Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing - This Guy’s Garage
By Steve Magnante, Photography by Steve Magnante
"Every project I start, I attack with a vengeance. For the past 34 years, I've been growing the museum to make it what it is today." That’s what drag racing legend Big Daddy Don Garlits had to say when we recently visited the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. Sure, the place is packed with Big Daddy’s personal cars, but proving this is no egomaniacal shrine, Garlits is more than happy to share the glory of drag race history and give credit where credit is due. The historic machinery shown here is a very small fraction of what’s on display. The Garlits Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except on Christmas).
Land speed legend Craig Breedlove worked with stylist William Moore and IndyCar builder Quin Epperly to develop the streamlined Spirit II digger in 1964. It was originally intended as an ultralightweight, giant killer with Chevy small-block power, but Breedlove’s association with fuel Hemi builder Dave Carpenter led to the use of blown-nitro 354-, 370-, and 494-inch Chryslers. Seen here from the rear, note the sawed-off, Kamm-style back end, a configuration chosen for its reputedly lower drag than a point or teardrop.
In 1969, Don Prudhomme won the U.S. Nationals in this car, the Wynn’s Winder. It’s based on a 190-inch Don Long chassis, with aluminum bodywork by Tom Hanna and stitching by Tony Nancy. Motivation comes from an iron-block 426 Hemi prepared by Keith Black, with a direct drive and Schiefer clutch. One of Prudhomme’s most popular diggers, it has run 6.43 at 230.76.
The Creitz, Greer & Donovan dragster was a major hitter in 1968. Vic Brown and Steve Carbone shared driving duties, while Bob Creitz tuned the engine and clutch, Ed Greer paid the bills, and Ed Donovan supplied parts. The 392 Chrysler–powered rail won Championship races in Wichita, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was the runner-up at the ’68 Indy U.S. Nationals. Like Prudhomme’s ’69 Wynn’s Winder, it features a Don Long chassis, Tom Hanna body, and interior by Tony Nancy.
Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines ran this Kendal GT1–sponsored digger in 1965 and 1966. It rides on a Kent Fuller frame and packs a nitro-burning, supercharged 392 Chrysler Hemi. The Greek’s cars have always been potent—and pretty. Dig the House of Customs candy-apple red and gold paint scheme. It’s gone 7.3 at 214.8 with a Donovan direct drive and Schiefer clutch.
This Don Prudhomme ’Cuda–bodied flip-top Funny Car led a double life as the Mattel Hot Wheels Snake car in 1973, then with Army sponsorship graphics in 1974. Another Lil’ John Buttera creation, it’s powered by an Ed Pink 426 Hemi and won several National meets, including the NHRA Gatornationals and U.S. Nationals at Indy. Its best performance was a 6.26 at 225 mph.
Sneaky Pete Robinson had been running blown small-block Chevy dragsters before 1965. That’s when Ford provided him with access to its new 427 SOHC Cammer engine program. Robinson was among the chosen few fuel pilots to work with the new Cammer and quickly devised a gear train to replace its troublesome 6-foot timing chain. Though Robinson lost his life racing another SOHC-powered fueler at Pomona, his memory and reputation for innovation live on in this Tinker Toy’s digger.
Connie Kalitta was another Ford Cammer pilot who made life hell for the Chrysler establishment. In the Bounty Hunter, Kalitta won the ’67 Top Fuel trophy at all three winter meets (NHRA, AHRA, and NASCAR), making the car the only triple-crown winner in drag racing history. Ironically, just as it reached its peak of perfection, Ford discontinued the 427 SOHC and replaced it with the less successful Boss 429 program in 1969.
This unique 426-powered Top Fueler was built by John Buttera in 1971 with the sole intention of stopping Garlits at the U.S. Nationals. Big Daddy’s new rear-engine car was seemingly unstoppable. But its nearly open body had some thinking he’d left some aero on the table. And so this magnesium-bodied wedge racer was designed by Nye “Pulsator” Frank to (theoretically) apply downforce at speed. Though Prudhomme ran respectable 6.74s at 223, like most enclosed-body Top Fuel experiments, the aero advantage never materialized on the timeslip. This car appeared on the cover of the Aug. ’71 issue of Car Craft.
Kansas John Wiebe debuted this slingshot at the ’70 NHRA Winternationals. Though it didn’t win, Wiebe managed a runner-up position at the NHRA Springnationals a few months later. He fared much better on the AHRA circuit, winning the ’70 World Championships and collecting a $20,000 prize, the largest purse in drag racing at that time. This would be Wiebe’s last front-engine dragster. He switched to a Garlits-inspired rear-engine rail in 1973, but not before this car posted the quickest run to date for a front-engine fueler in 1972—a blistering 6.17 at Lions. Through it all, Wiebe relied on early-392 and Donovan 417 Hemi power.
Many racers predicted the early-354 and 392 Hemi’s days were over when Chrysler released the 426 Hemi in 1964. Even Garlits switched to 426 Hemi power in 1965. The funeral was premature. The only real problem with the early Hemi in Top Fuel racing was a shortage of engine blocks. In 1971, Ed Donovan addressed the problem with a strengthened 417ci aftermarket aluminum block that renewed “whale motor” usage for a few more years. Yep, Garlits even went back to early Donovan power for a few seasons. This is the first Donovan block ever cast.
By Steve Magnante
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