Ocala – An 84-year-old drag racing legend from Florida, has all the time in the world these days to tell his fans the story of his successful racing career and antique car museum.
Don “Big Daddy” Garlits smiles with delight on a bright and sunny Friday afternoon, as he poses next to his 2011 Dodge Challenger Pro-Stock dragster. (Photo by Daniel S. Fisher)
Don “Big Daddy” Garlits is a retired American drag racing driver, and an automotive engineer for American drag racing. Garlits is the all-time winning drag-racer with 144 national event victories, and a record 17 world drag racing championships, according to his online biography on garlits.com. During a private tour at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, Garlits said he first earned the nickname “Big Daddy” from race announcer Bernie Partridge, after a dominant win at the 1962 U.S. Indianapolis Nationals in his famous Swamp Rat IV dragster.
“Back then, I was more of a top fuel driver because I like to build my cars light and fast,” Garlits said. “When we first ran Swamp Rat IV at Indianapolis, the car kept breaking axles to a point where all the young drag racers started making fun of me. Eventually, we got it fixed, and I set a new world record of 180.36 mph, and the announcer Bernie Partridge says, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to call him Big Daddy from now on, for he set a new world record folks.’ ”
Garlits eventually went on to break more quarter-mile speed records in his Swamp Rat dragsters, most notably for reaching a personal career best of 323.04 mph at the 2003 Gator-nationals in Gainesville, Florida with Swamp Rat 34. In a 1985 Motorsport documentary by Steve Evans, Garlits said the Swamp Rat I was his favorite dragster. In 1958, Garlits traveled to the Bakersfield quarter-mile in California with Swamp Rat I and became the first person to top 180 mph.
To the right is Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat I, resting peacefully on a Friday afternoon in Swamp Rat Alley. It was the first car back in 1958 to reach 180 mph on the quarter-mile. (Photo by Daniel S. Fisher)
“Swamp Rat I is my favorite car in the whole world,” Garlits told Evans. “It was the first car that I ran both nitro-methane gas, and the Chrysler Hemi engine.”
Even in retirement, Garlits still feels the need for speed, like a 5-year-old Ricky Bobby driving mama’s station wagon. Garlits designed the world’s first and fastest all electric dragster in May 2014. Garlits, who named the car Swamp Rat 37, set a 185.60 mph speed record at Bradenton Motorsports Park’s quarter-mile track. Despite Garlits’ SR-37 being short from the 200 mph mark, he said he believes that the race is still on. “Swamp Rat 37 is an all-electric dragster that I am experimenting with now,” Garlits said. “Two years ago, I set a world record of 185.60 mph on batteries, and I am trying to make it go 200 mph.”
In 1984, during Garlits’ storybook career in drag racing, he and his wife, Pat, started preparing grounds for his famous antique car and drag racing museum. Thirty-three years later, the Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum is still in business off of Interstate-75 in Ocala.
“In the opening year, we sold 27,000 tickets,” Garlits said. “Since then, we have been averaging about 45,000 people a year, and have expanded the museum to about 65,000 feet of show area. As you can tell, we are full up, so we’re going to need more space.”
Garlits was born in Tampa in 1932, and has remained a resident of the Sunshine State. Today, he lives with his family in Ocala, on the same 16 acres of land near his museum.
Garlits has won the National Hot Rod Association U.S. Nationals eight times, and was the first to top 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260, and 270 mph, according to his online biography. For having such an illustrious career, it is no wonder that his name is synonymous in the Motorsports world.
Among the nine people who attended a private tour recently was Jim Morningstar from Dayton, Ohio. Morningstar enjoyed his first time at the museum, which he said was part of his five-day Florida vacation.
“Recently, I have spent two days out of my five-day Florida vacation coming here,” Morningstar said. “And I have enjoyed every minute of my time with Mr. Big Daddy.”