Insider Report visits the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing
Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background
Prior to my work-cation in Florida, I had spoken with the folks at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing to set up a visit. Unfortunately, Don Garlits himself was going to be out of town at a race in Illinois when I arrived, but his right hand man Chris Bumpus would be on hand to show me around.
I expected to find a warehouse full of cool old race cars, but wasn’t quite expecting the massive collection of stuff that accompany them. Garlits is a self confessed pack rat, who collected racing memorabilia in his travels, along with bits and pieces of every car he has ever built, along with most of the cars themselves. The first car in the door is Garlits’ beloved Swamp Rat 1, the car that started it all for the man. At the other end of the building is Swamp Rat 34, which Don drove to an incredible 323.04 MPH when he was in his Seventies! The cars that have long since disappeared have been reconstructed from plans where they exist and from Big Daddy’s memory where they don’t.
The collection includes more than just Garlits cars though, as the names of other drag racing greats are prominent throughout the place. The Army funny car driven by Don “The Snake” Prudhomme is here and in the next row sits arch rival Tommy “The Mongoose” McEwen’s machine. There are several cars driven by Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney. Some of the earliest and most innovative drag racers are on hand too. The engine room contains a massive collection of Ford Flathead intake manifolds, including some of the earliest known performance varieties. Of course the room also features many of the Dodge Hemi engines that the Swamp Rat favoured.
The museum isn’t just about drag racing though, as a separate building includes a collection of classic cars, some all original and others in concours condition. Most of these are drivers and Don drives some to local cruise nights. A stunning array of metal. My 12 year old was interested to see a race winning Smokey Yunick engine that powered The Fabulous Hudson Hornet upon which the Cars Movie character Doc Hudson was based.
To finish off the day, we visited with Bumpus in the restoration shop where he and Garlits are building a model T hot rod based on a vision that Don has had in mind for years. The car is a work of art, being built by hand using many of the tools that Don Garlits has been using from as far back as the Fifties. At 81 years old, Garlits is showing no signs of slowing down and is hands on in the shop every day. For this build, the man himself has built the entire drivetrain.
Located in Ocala, Florida, the Garlits Museum is about 70 miles from Orlando, making it a perfect addition to a family vacation.