THE Thoroughbred OF Drag Racing : At 53, Don Garlits Is Still Making News, but He Also Is Preserving Drag Racing's Past at Museum He Built in Florida

Times Staff Writer

This is Florida horse country, a lazy pastoral countryside setting with white fences, leafy trees and bred-for-speed thoroughbreds grazing on seemingly endless green acres.

Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner, was bred here. So were three other Kentucky Derby winners. Gate Dancer, winner of last year's Preakness, is Ocala-bred.

All the horses in Florida, though, can't match the horsepower gathered in one man's monument to himself--the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, about 10 miles south of town along Interstate 75.

Garlits has been around for so long that he could qualify as a museum piece himself. Many of the Swamp Rats, those exotic mechanical missiles that he began hauling out of Seffner, Fla., back in the late 1950s that broke the hearts of hot rodders everywhere, are in the museum, but The Legend himself is still on the road.

Big Daddy is 53, older than any other competitive racer. He's also better.

The man who captivated speed enthusiasts when he broke the 170-m.p.h. barrier for a quarter-mile from a standing start in 1957, boosted the record to 266.11 m.p.h. last month at the Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. Along the way to 260, he also was the first to go faster than 180, 200, 240 and 250.

This weekend, in the 21st annual Winston World Finals at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, Garlits hopes to become the first drag racer to exceed 270 m.p.h. He has already clinched the National Hot Rod Assn. top-fuel championship, a title he last held in 1975.

Two years ago, Garlits and Pat, his wife of 30 years, pulled up stakes in Seffner, a one-stoplight wooded village east of Tampa, to move his cars, garage and memorabilia 95 miles north, hoping to gain greater exposure for his planned museum. Now, the museum, just off I-75, the road Garlits calls "the main highway between Detroit and Disney World," is a sprawling one-story complex that looks much like a small industrial plant.

The museum is a time capsule of drag-racing history. Because Garlits himself is the epitome of what the sport is all about, it is also a tribute to the man.

Alongside the main building stands a carryall truck, with the words "THE LEGEND," beneath Garlits' name. The Legend is not an idle statement on the side of Big Daddy's truck. It is how he signs letters to friends and business associates. Big Daddy is a registered trademark. The Legend may be next.

During the two years he worked to create the 22,000-square-foot facility, Garlits dropped out of serious racing, running only a few match races. All his old--and young--competitors considered him retired. In a way, so did he. But once the museum was open and self-sustaining, the lure of 260-m.p.h. runs down a quarter-mile of asphalt brought him back to competition toward the end of the 1984 season.

For a car, he plundered the museum. He took a 4-year-old Swamp Rat--model No. 28--off the floor. With some financial assistance from old friend Art Malone, he refitted it with new space-age parts and proceeded to win both the U.S. Nationals and the World Finals.

This year he and Malone built Swamp Rat No. 29, and have dominated the season that will end Sunday with the World Finals.

Malone qualifies as a museum piece, too. When Garlits won his first NHRA event, the 1963 Winternationals at Pomona, the man he beat was Malone. That same year, Malone raced in the Indianapolis 500, beating one driver, Bobby Unser. Parnelli Jones was the winner.

Last January, before the season started, Garlits was running 250 m.p.h. in a match race at Firebird Raceway near Phoenix, when the rear wing collapsed. The car rolled over and over before it stopped, upside down in a mud bog. Garlits called it "the highest velocity crash of my career," but he walked away with only minor bruises.

The new 265-inch dragster did not fare so well. It was a tangled mess of exotic parts. No problem. Garlits and crew chief Herb Parks worked around the clock, building one-of-a-kind parts where needed, replacing others from the carryall, a traveling parts shop.

The Swamp Rat was ready for the Winternationals, the NHRA's opening event. Garlits didn't win that one, but he did win a record six national events--no other top-fuel driver had ever won more than four in a year--and unseated Joe Amato of Old Forge, Pa., as the national champion. For winning the world championship, Garlits collected a $40,000 bonus, which will probably go toward finding another old car for the museum floor.

"I'm racing full time, but I never forget that I'm the curator of my museum, too," Garlits said. "You never know when you'll stumble on some priceless old car. Some guy I never heard of called me one day from somewhere up in Minnesota and said, 'I found something looks like a race car in a barn up here. Maybe you oughta come up and take a look at it.'

