As I returned from a recent road trip to Tampa, Florida, I made it a point to stop off at Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. Known to his fans as “Big Daddy” and the “Swamp Rat”, Don has set many records in the world of drag racing and in particular in the class of dragsters know as Top Fuel.
Its pretty well known that I love a road racing circuit and consider that venue to be the most interesting from a driver’s point of view, but I have always enjoyed spending time at a drag strip watching the brutal and beautiful sport of raw acceleration. In 1320 feet cars go from a standing stop to the best speed that motors and tires can achieve.
Side by side competitors line up and work to hone their reaction times and how well they can balance the torque and traction to get down the quarter mile as quickly as possible.
As a mechanic I cringe at what the brutal sport does to the drive train and chassis, yet I have to admire the skills that it takes to engineer and control these monsters.
I grew up with Don Garlits’ achievements coming at me in hot rod magazines and the rare television coverage. In the early days the slingshot dragster was a layout of what seemed to be a long wheelbase with the engine well back on the chassis and the driver hanging on behind the rear wheels and slicks. With the engine in front of the driver sporting a huge roots-type supercharger (blower) it was amazing that they could see enough of the track to steer.
Eventually you would see the clutch or flywheel explode and sometimes cut the chassis in two. As a matter of fact, such an accident happened to Don in 1970 and he lost part of a foot in the explosion.
He came back to the sport with a revolutionary design that put the driver in front of the engine. The chassis grew in length until they have reached the 300” limit of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association). The quarter mile has also shrunk to 1000 feet for these torque monsters in the interests of safety.
I parked at the entrance to the museum, which is on the grounds of Don Garlits’ home just off the highway. There to greet me was a Navy jet on a pedestal. “Now, what could that be all about?”, I thought.
It was clear that there is a lot of complexity to this native of Tampa and I was even more excited to get inside his museum and see what his collection was all about.
Inside was a dreamland of some of the most amazing cars in drag racing.
There was even “TV” Tommy Ivo’s twin-engine dragster:
As I wandered around the museum I spotted a room dedicated to drag engines. This was an amazing collection of motors working to get the most out of the “nitro” fuel. Nitromethane brings its own oxygen into the mix so that huge amounts of the energy can be derived without hyrolocking the engine with too much fuel. As a result 8.7 times as much nitromethane can be burned in a cylinder than gasoline. Combine this with a huge supercharger and you have explosions of power with every ignition.
There was one motor in the room that was rated at 8000 horsepower.
Notice the clutch pack that is required to transfer the huge amounts of torque to the drivetrain. What is even more impressive is that the engine of that horsepower uses 2000 hp just to turn the supercharger.
And what happens when things go wrong?
The rear-engined dragster of 1971 was not don’s first try with the layout. The museum showed a 1957 design of Don’s:
Don tried many different concepts in his designs:
There were plenty of other competitor’s cars at the museum:
One of the best examples of how creative drag racing was back in the day was this Allison powered racer that used a V-12 cylinder engine from out of a P-40. The block had a bullet hole in it and was bought from a scrap yard for $50.
Notice the twelve exhaust pipes on one side – that’s because there were two exhaust valves per cylinder.
In addition to all the drag racing cars and engines Don has another museum right next store dedicated to many cars of his personal collection. Included are all kinds of racing and automotive memorabilia.
His collection even includes some air-cooled VW classics:
This is a place you could spend hour in. In fact I did spend a couple of hours exploring, even though I knew it would mean a much later arrival back home. If you are ever planning a trip to the area you should not miss this collection of drag racing and automotive history. Don Garlits has been very generous in sharing his collection with the public.