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Garlits Museum in Ocala, Florida, reflects “Big Daddys” glorious career


Garlits Museum

Garlits Museum

Mad Dog IV

Mad Dog IV

Swamp Rat VIII

Swamp Rat VIII

 

Don Garlits, aka “Big Daddy”, is one of the most famous names in American drag racing history, and his museum in Ocala, Florida, reflects his glorious career in that branch of motorsport, and much more besides. The museum is just off Interstate 75, exit 341, on the outskirts of the town of Ocala, which is about 60 miles north-west of Orlando. So if you are on vacation in the resort town, and have tired of all the theme parks, and feeling the need for a motorsport fix, that’s the place to head for. Even if, like me, you’re not really into drag racing, it is still a really interesting experience for any petrol head, and one never ceases to be amazed at the ingenuity and skills of people in all forms of motorsport.

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Drag racing started in California in 1949, whilst Don Garlits started his drag racing career in 1950 in Florida, so he and the sport grew up together, and he has probably been the most successful racer of all time, notably in his series of famed “Swamp Rat” creations. His inspiration to go drag racing came from a guy called Charlie “King” Hogan, who raced a 1927/28 V-12 Ford Hot Rod on the beach at Daytona and on the strip at Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, where an 18 year old Don Garlits first saw him race in 1950 – his first hero! The quest for more speed in the quickest possible time has seen him build some inspiring creations over the years, from early flat head V8s to jet turbine powered monsters. An accident in March1970, in Swamp Rat 13 (unlucky for some!), when the transmission exploded on the start line, cutting the car in half and losing Don Garlits part of his right foot, saw the move from front engine to rear engine dragster construction. The museum was set up in 1976 after he had visited England on a drag racing tour, and decided that the sport needed to have its own specialist museum, as it had been operating successfully for over a quarter of a century, and was evolving, and the changes and its history needed to be recognised and preserved for future generations.

Outside the main entrance to the museum there is an A-7 Fighter plane, and one might wonder what that has to do with drag racing! Well, the answer is quite simple, Don Garlits raced one on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington for a naval recruitment campaign in 1972, and when the Cecil Field base closed down in 1999, this example, which had been a monument there became available, or would get scrapped. The Naval Air Museum in Pensacola said that he could have the plane, on the proviso that he shipped it, and so there it is!

The museum itself is split between two buildings, the main one house’s around 200 race cars, tracing the history of drag racing from the formative years to the present day, together with a wide variety of associated memorabilia. This building comprises of three rooms, two main display areas and the engine room, with a broad range of complete and cutaway engines, plus ancillary components on display. The second building is the home of the antique and classic car collection, together with a room furnished with antique furniture just inside the entrance, and a reconstruction of “Don’s Garage” in the back corner. Apart from the wide variety of cars on display there is again a vast selection of memorabilia, not all of it motoring related, i.e. what were common items many years ago, but that have since disappeared, like a copper laundry tub with wringer, fly spray canisters, and early examples of the dreaded parking meters.

Amongst the cars on display in this section of the museum is a 1956 Chrysler bought as a birthday present for “Ike” Dwight D. Eisenhower, the President of the USA between 1953 and 1961, by his wife Mamie, with a specially installed 45 rpm record player so that he could enjoy his favourite music on the move. There is also Don Garlits’ wife Pat’s beautiful black 1954 MG TF, which went to the body shop for some work on one of the fenders, which turned into a body off restoration, and now she won’t drive it! For something really out of the ordinary, how about a bright orange V12 powered lawn mower, built by Don Garlits for a CITGO mower advertising promotion, whilst not far away resting on the rear wheel of a 1947 Studebaker Dump Truck, is the complete antithesis, a regular one man power push lawn mower!

The primary building is really devoted to the history of drag racing, with examples of virtually every creation under the sun on display, from Top Fuel (T/F) dragsters to funny cars and almost everything in between. They include the world’s smallest rail dragster, Mad Mini I, which started life as child’s driveway toy, but was fitted with a 13hp 2 stroke engine, to achieve a top speed of 65.1mph in the quarter mile, a world record. There is also the 1959-60 Pollutioniser I, fitted with a V12 Allison aircraft engine from a P-40 WWII fighter plane, complete with a (repaired) bullet hole in the crankcase! How about the first all plastic bodied funny car, a Chevrolet Chevelle, or the diminutive and oh so cute, 1939 Fiat Topolino based Fire-Fly II, or the first of the wildly painted funny cars, “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s Chevrolet Vega from 1973-74. These are only a small selection of the wildly diverse and colourful array of cars on display, then add in all the peripheral artefacts and you have a truly mind blowing condensed display of drag racing heritage. In fact, condensed is probably the right word, as the halls are jam packed with cars, and more space would provide better viewing, but then it might lose some of the frenetic ambience that it has, and which is drag racing.

Further information on opening hours, admission charges, etc, can be found at www.garlits.com 

Keith Bluemel         
11/2012