We Visit The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing
There’s a place in central Florida that should be on the bucket list of every race fan. If you like Drag Racing, you’re sure to be blown away by the cars and memorabilia inside. It’s the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, located just off Interstate 75 near Ocala, Florida.
Back in the mid-‘70s, while visiting England, Don and his wife, Pat, saw several automobile museums, and got the idea to start one dedicated to drag racing. They also had another reason, says Don. “To show all of my cars, that I never sold to anybody, because I didn’t like selling my cars. I didn’t want those racers to have my secrets! Who were you going to sell them to–another Fuel guy, right?”
The Museum’s collection’s now includes most of his Swamp Rats–either in restored original or exact-reproduction form. That includes the car that changed Top Fuel racing–Swamp Rat XIII, whose homebuilt two-speed transmission blew up at Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, California in 1970, costing Don half of his right foot, and spurring him to build the first successful rear-engine Top Fueler, which put the front-engine cars on the trailer in short order.
Getting cars back that he’d sold–but not to other Top Fuel racers–was easy. “I knew where a lot of them were, that I had sold to companies like Dodge, Wynn’s, Schiefer, and Hurst,” says Don. “I got them back real easy, because the Museum’s non-profit.”
The collection of Swamp Rats on display includes SR VI-B, the car in which Don first topped 200 mph in back in 1964. AMT made a scale model kit of that car later. There’s also SR VII, Garlits’ first 426 Hemi-powered car, which debuted at the Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships (the March Meet) in 1965. There’s SR X, which was built from SR VIII to race in ’66-’67; and SR 11, the car in which Garlits won the U.S. Nationals at Indy with in 1967. That one’s also famous because Garlits shaved off the beard he’d grown during that season’s winless streak leading up to Indy.
There’s also SR 22, which set the NHRA’s Top Fuel ET (5.63 seconds) and speed (250.69 mph) records in 1975. Those records stood for years. SR 24 is on display, and that car won 24 out of 30 National events when it raced from 1977-79. SR 29, the 1984 race car that won the NHRA World Championships and set another Top Fuel speed record (268.01 mph) is there, and SR 31, still in its post-race condition after blowing over at Spokane in 1987. Finally, there’s SR 34, the last Top Fuel car that Don drove in competition in 2003.
But Swamp Rat 34 wasn’t the last car to wear that legendary name–SR 36 (a Dodge Challenger Drag Pak car) and SR 37 (an all-electric dragster built to top 200 mph in the 1/4-mile) are also in Don’s collection, race-ready.
However, the museum’s collection is not limited to the cars that Don built, raced and won with. “As soon as I got going, other cars showed right up,” he says. “When I got started in ’76, the ‘antique car thing’ hadn’t really got going.
Over time, that “antique car thing” got going well enough that that cars built by and raced by legends like Tom ”Mongoose” McEwen, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Connie Kalitta, “Sneaky Pete” Robinson, Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines, Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney, Bruce Larson, John Force, Bill “Grumpy Jenkins, Bruce Larson, Eddie Hill, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, and many more entered the museum. Not just Top Fuelers, but Funny Cars, Pro Stocks, Gassers and other quarter-milers, too.
There’s also an Engine Room next to Don’s race cars and trophies, with 392 and 426 Hemis, Ford SOHC 427s, and other legendary race engines. The museum hosts the engine dynamometer that legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick used in his “Best Damn Garage In Town” in Daytona Beach, Florida, with an experimental early-‘60s Chevy big-block mounted on it.
But that’s just one building. Another building holds Don’s collection of early Fords and other street-driven legends. There’s row after row of flathead-powered Fords, both restored originals and some early hot rods, including more than a few that Don built and drove. There are rare Hemi-powered Mopars including a one-of-two ’66 Dodge Coronet four-door sedan, a ’69 Dodge Charger 500, and a ’70 Dodge Challenger R/T (like the ones that Don promoted in ads for Dodge back in the day).
But wait–there’s more. “We’re building from scratch a ’27 T roadster, all steel, on ’32 frame rails, powered by a 1948 Ford engine with an ARDUN conversion on it, with original heads and a four-barrel manifold,” Don says of his latest project. “That will run into a ’39 Ford transmission with Lincoln gears and a Frankland quick-change rear, one of the first three he built. I’ve had that rear end since 1954, the body for thirty years, and the ARDUN heads for forty.”
Another Swap Rat re-creation is in the works, too. “We’re recreating Swamp Rat I, the way it looked when it went 176 [mph] at Brooksville, Florida,” adds Don. “That car went through twelve different configurations, and we have it in the Museum restored to how it was in December of 1958, when it went 180.”
The best way to see the Museum is to take a private tour, which Don hosts daily. “It usually fills up,” he says. “We can handle about 45 people on one of them, and it’s full every day.”
And what do people say when they’ve seen the Museum for the first time? “They’re overwhelmed, because they never thought it was as big as it is, notes Don. “Of course, by the Interstate, it just looks like small buildings, until you get in there.”
You can find more information on the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing online at www.garlits.com.