Nestled inside an unassuming looking building just a few minutes off I-75 in Ocala, Florida, is what is perhaps the world’s great collection of drag racing history and memorabilia. The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing houses a mind-boggling amount of heritage, and is an absolute must-see for any gearhead or drag racing fan.
Opened in 1976, the Museum chronicles the history of drag racing and features an incredible collection of nearly 300 cars spread amongst two massive buildings. From innovative dragsters to turn-of-the-century classic antiques, Garlits has it all, and many of Garlits’ legendary “Swamp Rat” race cars are on display as well. Additionally, the Museum is home to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame which honors racers such as Shirley Muldowney, Don Schumacher, and more.
Upon arrival, visitors can purchase a “pit pass” ticket to the Museum and enjoy a leisurely, self-guided tour through the buildings. Tons of informational signs and placards explain the historical significance and importance of each vehicle on display, so viewers can set their own pace and pick what interests them. And, of course, Garlits’ iconic “Swamp Rat I”, built at home in his garage, has the honor of being the very first car to greet guests as they walk through the entry. [pictured above, bottom right]
Astute readers who aren’t scrolling too quickly will notice something a little, ahem, askew about the photo above. This is none other than Garlits’ “Swamp Rat 27” aka the “Sidewinder.” Built in 1981, the dragster got its name due to its sideways-mounted engine – a design feature aimed at allowing the car to take advantage of the engine torque to give the rear wheels more traction. It ran a best elapsed time of 6.20-seconds and went 230 mph.
Garlits is full of unique pieces, including this dual-engine gas dragster which utilizes two ’57 467 ci Buick V8 engines. It was campaigned during the early ‘60s by Billy Herndon of Tampa, Florida, with a quickest time of 8.69-seconds before it was wrecked (and eventually rebuilt) when his brakes failed and he crashed in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Scattered throughout the Museum are informational videos and vintage clips from drag racing’s glory days. Sit and stay a while!
While dragsters galore make up most of the Museum, they aren’t just Garlits cars – history buffs will be able to spot rides belonging to big name drag racers of an era gone bye such as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, Connie Kalitta, and so many others.
But wait, there’s more! After meandering the aisles of the first showroom, visitors step through into a second room full of even more amazing machines.
This is a recreation of one of the Garlits brothers’ (Don and Ed) 1,200 pound “high gear only” rear engine dragster from 1957 that ran a ’57 Oldsmobile 371 ci V8 engine. Think the phone number for the shop still works? 😉
It’s not just racecars that Garlits has on display, though, as there’s also an incredible amount of antique artifacts, parts, and other racing memorabilia for the intrepid visitor to discover, including this original staging computer and starting line control box.
Once the first two rooms have been thoroughly gone through, it’s time to head over to the classic car section of the Garlits Museum. There, countless priceless, pristine Fords, Chevys, Mercurys, Studebakers, and so many more makes are proudly on display and serve as a great reminder of the nation’s automotive evolution.
It’s a far cry from the G-bodies and bad ass builds that dominate the drag strip today, but this beautiful Buick represents where it all started and is the long-lost ancestor of today’s high-horsepower heavy hitters.
To commemorate your visit, don’t forget to check out the Don Garlits Museum’s gift shop and take home a piece of hot rod history for yourself. Visit www.Garlits.com for more information.