. Garlits hadn’t. “He hung around and saw how they worked,” said Bob, “then blew his own engine for another race and blew everyone else off. That was too much for the Californian conceit.” Bob said the crowds were profoundly shocked and got nasty. One time Garlits was being pushed back (by a truck) after winning a race, and some guy, throwing a beer can at him, yelled, “This is for you, Don Garbage!”

Gradually, California had to swallow the bitter pill that a Floridian was the best in the world. By then, Bob Post, who could assemble a flathead V-8 from scratch, had become a beatnik (remember?) and taken off on author Jack Kerouac’s trail: dollar-a-night skid-row rooms from Alaska to Mexico. He financed his adventures by working five months of the year as manager of beachside parking lots run by the county of Los Angeles.

Bob finally drained enough romance out of this life to suit him and went through a period as a weight lifter. “I got really serious about it,” he told me. “I got huge-280 pounds-and landed a job as a bouncer on weekends.” Turning 30, Post decided he couldn’t be a car parker or bouncer for the rest of his life. But, in his words, “I didn’t have a gig.”

Facing that reality, he decided on graduate school. He’d been a history major at UCLA and liked it, and the place had some good people, strong on the history of the American West. He got his masters, then veered “inevitably” into studying the history of technology, came to the Smithsonian on a fellowship program and earned his PhD. The next year he spent working for the National Park Service.

“I used to walk all around the Smithsonian and think to myself, ‘God, I’d like to work here.’” So when a job came up at the Museum of American History, he grabbed it and found himself a gofer for three people in the Division of Mechanical and Civil Engineering.

Bob’s apprenticeship led to some good museum projects: he worked on the 1876 display at the Arts and Industries Building and then inherited the curatorship of the Maritime Hall at American Enterprise. Later, he became involved in editing a publication, Technology and Culture, sponsored by the Institution. Since it did not require his being locked into Washington, Post asked permission to live in Maine, and to his surprise and delight it was granted. He lived in East Boothbay from 1981 through 1986-”six winters,” as northern New Englanders rate it.

Post returned to Washington when word came out that a major corporation wanted to sponsor a museum show on the use of specialized materials. He was made curator and with his bent toward history pictured a display that would go from the mid-18th century (wood, stone, and so on) through the ferrous age and on to colorful synthetics of the mid-20th century. “The last item was to be a little 31-pound streamlined bicycle that had won a prize by going an average of 65 mph over a set course.” This teardrop bike, named Gold Rush, got Bob thinking that here at last he might have the chance to-as he says-flog a dragster. The designer of the exhibit, architect Jeff Howard, became infatuated with the machines, Bob recalls.

“Garlits was the only person to get to,” he adds. “His cars were always breakthroughs. His 1986 model used carbon fiber, the same as Voyager, the round the-world plane; and his canopy is Lexan, the stuff that fighter planes use.”

Post got to Big Daddy. No, Garlits didn’t remember him from the old racing days, but he appreciated the novel occurrence that a scholarly soul from the prestigious Smithsonian spoke dragster argot like a garage mechanic. Big Daddy sort of wanted to keep Swamp Rat XXX because he’s got his own museum in Ocala, Florida, and likes to fill it with all the things he’s driven, from a ‘39 Ford convertible on up. But Bob can be quite an appealing guy.

So Big Daddy brought his monster to the Smithsonian and one evening outside the Museum of American History he started it up so pictures could be taken. And, says Bob, the evening flashed with exhaust flames, and windows along the Mall rattled with the thunder.

The dragon is at peace right now in the Hall of Road Transportation.. In April, it will join the materials exhibit, where the pendulum ordinarily swings. Bob has a look at it, now and then, just to give it a nod. So do I.

Edwards Park