Kneeling inside his 6,000-square-foot garage in Ocala, Fla., Don
(Big Daddy) Garlits puts aside his blowtorch and runs his
fingers over the molded-aluminum rails of one of the most
celebrated dragsters in history.
It is Swamp Rat 4, which 35 years ago helped propel Garlits to
the pinnacle of his sport. Revolutionary in its time, the car
once dwarfed competing dragsters. Today its 120-inch wheelbase
is less than half that of modern racers. "This is really all
there is," Garlits says of the car's spare, ground-hugging
design. It was the fourth in a line of Swamp Rat cars, which he
and his team of mechanics are now painstakingly restoring in an
effort, says Garlits, to "show the people something with some
history to it."
He has just the place to show it: the Don Garlits Museum of Drag
Racing, right off Interstate 75 in the horse-breeding region of
central Florida. The 65-year-old Garlits was the king of drag
racing for nearly four decades, but since retiring from
competition in 1992, he has devoted his time to restoring
vintage cars and expanding his collection of dragsters and
racing memorabilia and artifacts. "Retired?" says Garlits, who
at a wiry 5'9" is actually not such a Big Daddy. "All that means
is I'm not driving a dragster. I'm busier than I've ever been."
Nineteen of the 34 Swamp Rats that Garlits designed and drove in
his career are in his museum, but there is an impressive
collection of cars and memorabilia from other drivers as well.
There is Don Prudhomme's 1969 Wynn's Winder Top Fueler; Tom
McEwen's Mongoose, the 1978 U.S. national funny-car winner; and
the 1980 Attebury of three-time National Hot Rod Association Top
Fuel world champion Shirley (Cha Cha) Muldowney.
"Don's museum is a remarkable place and tells a wonderful
story," says Muldowney. "Others have tried to imitate it, but
Don has the name, the history and the knowledge to pull it off.
His place is the real thing."
Garlits's history as a drag racer goes back almost as far as the
sport itself, which got its start in Southern California after
World War II. A Tampa native, Garlits began racing in 1952 and
quickly became the fastest driver for the standard quarter-mile
strip; he was the first to crack 200 mph, in 1964, and the first
to hit 250, in 1975.
The idea for the museum came to Garlits in 1976 during a trip to
Great Britain with his wife, Pat. While touring the English
countryside, he was struck by the number of car museums. "I
thought casually that drag racing needed something like this,"
Garlits recalls. "We thought we would house a few old cars of
mine, nothing much more than that."
Back home in the Tampa suburb of Seffner, Garlits got his old
cars together and opened his museum to the public. "The problem
was, the only people who came were our friends," he says.
In 1980, with Don having an off year at the track and property
taxes soaring, he and Pat decided to relocate. They chose Ocala,
where they built a house and reestablished the museum on 20
acres. The new 25,000-square-foot museum opened in 1984 and the
next year it attracted more than 50,000 visitors. Last year the
museum drew almost 100,000, most of them the kind of fans who
know the difference between a traction bar and a wheelie bar.
(The first controls rear-end torque, the other prevents
excessive front-wheel lift.)
Big Daddy's offers plenty for novices, too. Descriptions are
written in language that everyone can understand. Videos, photos
and engines on mounts round out the museum's collection. Amid
the ever-changing exhibits, you might even see the founder
"I'm fussy and care about a lot of things here that others
wouldn't pay attention to," says Garlits. "Keeping it going is
my vocation and avocation."
Jim Reisler's first SI story was about former New York Yankee
Gil McDougald's cochlear implant.