“Big Daddy” of Drag Racing – Ocala, Florida

First, a disclaimer: David and I have to admit that we knew nothing about drag racing before visiting the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. We always bring an open mind and are ready to learn something new when we visit new places. This particular site proved to be very interesting and, for the RVers, it is also a Harvest Host site, so we could park the Bighorn for the night there.

Don Garlits is called “Big Daddy” because of his important contributions to both the engineering and design of drag racing cars and to the sport itself. In 1954, Don Garlits built his first drag racing car in N. Tampa. He cobbled together parts from a 1927 Ford Model T and other vehicles allowing him to reach speeds of 108 m.p.h. in 12.1 seconds in his first race.

Garlits First Dragster

Don Garlits began to race his dragsters in California where he challenged the more renowned West Coast drag racers’ cars. As he began to win more races and make a name for himself, his fellow racers gave him the nickname “Swamp Rat.” Given that he was from Florida, this nickname was meant to be an insult but Garlits embraced this pejorative title and named his new generation of dragsters, Swamp Rat.

Swamp Rat 1

The Swamp Rat 1 racer, built in his garage in Florida, set a world speed record of 176.40 m.p.h. This one and many other racers that surpassed the 170,180, 200, 250 and 270 m.p.h. marks on a ¼ mile track are on display in the Museum. As you tour the building in which they are housed, you can see the progression and advancements that Don Garlits made to his innovative dragsters. All of these unique racing cars are in pristine shape.

After a serious accident in 1970 in Los Angeles, CA that damaged his foot, Garlits redesigned the racers placing the engine behind the driver to help protect him/her in case of a malfunction. Furthermore, he was the first driver to use a full-body, fire-resistant driving suit as well as gloves and a balaclava.

Don Garlits won 144 national events and 17 American and International Hot Rod Association championships.

While the Museum’s collection focuses primarily on Garlits’ racers, it also has on display a collection of other racers built by other well-known participants in the sport. The Museum’s collection continues to grow and includes the following unique racers:

The Bean Bandit Special

The Roadster that Charlie Hogan (“King Hogan”) raced in Daytona Beach

“Baby Moon Eyes” – a rocket propelled dragster

TV Tommy IVO


So drag racing does not excite you? Then, you might enjoy exploring the Museum’s other building which boasts a collection of more than 50 classic and antique cars. Some of these cars are from the early 1900’s. All are fully operational and the employees drive them every six months to keep them in good shape. In front of each vehicle on display is a sign that provides information and fun facts about each model.

Interspersed among these gems are other antique vehicles like dump trucks, pick up trucks, rack body trucks and depot hacks.

It is clear that Don Garlits was both a famous drag racing pioneer and he is also a collector and lover of automobiles. When you come to visit, plan to spend several hours in each part of this fascinating museum.

We had a great time learning about Don Garlits, drag racing, and classic and antique cars. It is definitely worth a stop in Ocala to see this museum.

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