It was a time of big motors, fast boats and even faster dragsters that we’ll never see again. Fresnans who loved the thrill of speed could assemble a team, synchronize their talents and set national records.
They did it because they loved the challenge and the exhilaration. What they loved even more was the camaraderie – the stories and beers shared in victory and defeat, and the bonds developed while barnstorming the West Coast and points east.
There were two constants in this era spanning the early 1970s to the late 1980s: Mike Garrison and Eddie’s Speed Shop on Blackstone Avenue between McKinley and Olive avenues.
The bearded Garrison, a gentle bear of a man, died Tuesday at 71 after a long fight with cancer. But the thousands of engines that he built and rebuilt for drag teams, hot rodders, classic car enthusiasts and working folks in need of transportation will continue purring for years to come.
The Eddie’s Speed Shop spirit will continue, too, kept alive by friendships and memories that began in the back shop, where Garrison would work his magic on some of the fastest dragsters and hydroplanes in the country.
“I can’t even imagine how many people got into racing because of Eddie’s Speed Shop. It just had this aura about it,” says Gary Scelzi, who would go from dreaming about racing to winning a combined four national titles in the NHRA’s marquee divisions, Top Fuel and Funny Car.
“Mike was always there, and I mean always there. From the time I was 12 years old to the last time I saw him, he treated me exactly the same. I can remember when I was a kid going in there and sitting in one of the boats or the dragsters, and Mike never said, ‘Don’t touch that’ or ‘get out of there.’ He was just so laid-back.”
Garrison worked on Top Fuel dragsters and hydroplanes for Dave Promnitz, helping him go a world-record 225 mph in the boat and 301 mph in his dragster.
“The ‘Gorilla’ was larger than life, always happy, always put a smile on your face,” Promnitz says. “They just don’t make them like him anymore.”
As a tribute to Garrison, Promnitz is having the original Eddie’s Speed Shop logo painted on his black 1936 Plymouth street rod. That’s the kind of loyalty that Garrison inspired.
Garrison went to Clovis High, where he swam, played water polo and performed in the marching band. Then it was on to Fresno State. He met his wife-to-be, Teri, at a dance and they married in 1965. Teri says that Mike always liked cars, but early on his passion was sports cars.
“The first time he picked me up for a date he was driving a Jaguar XKE,” Teri says. “His father was a sports car buff, so he grew up with speed.”
Five years later, Eddie’s Speed Shop was up for sale. Mike and his brother, Dan, got a $5,000 loan from their parents and the Garrisons were in business – and into drag racing. Mike’s spot was in back doing machine work; Dan sold parts and worked the counter up front.
I can remember when I was a kid going in there and sitting in one of the boats or the dragsters, and Mike never said, ‘Don’t touch that’ or ‘get out of there.’ He was just so laid-back.
Drag racer Gary Scelzi, remembering visits to Eddie’s Speed Shop co-owned by the late Mike Garrison
On the racing end, Mike started as the driver in the Valley Fever dragster before turning to engine building. It was the right decision.
Through the years, he worked with some of the best drivers in drag racing. Among them: International Drag Racing Hall of Fame inductees Ed “The Ace” McCulloch and Connie Kalitta.
With Garrison as his crew chief in 1989, Kalitta became the first Top Fuel driver to eclipse 290 mph. That same year Garrison helped Kalitta’s son, Scott, earn his first and only victory in the Funny Car division.
Two of his best-known local partnerships were with driver Rance McDaniel in Valley Fever and with owner Paul Allen and driver Dave Nolte in the Top Fuel hydroplane Liberty.
Powered by Mike’s “Go-Rilla Power” engines, Valley Fever won the NHRA Western States championship and Liberty captured the National Top Fuel Hydro title in 1977.
Teri fondly recalls those early days filled with challenge and excitement. It was a time when the March Meet at the Famoso drag strip near Bakersfield was the highlight of the Valley drag racing season – and Eddie’s literally sold thousands of tickets to the meet every year.
“We ran our car, each family paid all of their own expenses, whatever it took to get to the track,” she says. “We went racing every single weekend, and we did it without big sponsors. It truly was a family sport then.”
In 1988, the Garrison brothers split their business, and Mike opened Engine Masters on Broadway in downtown Fresno. There, he did machine work and rebuilt engines – specializing in motors for classic muscle cars of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. And he kept on tuning engines for drag racers until 1997.
The ‘Gorilla’ was larger than life, always happy, always put a smile on your face. They just don’t make them like him anymore.
Drag racer Dave Promnitz, remembering the late Mike Garrison
Cancer cost him a kidney in 2002, but it went into remission. Nine years later, the cancer returned with a vengeance, spreading throughout his body.
“He was battling it for years and years, but he never give up. He kept working that whole time,” Teri says.
Working and skiing, actually.
You could find him on weekends at China Peak. And vacationing meant going to Sun Valley, Idaho; Park City, Utah; and Whistler, Canada. He even skied in Portillo, Chile.
Despite the pain and the prognosis, Garrison never lost his sense of humor. After a physical therapy pole was put into his room in March, his punch line about strippers caused daughter Marni to post on Facebook: “Dad was hoping it was for something else!”
Michael Lee Garrison’s life was a life well-lived. He gave more than he ever asked in return. He did so with humor and grace, and most of all, empathy for those around him.
I can say that because I met Mike in the mid-1970s and was one of those guys who hung around the back shop of Eddie’s for a spell and went to the March Meet with the Valley Fever crew. I had no desire to build a dragster and a wrench in my hand was a prescription for bloody knuckles. But I liked helping out, which meant lifting heavy parts and standing out of the way.
You can read more tributes and see some great pictures on the Michael Garrison Facebook page.
I like what Phil Keeler of Bakersfield posted there: “Set Low ET (fastest time) in Heaven My Friend!!”
Michael Lee Garrison
Born: Nov. 19, 1945
Died: May 16, 2017
Celebration of Life: Tuesday, 2 p.m., New Hope Community Church, 4620 E. Nees Ave., Clovis
Reception: Tuesday, 4 p.m, Classic Catering, 625 4th St., Clovis
Tributes: Go to the Michael Garrison page on Facebook
Remembrances: Hinds Hospice, 2490 W. Shaw Ave., Fresno, CA 93711.