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Reyes On Tour:

"Big Daddy" Don Garlits

story by Aaron Green, photos by Steve Reyes

Every sport has a major standout personality, one that shines above all the rest, the greatest of all. In Pro Baseball it was Babe Ruth, in NASCAR it was Richard Petty, in Heavyweight Boxing it was Muhammad Ali, in Drag Racing it is Don Garlits. Many have called him “Big Daddy”, “The Old Man”, the “King of the Dragsters”, “Large Father”, the “Swamp Rat”, or just plain “Big”, among other names over the years. In the sport of Drag Racing Don Garlits is simply “The Greatest”, like Ali was in the boxing ring. Believe it or not, Garlits is still active in his sport of choice today, even though he is in his 70’s. At an age when most people are shopping for funeral plots or playing shuffleboard, Don Garlits is going 300 miles per hour plus on the race track in a Top Fuel Dragster!

Don Garlits came from humble beginnings in the Tampa, Florida area, and became involved in drag racing in the 1950’s, he eventually became voted the number one NHRA Drag Racing Driver of all time by a jury of his peers at the turn of the last Century, and rightfully so. No person in the history of Drag Racing has contributed as much to the sport in as many different ways as Don Garlits has. He came up with performance innovations on the track like aerodynamic tricks and better fuel systems, as Garlits was always trying to build the “better mouse trap”. He made it possible for racers to run for larger purses and promoted better safety ideas at racing events around the World, by challenging sanctioning bodies to pay more by promoting his own events for big prize money, and Garlits always cared about keeping the racing drivers safe on the track as he has felt “the sting of battle” many times himself. Also, for old and new racing fans he has helped keep the history of the sport alive with his Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. The museum is one of his greatest contributions to the sport.

Since he started out in the 1950’s “Big Daddy” Don Garlits became the first drag racer to top 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260, and 270 miles per hour in the 1/4 mile. He was also the first to top 200 miles per hour in the 1/8 mile. He has an incredible winning record, Garlits has won 17 World Champion Titles (NHRA, IHRA, and AHRA), and he won 8 NHRA U.S. National Championships, and a total of 144 National Events during his long and illustrious career.

Just some of the awards he has received over the years.....Car Craft Magazines All-Star Team “Top Fuel Driver of The Year” 1969, ’70, ’72, ’73, ’75, ’76, ’77, ’78, and ’86. Car Craft Magazines All-Star Team “Chassis Builder of the Year” (Top Fuel) 1970 and 1971. Car Craft Magazines “Man of the Year” 1969, ’71, ’72, and 1973. Drag News Magazine voted Don as, “Man of the Year” 1971, ‘73, and ‘75. Garlits was inducted into both the Florida Pro Sports Hall of Fame in Lake City, Florida, and the Race Drivers Hall of Fame at Ontario, California in 1973. He was named as Honorary President of the Cragar 5 Second Club in 1974. In 1975 Don was elected to the Goodyear Motorsports Advisory Board and received the Key to the City of Tampa. He received the Key to the City of Las Vegas in 1984. In 1985 Garlits was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Alabama, and received the Sid Collins Award, and was chosen NHRA Division 2 “Person of the Year”. In 1985 and 1986 he was voted National Hot Rod Association Division 2 “Professional Category Driver of the Year”. 1989 saw Don Garlits inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Southeastern Division Hall of Fame, and he was also inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, Michigan that same year. You get the idea.....Don Garlits has been there and done that!

For fans of motorsports and high performance cars, a stop at Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing is a must, as you can see many of the cars pictured in this story in person. Look for the museum just to the east of Interstate 75 at Exit 341 in the southern part of Ocala, Florida.

Our friend Steve Reyes was the first photographer to be inducted into The International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, which was established by Don Garlits. While a list of “Big Daddy’s” accomplishments in the sport of Drag Racing could easily fill this entire magazine, we will let our award winning photographer Steve Reyes take you on a trip down “memory lane” with some of Don Garlits cars from the past. After all, they say “a picture is worth a thousand words”.....CN

Looking for a classic drag racing photo of your favorite car or star? Chances are Steve Reyes has it. Or if you would like a professional photo shoot with your car, you can contact Steve Reyes via e-mail at