Detached retina forces Garlits to retire

Reprinted from the June 5, 1992 issue of National DRAGSTER

OCALA, Fla. -- The career of one of drag racing's all-time driving greats has come to an unexpected end. Detached retinas in both eyes have forced "Big Daddy" Don Garlits to stop driving a fuel dragster. In a simultaneous announcement, Garlits has named veteran fuel racer Bruce Larson to at least temporarily compete in Garlits' Top Fueler at upcoming match races and at the Mopar Parts Summernationals.

Garlits, who began drag racing nearly 40 years ago and has retired several times over the years, had just completed yet another comeback when he competed at the Southern Nationals, April 23-26 in Atlanta, Ga., his first NHRA National event since crashing heavily in August 1987.

But it was during the process of preparing for this comeback, during shakedown runs with his new Swamp Rat 32 Top Fuel dragster at Gainesville Raceway, that he suffered irreversible damage to both eyes. Severe deceleration during a two-parachute stop caused the retinas to detach. According to Dr. Ivan Breed, a consulting physician for the NHRA, this detachment is more common among people of advanced age. Garlits turned 60 earlier this year.

Garlits suffers from black spots in the vision of both eyes. The spots, located away from the vision center of the eyes, are not a major problem, but an eye specialist has cautioned Garlits that subsequent major decelerations could result in more spots that might completely block his vision .

Garlits explained, "If I'm looking straight ahead, I have black spots floating around at about nine o'clock in the left eye. In my right eye, I have a spot at about 11 o'clock. It's not too bad, but that eye has a bad welding burn from years ago. The very center of the vision is ruined, so I depend on my left eye for my good sight, and I don't want anything to happen to it.

"The doctor told me, 'I'm not telling you what to do Mr. Garlits, but if I was you, I wouldn't (drive a race car again). It's too risky.'

"Obviously, I'm disappointed I can't continue to drive, but I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have any eyesight."

Garlits said the injury was caused during a wrenching two-parachute stop on a full test run at the Florida track before heading to Atlanta. "It was a terrible, violent stop," recalls Garlits. "I pulled the 'chutes at about 250 (mph) and went 166 through the traps and turned off at the first turn. That son of a (gun) stopped on a dime and gave me nine cents change.

"It tweaked my back -- I've had back trouble before -- but I didn't notice the eye trouble at first," said Garlits. "I saw some stars like you do when you get a jolt, but that evening I began to see these flashes."

Garlits, who initially wrote off the spots as minor welding burns -- he'd welded a push bar for Swamp Rat I before running at the Gainesville track -- competed at Atlanta with the problem, expecting the symptoms to diminish. When they did not, he contacted his opthamologist, Dr. Earl Wingo, who recommended him to a specialist. Dr. Robert Roseman gave Garlits the grim prognosis.

"It's been a shock, a terrible shock," said Garlits.

Larson, who has never driven a Top Fueler, will begin testing almost immediately in Garlits' car for a debut at a match race June 3 at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey.

Andy Maurey, director of public relations for Kendall Oil, Garlits' longtime sponsor, said, "We are disappointed to hear of Don's misfortune, but we recognize the importance of one's health. We respect Don's decision to hand over the wheel and are especially pleased with his choice of Bruce Larson, a longtime friend of Kendall Oil."

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