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Drag racing legend Don "Big Daddy" Garlits

Garlits Finds ’31 Chevy Frame at Iola Swap Meet

John Gunnell has been writing about classic cars since 1972. He is also the owner of Gunner’s Great Garage in Manawa, Wis. He owns 11 cars and seven motorcycles.

Every car buff knows that legendary drag racer Don Garlits is famous for his “Swamp Rat” dragsters. The Ocala, Florida native—also known as “Big Daddy”—is a drag racing pioneer. In 1950, he started driving modified stock cars at Zephyr Hills, Florida, not far from his Tampa home. He shifted to drag racing in 1959. Over 30 years, he was one of the most innovative car builders in the sport.

Today, Garlits sells books and other products at races and shows. He operates the Museum of Drag Racing (www.garlits.com) and has written seven books about drag racing. “Big Daddy” stays busy autographing books, hats, T-shirts and other things. He also puts on “cackle fest” demonstrations, firing up one of the Swamp Rats to show people how a professional dragster sounds.

During the Iola Car Show in Wisconsin (www.iolaoldcarshow.com), Garlits told THE SHOP Digital he’d found a ’31 Chevy frame in the swap meet. “With that piece, we’ll be able to do another Swamp Rat,” he said. “We have the original one, but the car went through 12 different configurations. We want to build an example of each one. We have five and this will be six. Each time we find a ’31 Chevy frame in good shape, we build a replica of the next configuration.”

Garlits said he loves attending shows that have swap meets. “You see, we’re a working museum,” he pointed out. “We’re always restoring stuff and finding new stuff. We are also recreating stuff out of drag racing history that was destroyed years ago. We always find a lot of stuff and pieces at swap meets.”

Garlits brought his Swamp Rat 12-A to the Iola. It dates back to 1967 when Garlits teamed up with Bob Taaffe to build it. The dragster was sold to a local racer in Florida and wound up getting damaged. Garlits sold the racer a new chassis and took the 12-A in trade. The car was stored, restored and stored again. Then, Chrysler asked Garlits to build a nitro-burning late-model Hemi engine and put it in some kind of chassis. Big Daddy got Swamp Rat 12-A out of storage and he and Jim Hunnewell turned it into the first Nitro Fuel Dragster.

Garlits said he has “just under 300 cars” in his Florida museum. “We’d have over 300 if all the cars were in Ocala,” he noted. “But, we have about 15 cars sent out to other museums. About 45,000 people a year visit our museum.”