It’s museum that’s home to a remarkable collection of one of the most important drivers in NHRA history but also shouldn’t be missed by non-drag racing fans.
Don Garlits (born 1932) is one of the most successful race car drivers in American history and was one of the pioneers of the sport of drag racing. Born in Tampa, he built his first race car in 1954, only 3 years after the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), the first of drag racing’s governing bodies, was created.
Garlits is known as both “Big Daddy” and the “Swamp Rat” and is respected as much for innovation in the sport as for winning. As the result of accidents he had while racing, Garlits spent a lot of time and effort making his car as safe as could be, while trying not to sacrifice speed. Garlits chose to focus on dragsters (a stripped-down car that’s little more than engine, transmission, wheels and the driver’s cockpit). Dragsters are the fastest class of vehicle in drag racing.
His 1971 car, Swamp Rat XIV, is one of the most famous and important race cars in history, in that it was the first truly successful dragster with the engine behind the driver (typically known as “rear-engine” or “mid-engine”). In addition, one of Garlits’ dragsters, Swamp Rat XXX is in the permanent collection of the National Museum of American History, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution.
Garlits won 3 NHRA Top Fuel Dragster national championships, 10 American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) championships and 4 International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) championships. He won a total 144 national events in his career. By the way, it appears that the name Big Daddy comes from the fact that he was the biggest name in the sport in the 1960s. Swamp Rat is a less obvious name. Another racer, by the name of Setto Postoian, reportedly took out an ad in Drag News calling Garlits a swamp rat because Garlits, who had been injured, had another driver race in his stead. Postoian took exception to that, so Garlits took on the name and subsequently named that car and around 50 other successors Swamp Rat as well.
The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing was established by Garlits on the same property as his home. It’s located next to Interstate 75 a few miles south of the city of Ocala. The automobile and auto racing museum opened in 1984 and contains some 300 cars, trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles. It also contains a vast number of vehicle-related items – posters, photos, helmets, driver suits, gas tanks, oil cans, trophies, tools, signs, news clippings, gas pumps, engines, military items and more.
The collection on display to the public is housed in two buildings, one that is about auto racing and another which focuses on non-racing vehicles. Much that is on display is from Garlits’ personal collection, one that he has been building for much of his adult life. Many of his race cars are on display, of course, but also the racing vehicles of a number of other great drag racers including Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney and Connie Kalitta.
As can be seen by the photos, there’s a broad spectrum of mostly American-made cars and trucks in the non-racing building. Most every vehicle comes with notes that provide a bit of information as well. You don’t have to be crazy about cars to enjoy a visit, but it certainly helps.
Near the museum buildings, the most notable item on display is a US Navy jet aircraft. The LTV A-7A Corsair II was a Vietnam War-era carrier-based light attack aircraft that flew at subsonic speeds.
The A-7 was built by the Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) conglomerate between 1965 and 1983. The one on display is the “A” version that was only used during the later part of the Vietnam War and was retired when newer models came on line.
It’s interesting as to how the Garlits Museum of Drag Racing wound up with a Navy jet. The story began around 1971, when Don Garlits’ racing team began a partnership with the Navy as its sponsor. There are several Navy recruiting ads that feature Garlits in one of his dragsters on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a jet in the background. The first of the ads featured an A-7A on the deck of the USS Saratoga.
Fast forward to the military base closures in the 1990s. Captain Leehouts (USN, Retired) is the name inscribed below the canopy on the A-7. In an interview with Capt. Leehouts, I learned how the Garlits Museum acquired the aircraft.
Originally, the aircraft was put on static display around 1972 at Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville. In 1999, Cecil Field was one of the bases closed under the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process that operated after the end of the Cold War. Capt. Leehouts was commodore of the Strike Fighter Weapons School Atlantic at Cecil Field during the base closure. As commodore, it was his name that was added to the aircraft, even though he never piloted that version of the A-7.
Due to the base closure, the Navy was going to either donate the aircraft or scrap it, so the Navy contacted Don Garlits and he agreed to take it. The main condition to the gift was that Garlits had to pay for moving it from Jacksonville to Ocala. As noted before, this particular model of Corsair has a special connection with Garlits as it’s the model featured in the first Navy recruitment ad that included Garlits and one of his dragsters.
I’d like to express my appreciation for Captain Leehouts agreeing to an interview. He is currently the President of the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo, a week-long airshow located in Lakeland. Sun ‘n Fun is considered to be the second largest airshow in the US.
Below are photos from a visit to the museum in 2018.