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 himself.