Big Bad Don
by Dave Mitchell
There’s always been a surfeit of Kings in our otherwise egalitarian society. You got Elvis, naturally. You got King Richard Petty. You got Jerry “the King” Lawler. There’s a King of Pop, King Dons, and the King of Beers. But you’ve only got two Big Daddys of any repute – Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Big Daddy Don Garlits – and we’ve got the latter in our front yard, so to speak.
(Because we have a woefully inadequate educational system, some of you might not know who Big Daddy Don Garlits is, so lemme fill ya in. Firstly, he’s the man voted the top driver in the first 50 years of the National Hot Rod Association. He broke the West Coast hold on drag racing dominance with his Swamp Rat dragsters. Just as Ed Roth added an artistic viewpoint to customizing cars, Garlits turned hot rod engineering into mad science, pioneering rear engine diggers, dozens of aerodynamic effects, and wild body designs. He recently turned a 300-mile-an-hour quarter mile at an age where many of his peers can barely remember to use their turn signal, and as of this writing is fixin’ to do so again at the 2003 Gatornationals in Gainesville.)
Interstate 75 goes past Ocala, the former heart of Florida tourism left barely beating by the arterial bypass of the interstate highway system. Visible from the freeway, the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing sits, a throwback to those simpler days, though its pedigree doesn’t date back as far as nearby Silver Springs. Dozens of cars collected over the last six decades are all under one roof. Actually, it’s now two museums (with separate admissions): the original dragster-oriented museum and a new facility housing Big’s collection of antique cars. (“Big” – you know you’re cool when your nickname has a nickname.) But make no mistake – hot rods are at the heart of this venture, and I went there to see quarter-mile-burning hemi-powered dinosaurs in repose.
Upon entering the compound you drive past an enormous sculpture of the Swamp Rat XXX (all Garlits’ dragsters are nicknamed “Swamp Rat”) wheelstanding perpendicular to the earth in a bronzed cloud of tire smoke. This statuary is the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, founded by Don and his wife Pat, because someone needed to, doggone it, and Garlits has never been the kind of man who waits for the mountain to come to him. Just past the HOF statue is a U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II that Don rescued from the decommissioned Cecil Field in Jacksonville. (Don has always had a soft spot for the Navy, who has sponsored many a Swamp Rat and even hosted some memorable photo shoots of Don’s digger waiting for the green on the flight deck of a carrier.)
You enter the museum through the gift shop, which is worth the trip alone if you’re a hot rod buff seeking unique apparel or souvenirs. Not just the usual gewgaws, either. Sure, your keychains, t-shirts, caps and toy cars are well represented, but discarded parts from restored dragsters are available for purchase, usually with Big’s signature personally etched into the metal! You ain’t finding that at Stuckey’s!
The museum itself is three rooms full of hot cars, bikes, and engines from decades of dragstrip and salt flats action. The majority are Swamp Rats, and these cars alone trace the evolution of the dragster from the flatheads bolted to truck rails in the fifties to the tube-chassised nitro-fed blown hemi monsters of today. Be awestruck by the leftovers of several spectacular crashes and explosions, including the exploded transmission that severed Garlits’ foot and led him to pioneer the rear-engine design that now rules Top Fuel and rendered the “slingshot” rail extinct. Additionally, there are gassers, altereds, funny cars, and Indy cars driven by stars like Shirley Muldowney, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, Chris Karamasines, “Jungle Jim” Lieberman and Darryl Gwynn. Old Hot Wheels sets and vintage model kits that would fetch a small fortune on Ebay sit next to the real-life cars they replicate. Weird experimentals with wedge-shaped bodies or jet engines. Legendary cars like the Little Red Wagon and “Tantor”.
The Museum won’t kill your whole day, so supplement your trip by checking out nearby Ocala’s many flea markets, art museums, and down-home restaurants and watering holes.
Take Exit 341 off of I-75 and follow the signs. Check the website, www.garlits.com, for more concise directions and shortcuts from the less-beaten paths, as well as price and schedule information. The address is:
13700 SW 16th Ave.
Ocala, FL 34478
BONUS FOR THE PATIENT READER
Don Garlits has THREE domain names you can reference. The aforementioned www.garlits.com is the museum homepage. His online gift shop is www.dongarlits.com, should you feel the need to nail yourself a t-shirt now to wear when you visit. His third page, www.garlitsdon.com, came as a thrilling surprise to me (it was found on the Museum site’s “Links” page). It is dedicated to Don’s interest in UFO conspiracy theory, and further confirms that Big is my kinda people …