“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is a name synonymous with drag racing. It seems this legend has been setting records, pushing boundaries and dominating the quarter-mile since the late 1950s.
Unlike most drivers who either sold their racecars or scrapped them when their usefulness was over, Garlits saved many of his old dragsters and hot rods, even if they were mangled and wrecked. During the golden era of drag racing, Garlits had the foresight to preserve many of the machines that set new records and won numerous championships. So, when other racers chose to dump all their racing equipment when the sponsor money evaporated, Garlits squirreled away his collection of Flatheads and HEMI® engine race machines, knowing they’d be useful one day.
As the decades marched on, Garlits needed a bigger shop to not only house his array of “Swamp Rat” dragsters (and other memorabilia), but to also store the other iconic racing machinery that, at one time, may have lined up next to him at the strip. Garlits, it turns out, has an amazing accumulation of cars and memorabilia from other top names in the sport. As his collection grew, Garlits realized the cars in his collection were of historic value and should be seen by fans and enthusiasts.
That’s when the ignition switch was flipped and Garlits began working on a permanent home for his mass assortment of dragsters, funny cars, hot rods, muscle cars, engines and other drag racing paraphernalia that has chronicled one man’s quest for acceleration in 1,320 feet.
So, in 1976, the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing opened its doors. Today, with over 90 racing cars and plenty of “Swamp Rats” in this dedicated building, a variable heaven has opened up to very drag racing fan. For automotive enthusiasts who appreciate hot rods, street rods, muscle cars and speed, Garlits has another museum on-site dubbed the Antique Car building. That structure houses over 50 vehicles, showcasing a wide variety of cars from over the past 100 years.
But, the fun doesn’t stop there. The museum is also home to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, whose inductees include a long list of drag racing royalty. The movers and shakers of the sport, many of whom raced under the Dodge/Plymouth banner and even some of the engineers who developed the infamous HEMI V8 engine. There are also tributes here to some of Chrysler’s drag racing program managers from the 1960s and ’70s who have also been inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
Visit this year’s NHRA Gatornationals, for the chance to check out the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. There, you can walk among the historic dragsters and funny cars, and even see some cool vintage Dodge muscle cars and other unique oddities that run on gasoline and make power possible.
50TH ANNIVERSARY GATORNATIONALS
2019 marked the 50th year of the NHRA travelling to Gainesville, Florida, for the Gatornationals. Anytime an event makes it 50 years, there are many reasons that it has been organized for that long. For the Gatornationals, the event has a few notable elements that have made it an enduring part of the tradition for the NHRA.
After opening the track in 1969, the NHRA held its first Gatornationals in the spring of 1970. For many on the east coast, the Florida location and winter event date was ideal to journey to as a first event to compete in or attend annually once on the NHRA schedule. In addition, the facility became known for having a fast racing surface. This can be seen in the record books as the first 260, 270 and 300 mph ¼-mile passes in the history of the sport.
The facility is also notable in that its location is near “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and his speed shop. Once Gainesville Raceway was built and opened, this event allowed many the chance to visit Garlits and his speed shop to discuss tuning tips. Over time, the speed shop evolved into a museum. Therefore, the track and the museum have become a must-visit for all fans of drag racing.