"Pat and I drove a thousand miles to look at it, and it was a prize. We loaded it up and brought it back home."

As might be expected, most of the museum pieces are cars that Garlits built and drove. The first one visitors see as they walk into the hall is Swamp Rat No. 1, the original that Garlits created from a '31 Chevy frame and ran for four years.

It was that car that Garlits pushed over the 170 m.p.h. barrier at Brooksville, Fla., in 1957--a speed as improbable then as 280 might be today. It also won the American Hot Rod Assn. championship in 1958, Big Daddy's first big title.

That's not the oldest one, however. One of Garlits' hobbies has been restoring old Fords. His prize is the first car he ever owned--or raced. It is a '40 Ford convertible with a 1950 Mercury engine.

"I went through the (quarter-mile) traps in 19 seconds," Garlits said proudly as he escorted friends on a museum tour. "I didn't know how fast I was going. The car didn't have any dials."

Garlits' most important contribution to drag racing was his creation of a successful rear-engine top-fuel car.

He built it after he had been in an accident March 8, 1970, at Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach where the transmission exploded on the starting line and blew away half of his right foot.

Three cars involved in that transition are on display. There is the car that blew up and broke in half, restored to the way it looked at the moment of the explosion. There is a new, unused front-engine slingshot that Garlits had commissioned to be built before the accident at Lions. And there is the rear-engine Wynn's Charger that he built in 1971 and drove to victory in the Winternationals and the Bakersfield Smokers meet in its first two outings.

Within a year, front-engine top fuelers were almost extinct.

"I don't think we could still be racing front engines with the power we have today," Garlits said. "You put one of those 2,800 horsepower Dodge hemis that Keith Black builds in a front-engine car and have it blow up and you could start writing the obituaries.

"In the old days when the engine blew, it was right in your lap. Now, when it blows, it goes out behind and you have to tell the driver about it when he stops."

Garlits has also lost a few races in his time and some of the cars of his fiercest competitors are side by side with the succession of Swamp Rats.

Along the west wall, in its pink splendor, is the car Shirley Muldowney drove when she beat Garlits in the 1982 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. And there is Chris Karamesines' 1960 Chizler, the car that the Golden Greek drove when he beat Garlits 23 straight times in mid-1960s match races.

Garlits has never raced a funny car--a short wheelbase dragster with a plastic or fiberglass body--but in 1966 he and Emery Cook built the controversial Dart 2, which incorporated a plastic body with a steel tubing frame. Cook ran 200.44 m.p.h., becoming the first driver to exceed 200 in a full-bodied car, but it was outlawed by the NHRA in late 1966--three years before funny cars were accepted for competition. There also is Tom (The Mongoose) McEwen's famous 1965 red Hemi Cuda, the last of the acid-dipped steel-bodied funny cars.

The idea of a drag-race museum came to Big Daddy in 1976 when he was touring England and saw Lord Montague's race-car museum.

"I thought something like that would be nice for drag racing, so I came home and started collecting and renovating cars," he said.

"I had three or four I had raced, still sitting on the back forty. Pretty soon other guys heard about my idea and contributed cars and other memorabilia. I wanted to build the museum in Seffner, where Pat and I had lived since we were married, but everyone said it was out of the way and too hard to find.

"We sold our acreage in Seffner, about 17 acres with a lake, to a Catholic church. They're going to build a school for gifted children there.

"One day Pat and I were driving along I-75, just praying that the Good Lord would find us a spot for the museum, when Pat saw a little 'For Sale' sign peeking over a fence. We stopped, got the number, and went straight to the nearest store and called the agent. We made the deal for 16 acres for $80,000 as fast as it could be made.

"After we got the buildings up, then came the hard part, getting all our stuff 95 miles from Seffner to Ocala. For eight weeks I made the round trip seven days a week. We worked, loading and unloading, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. I learned the meaning of that old saying: 'Nothing good ever comes easy.' "

When the museum became operational, Garlits build a home alongside it for himself and Pat, who is as much a collector as her husband. Pat has as many piggy banks and figurine pigs as Big Daddy has trophies.

That accomplished, it was back to racing.

"I thought all I'd do was run some match races and hit a national here and there," Garlits said. "But folks kept dropping into the museum, asking me why I didn't go racing again, that they missed me. I asked them, 'Who wants to see an old dinosaur like me?' and they all said they did. So here I am."

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