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Dragsters line up at the light tower.

Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum Of Drag Racing

Field review by the editors.

Ocala, Florida

Sure, we like looking at cars -- when they're in places where they shouldn't be, or when they've been turned into something other than cars.

Unfortunately, most cars-as-tourist-attractions are presented in car museums, as cars. Unless they were owned by important world leaders, or unless someone famous died in them, that doesn't strike us as very exciting. Especially when, for a long time, we could view cars impaled on a spike for free.

Idealized Big Daddy mannequin.

That's why the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum Of Drag Racing is special. It's a car museum for people who usually don't like car museums, because, well, dragsters aren't really cars. They're rocket bombs, fired horizontally. Crazy people -- like Big Daddy -- strap themselves into them and hope to survive. Don Garlits did this so many times, and he did it so well, that he was voted the #1 drag racer of the last half of the 20th century.

Big Daddy has always been unconventional. His cocky West Coast rivals mocked him as "Swamp Rat" because he came from Florida -- so he painted that name on all of his home-built racers and used them to crush his California competition. His first dragster (1954) was so ugly that Hot Rod Magazine refused to run a picture of it; it's displayed with pride in the museum. Once he became the "King of the Dragsters," President Nixon told him to go to Vietnam to boost troop morale. He went, but then he came home and told every draft-eligible kid to join the Navy, because that's where American kids were least likely to get killed in Vietnam. And he did it by drag racing an A-7 jet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. To commemorate that event, Big Daddy bought an A-7 and displays it outside of his museum.

Swamp Rat IX

The Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, which opened in March 1984, is spread across several cavernous rooms. Over 200 quarter-milers are on display: fuel dragsters, stock cars, funny cars, odd exhibition cars like the Little Red Wagon ("the original wheel-stander"), and the first motorcycle to break 200 mph. It's the stuff packed around the ballistic vehicles, however, that makes the Museum special. Don Garlits apparently saved everything: favorite cylinder heads and timing chains, his boy scout sash and marble collection, his "Big Daddy Don Garlits for U.S. Congress" t-shirt. (He ran in 1994 and lost.) Against a wall stands the towering World's Largest Drag Trophy, won by Bobby and Ruth Langley in 1957 and donated to the Museum when they remodeled their home.

View of the Museum interior.

One of the Museum's most memorable exhibits is a glass case containing the shredded remains of a transmission that exploded on March 8, 1970, ripping Big Daddy's car in two and blowing off half of his right foot. An accompanying sign notes nonchalantly that, "this accident led to the development of the rear engine car." Big Daddy had himself sewn up and was back on the drag strip that same year.

Don Garlits has generously expanded his museum to include a Drag Racing Hall of Fame, enshrining other luminaries of the sport such as Craig Breedlove, Shirley Muldowny, and "Jungle" Jim Liberman. A new Drag Racing Hall Of Fame Memorial stands out by the road. Atop the concrete base is a live-size bronze replica of Swamp Rat XXX, which Big Daddy accelerated so quickly that it flipped over backward on July 12, 1986. The car is frozen in mid-wheelie, its nose pointed heavenward. Big Daddy emerged from that wreck unscathed, and Swamp Rat XXX is now in the Smithsonian.

Swamp Rat III.

Don Garlits is always a presence at his Museum. He lives next door with his wife -- and high school sweetheart -- Pat, and can sometimes be seen on his lawn tractor, mowing the grass. The Museum gift shop often sells his autographed memorabilia, which becomes available as Big Daddy restores old dragsters or cleans out his garage. We saw a signed racing slick for $300; an autographed chrome-plated cylinder cap for $500; and used spark plugs in signed baggies for $5 apiece.

Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum Of Drag Racing

13700 SW 16th Ave., Ocala, FL
I-75 exit 341. East on Hwy 484, then a quick right onto SW 16th Ave. The museum will be on the right.
Daily 9-5. Gated after hours. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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