Donna Garlits Honored at USA-1 DragFest

The daughter of one of drag racing’s most iconic superstars was honored at Bruce Larson’s USA-1 DragFest Presented by Drag Racing List gathering on Nov. 10. Donna Garlits, daughter of Don “Big Daddy” Garlits and the late Pat Garlits was honored at the motorsports event in Dauphin, Pennsylvania for her contributions to the sport.

Donna, who now calls southwestern Virginia home, is the youngest daughter of Garlits and the late Pat Garlits.

“I have chosen to honor Donna for her tireless efforts to preserve, promote and perpetuate the heritage of drag racing as the general manager/chief financial officer of her father’s ‘Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing’ in Ocala, Florida for several years,” Larson said. “While Donna was not a racer, she grew up in the Golden Age of the sport and witnessed the high and low moments of her father’s career, and of his contemporaries. She worked diligently to elevate the Museum to become a major attraction in Ocala and central Florida.

“Additionally, she brought the affiliated International Drag Racing Hall of Fame (IDRHoF) and its annual induction banquet to greater prominence, and made it one of the most important drag racing off-track events of every year.”

“I think it is great that Bruce Larson has chosen to honor Donna this year,” Don Garlits said. “Donna put in quite a few years of service to the benefit of both the Drag Racing Museum and the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.”

Donna retired from the day-to-day management of the museum in 2017, but still retains the title of vice chairman of the board of directors.

Donna’s son, Rodney, who now is the assistant general manager of the museum, said, “My mother did many things for the museum. She reorganized the Hall of Fame banquet and improved it, ran the company smoothly, made many improvements to the museum and kept it pristine.

“She brought in new business, and improved the marketing of the gift shop,” he added. “She did all of this while being a single mom to me and my sister for most of our lives-all done with her initiative and hard work, and not having much support other than my grandfather’s and grandmother’s help. She’s a pretty special lady, and this is a well-deserved honor.”

In 2011, Donna returned to Florida from her home in Virginia to manage the operations of the museum, which had been taking away from the time her father wanted to spend with Pat during her long-term illness, as well as restoring his old race cars, meeting his fans and racing contemporaries, plus the restoration of a growing fleet of historic Ford cars-particularly those from pre-World War II. The Ford collection became a part of the museum, and Donna helped make it an important part of the overall Museum’s presentation.

Donna’s influence has stretched across international boundaries.

“She created a bridge between the drag racing community of the United Kingdom and Europe,” said Stu Bradbury, chairman of the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame (BDRHoF). “The BDRHoF inducted Don into the Hall of Fame in 2014 for his overall contributions to the sport, and in helping launch it here in the UK and in Europe. Donna was very interested in what we were doing, and invited representatives from the BDRHoF to the IDRHoF gala in 2015, which introduced legendary racers and the media to each other. This triggered trans-Atlantic delegations to each organization’s induction galas since then.

“In appreciation of Donna’s continued promotion and support of the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame, in 2016 Donna was awarded Honorary International Overseas Ambassador status in recognition of her work and support of the BDRHoF.”

The USA-1 DragFest Presented by Drag Racing List is in its 21st year. It is a bench racing gathering that began in Myerstown, Pennsylvania by Dave Hiesey, according to Larson.

In 1997, Hiesey approached Larson to host it at Larson’s facility in Dauphin. Together, they partnered the event, which Larson described as a bunch of people who loved drag racing getting together to share scrapbooks, photographs, memorabilia, home movies and videos. Recently, Larson has partnered with Dick Gerwer to produce the event. At some point over the years, people started bringing their old race cars, and then it became a car show as well.

Today, the single day event draws upwards of 500 people. Profits are donated to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, according to Larson.

The International Drag Racing Hall of Fame’s 29th Annual Induction Banquet, on which Ms. Garlits worked diligently to increase its visibility and importance, will be held on March 14 at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Gainesville, Florida. Ticketing and other information are available by calling the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing at 877-271-3278.

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