Big Daddy’s Rolling Drag Museum

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits, the legendary drag racer, came to the Iola Car Show with a trailer loaded with books, T-shirts and other items to sell. He also brought along one of his famous “Swamp Rat” dragsters, known as Swamp Rat 12-A. There have been a dozen different Swamp Rat configurations.

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

Garlits told Racing Junk he is interested in documenting the history of his sport. He has written seven books about drag racing. He also runs the Museum of Drag Racing (www.garlits.com) in Ocala, Fla. At the Iola Car Show , he fired up the Swamp Rat and did “cackle fest” demonstrations, to educate the crowd about the power and noise that a modern dragster generates.

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

After Garlits drove the car out of the trailer and unloaded his for-sale merchandise, the trailer itself became a rolling drag racing museum. It is decorated inside with hundreds of photos that give a decade-by-decade look at Garlits’ life, starting in the ‘50s and going right up to the modern day.

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

Garlits said that a big part of his life is an ongoing project he has going, He wants to build a replica Swamp Rat for each of the car’s 12 formats. The Swamp Rats are what people call “rail dragsters.” The frame rails Garlits used were from a ‘31 Chevrolet. He needs additional ‘31 Chevrolet frame rails for his replicas and found some at the Iola show.

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

“With that piece, we’ll be able to do another Swamp Rat,” he said. “We have five and this will be six. Each time we find a ‘31 Chevrolet frame in good shape, we build a replica of the next configuration.”

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

The photos mounted on the walls of the race trailer start with images taken in the 1950s and cover each decade since then. Many of the historical photos are also dated to the years they were snapped. There are black-and-white photos of Garlits winning races and picking up awards. Different versions of the Swamp Rat appear in the photos, along with photos of family and friends, with no shortage of famous names from the racing world and automotive industry.

In addition to a vast photo collection, Garlits has “just under 300 real cars” in his Florida museum. “We’d have over 300 cars,” he noted. “But about 15 are lent out to other museums.” About 45,000 people a year visit his museum.

Big Daddy's Rolling Drag Museum

About John Gunnell 103 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.
  • Steve Blehl

    It was seeing Daddy Don race his dragster at Island Dragway around 1960 that got me hooked on drag racing. I was maybe 11 years old and my best friend, John Nixon’s, family, took me along with them to my first time ever at the drags. I had not even known that this racing had existed. I grew up in a large family of 10 children and there was never any money for anything “extra”. I watched in awe as the races happenned and then Big Dadfy ran his Swamp Thing at a blistering 159mph!!! I was hooked and knew racing and speed was for me. It was such a “high” for me! I went home that day and heard about a local fellow with a go cart with a large chain saw engine. It was fast and did 50mph. I saved and worked odd jobs for a year and bought my first speed machine and had a blast. That was my introduction into driving fast.
    Fast forward and at age sixteen I bought a black, big block ’55 Chevy before I could even drive legally. I started street racing before I even had a license. I thank goodness I never got caught or hurt anyone. I had other cars including a 1969 Z28 and a really fast red 1967 RS/SS 427 Camaro that my dear brother, Guy, and I built as hot as an L88.
    I swapped that for a 1972 Kawasaki “Widow Maker” and worked that engine based on the Kawasaki land speed record by Bill Wirges who helped me out. When racing a motorcycle back then at Island Dragway and Englistown Raceway Park the mc pit area was always at the staging site for all cars and the AA pits were right there also. Therefore I got to meet and hang out with the fastest racers. I met Big Daddy but my friend when I raced was Grumpy Jenkins, the father of Pro Stock drag racing. Heck…..he ran a really fast Vega even back then. I remember him smoking a cigar all the time. He was a cool guy and friendly even though i was not some big name racer. He liked the fact that i would love dragging a car but then did it with a bike. He told me one time over lunch that he preferred a car and that I had “balls” to be going so fast on a bike.
    I also remember when the AA fuel dragsters would start up i’d have to cover my ears. I loved the vibration going through me as i stood nearby.
    Those were wonderful times and memories. Maybe that’s why i absolutely loved “American Grafitti”. I lived those times and then some.
    I also built a couple Camaro’s and a Corvette with my eldest son who drag raced also. Him and I still love old cars. Its been a special bond for us.
    Drag racing and classic cars has been, and is, a wonderful part of our lives. Aaah yes……great memories flooding back…..I’m thinking since i live in Florida that i’ll have to take a trip to the Garlitt’s Museum…..

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