The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing opened in south Marion County in March of 1984.
You know the old saying about a man’s home being his castle. Well, for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, the “king” of drag racing, his castle is just one of the buildings on the sprawling campus that houses the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.
The museum is celebrating 40 years of being in Marion County, having opened in March of 1984. The property is at 13700 SW 16th Avenue, at the Highway 484 exit on Interstate 75. And that is exactly the kind of placement Garlits had in mind years ago when his late wife, Pat, asked him what he was going to do about the museum he opened in 1976 at their garage and racecar shop in Seffner, near Tampa, which had never had a paying customer.
“We had plenty of free ones,” he says of early visitors in Seffner. “You know, the sponsors, friends, relatives, writers, photographers, but nobody actually paid money. My wife was the comptroller since I opened my shop in 1956. She said to me one day, ‘Honey, what are we gonna do with that white elephant over there when you can’t race anymore and support it?’ I said, ‘I always thought I’d move it to the interstate.’ She said, ‘You would move off of this property?’ My father had left me the land; it was the old homestead. Mom and Dad hacked it out of the wilderness in 1927. I said, ‘Well, I thought that when we got older that maybe we would move it to the interstate where we could get some traffic.’”
And, wow, does the museum get traffic. According to Chuck Keppel, the comptroller and general manager for seven years, about 30,000 visitors stop by annually.
“January, February and March are our busiest times,” Keppel notes, “because of all the things going on in Daytona and the Gatornationals in Gainesville.”
Garlits, 92, is credited with saving the lives of many drag racers after a front-engine dragster crash early in his career nearly killed him. After that, he began to produce the rear-engine top fuel dragsters that are now the standard. He continues to develop new versions of his famed Swamp Rat dragsters, all numbered in sequence, including an electric version (No. 38).
One massive building at the museum houses many of his own “rail jobs” as well as the race cars of luminaries such as Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and many others. Another wing is filled with vintage, collectible automobiles and memorabilia. One large building that houses numerous race cars will eventually be opened to the public as well.
Finding the property in Marion County wasn’t easy for Don and Pat, who were married for 61 years until she passed away in 2014. He shares how they were looking for some land around the Brooksville area.
“I had just turned 50; it’s ’82. I said, ‘Honey, we need to go up there and take a look at that land. How much money do we have?’ he recalls. “In a few minutes she said, ‘We could write a check for $80,000 and the racing account would still have enough money in it in case there’s a problem.’ I said, ‘Let’s go see what the guy wants. Thank God, he wanted a quarter of a million dollars for that piece of dirt!”
A real estate agent showed them several other properties, but they were too small (they wanted at least 16 acres) or too expensive. They stopped for the night at a Holiday Inn, with a vow to go a little further north in the morning. He said they prayed about what they were doing, saying, “If it’s your will, you’ll show us the property. And if we don’t see it tomorrow, we’re going to go back to Seffner and live our lives out and never trouble you with it again.”
The next day they drove past Wildwood and got off at the I-75 exit at Highway 484, a few miles south of Ocala.
“We come off the ramp out here and it’s totally undeveloped … and here’s this piece of property that we’re standing on right now. Completely vacant. Pat got giddy. She said, ‘Oh, honey, this is it! We can put the museum right there.’ I said, ‘Honey, I don’t see any for sale signs.’”
He drove past the property and turned right on Highway 475A.
“I got out of the car and down in the ditch there’s a little sign under a bush and all it had was a phone number and ‘for sale.’ We jumped in the car and drove over to Stuckey’s to use the pay phone. I dialed the number and this lady—now it’s early in the morning—he says, his voice rising, says, ‘This is Shirley. What do you want?’ in a gruff voice.
“And Shirley Muldowney had just kicked my fanny in the 1981 AHRA World Championships. The first time I’d been beaten. I almost hung the phone up. I said, ‘There’s a piece of property over here on the interstate and 475A. How much is it? And she said, ‘It’s $80,000 cash.’ It still raises the hair on my arm and back of my neck,” he says, visibly shaken for a moment. “I said ‘I’ll take it. Cash.’”
The property was zoned agricultural, so Garlits had to approach the Marion County Commission.
“Don Green was the chairman. I had a two-page speech about how I was going to bring all these people to Ocala from all over. I got two lines of the speech out and Green said, ‘Stop. We don’t want to hear it.’ My heart stopped. He says we’re gonna give you the zoning, what we want to know is what caused you to land on that intersection ‘cause it ain’t never gonna be anything.”
“Let me tell you something,” Garlits says forcefully. “We got in here and got going.”
That was in 1982. In March of 1983, the main building was up, and he and Pat were living in a one-room cabin they had built on the property.
“We’re in there building the half walls in that first room and every artifact we owned was in that 10,000-square-foot room. A car drove in, and a guy asked if this was the drag racing museum and I said, ‘Yes sir, but we’re not open yet.’ And he had his three boys and his wife, and he said ‘Mr. Garlits, we’ve come a long way. Would you mind if the family and I went in there and looked around?’ I said ‘Okay, but it’ll be $5 each.’ He shelled out $25 and in they went! They’ve been back, and those boys are grown men now.”
He says between that family’s visit and the grand opening in March of 1984, “We sold a little over 11,000 tickets and we were not even open. We sold 27,000 the very first year.”
Garlits says he later was approached by a neighbor who wanted to buy the property.
“He says, ‘I’m Robert Dupont from the Dupont family. We own this farm south of you. We didn’t know this property was for sale. I’ll give you $180,000 for it right now.’ I said, ‘That’s a generous offer Mr. Dupont, but in my lifetime, I will never be able to sell this property. He said, ‘Why is that, Mr. Garlits?’ I said, ‘Because God himself gave it to me.’”
Visting the museum complex can be educational and entertaining, especially if, like on a recent day when the Ocala Style team was there, Garlits is there and is in his element. Inside the antique auto building, he held court, with his booming voice drawing in visitors like a magnet.
Standing by one his early Fords, he expounds in a sort of rapid-fire staccato: “This is the car that put me into Chrysler engines. I traded a ’36 channel coupe to a kid for this car and we took the engine out of it, and I went to Claude Major’s shop and I wanted a ’49, ’50 or ’51 Caddy motor, cause that was the engine of choice for the moonshiners and I wanted a strong tow car to tow the flathead dragster. Claude said, ‘We don’t have any Cadillac engines, the moonshiners were here last week and took them all, but I’ve got something better. It’s a Chrysler hemi and it’s more powerful than the Cadillacs.’ I gave him $450 and took this 1954 331-cubic inch hemi home.”
He put the engine in the Ford and after he beat a well-known local racer and then made some great times at a local airfield, he recalls telling Pat, “The first person who puts one of these engines in a dragster is gonna be a killer, and she said, ‘You better get on it.’ That’s how Swamp Rat 1 was born.”
“We’ve been here 40 years now,” he continues during the impromptu tour. “We started with a 15,000-square-foot building. Now we have 65,000 square feet and it is briming over. It’s been remarkable. We have treasures here that are priceless. We have the first dragster, from Santa Ana, California, from 1949, from the original owner. We have the Cook & Bedwell car, the first to go over 160mph and that’s the car that I outran at the World Series in 1957. I had modified my car to what I thought was the next step and went 176mph and it was the shot heard around the world—it set the stage.” OS
To learn more about the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, go to garlits.com