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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

October 17, 1985|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

OCALA, Fla. — 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."

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