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Meet Don Garlits, the man who changed the sport of drag racing

Garlits, now 87, says his love for speed began at 17

Don Garlits.
Don Garlits.

OCALA, Fla. – Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, located in Ocala, is a place rich in history, with thousands of artifacts, memorabilia, trophies and many drag racing cars.

“Swamp Rat 1. It went 176 miles an hour on Nov. 10, 1957, which was the first car to go over 170 miles an hour in drag racing,” 87-year-old Don Garlits said as he recalled the car he designed that made him famous in the sport of drag racing.

Born in Tampa in 1932, his love for speed began with his first car at age 17. While at a stop light, a friend pulled up next to him.

“I had an old ’44. That’s all I could afford and he had a brand new ’49 Chevy coupe, and he said, ‘Let’s race,’ and I said, ‘Race?' Garlits said. "'Yeah, when that light goes green, go as hard as you can.’”

Garlits said his friend won that race.

After Garlits graduated high school, he worked for a department store in the accounting department.

“(It was a) nice job, $39.50 a week was really good entry fee then, and I’m sitting at the breakfast table with my stepfather three months into the job and he says, ‘I can see you’re not happy in your job,’” Garlits said.

After that conversation, Garlits gave his two-week notice and opened up a mechanic shop, eventually entering the world of drag racing.

In 1970, Garlits suffered a major accident while driving his Swamp Rat 13. During the race, the transmission exploded and it tore off a piece of his right foot. The incident led to innovation. While Don was recovering, he designed an improved model.

“I changed the sport in 1971 when I introduced the rear-engine car -- the championship car. The entire field of cars is now rear-engine and that saved so many lives,” he said.

He’s a legend in the sport and is known as “Big Daddy” among fans and friends. Inside his museum, where he spends most of his days, he reminisces about his racing days with guests.

“The antique building, there’s roughly 93 cars or so over there and there’s about 175 over here, so we’re just shy of 300,” said Rodney Garlits, Don’s grandson and assistant manager of the museum. “It’s a legacy for my family and my heritage, so it means the world to me, so this is a second home to me.”

Garlits’ last race was in 2003. Throughout his career, he won 145 national racing competitions and he holds 17 worldwide championship titles.

He’s currently working on an electronic dragster, a new kind of racing car that could revolutionize the industry.

Decades have passed but he still remembers the words his stepfather said, which he says ultimately changed his life.

“He said, ‘You belong in cars. That’s what you love.' I said, ‘Mom thinks mechanics are grease monkeys.’ He said, ‘Your mom ain’t gonna live your life.’ I said, ‘It don’t pay much.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ And he says, ‘You’d be successful because you’d be doing what you love,’" Garlits said. "My God, was he ever right.”


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