How do you introduce a garage like this? Everyone knows who "Big Daddy" Don Garlits is, and, as you may guess, he has a monster collection of vintage goodies to go with the 250 cars on display in the multi-building Garlits Museum of Drag Racing near Ocala, Florida. Right after the Gatornationals, your author, who is working on a Race Hemi history book, set up an appointment to sit down with the man they were already calling the "Old Man" back in the '60s. As it turned out, Garlits and a couple of the guys who had helped him make history (in the '80s streamliner era) were in the process of doing a valve job on Swamp Rat VIII, which is a period-correct replica of the very first dragster Garlits installed a new, blown 426 Hemi into back in late 1964. It is also the car Garlits is planning on "cackle touring" in 2014. With an easy thrash on compared to today's "big show" cars (it took three hours instead of 75 minutes), Garlits expertly hand-lapped the valves, screwed the engine back together, loaded it up with 92 percent, and cackled in the tune-up while sitting in a museum parking lot within 200 feet of I-75 at 9 p.m. that night. How cool is that?
1. Formerly out of the Ramchargers speed shop in Detroit, Matt Cameron later toured and worked on Garlits' cars between 1986–1987. He came by to help his friends on this sunny March afternoon. These days, when he is not welling up with tears while warming a heavy-load nostalgia Hemi, he sells insurance in The Villages, Florida, and occasionally races a twin-turbo, 12-second street car.
2. The first 426 Hemi that Don Garlits raced was installed in Swamp Rat VIII. The original car was front-halved for additional wheelbase and became Swamp Rat X, which today is best known as the Red Car of 1966 and 1967. It is in the Garlits Museum on static display. This replica was built in 2005 by Don and the museum crew, and has a wheelbase of 140 inches—same as the original SR08.
3. "Big Daddy" Don Garlits is still at it 50 years after the 426 Hemi era began. His first drag race was in 1950, and his list of achievements could fill a book, which they have—several of them, in fact. The latest is the self-published Don Garlits and His Cars, available at the museum gift shop, which describes the history of each race car Garlits ever drove.
4. This is a set of original '42 Ford wheels and 16-inch tires that came off of a vintage Ford that Don still drives a lot. He recently put radials on that ride, so this quartet is going back into the Garlits Museum.
6. Now living in Livermore, California, and working on large industrial engines, Mike "Bo" Smith was in town for the annual International Drag Racing Hall of Fame banquet that the museum hosts during the Gatornationals weekend and stayed around to help with the thrash on SRVIII. He worked on Garlits' team twice, from 1978–1980 and again from 1985–1987, assisting the late Herb Parks, who was crew chief during that era.
This 426 Hemi is built as a fuel motor circa 1965, with an iron block, iron heads, and a Bryant crank for a total displacement of 500 ci. Other goodies include JE "cackle" pistons, a Crane solid-lifter cam, a Mooneyham 10-71 supercharger, and vintage Keith Black–tweaked Enderle injector system complete with rubber lines. Big Daddy says it lives forever on 92 percent. This is very close to the engine that started it all in 1965. After winning the March Meet with a trusty Chrysler Imperial motor (Connie Swingle was driving SRVIII at that race), Dodge PR boss Frank Wylie called up and told him dryly, "You need to be in that car, Don. We aren't selling 392s anymore!"