‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits heading to Canada to be race grand marshal — and he’s bringing Swamp Rat with him

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It’s a well-known fact that many Canadians like to come to Florida for vacation.

Well, one of Florida’s best-known treasures will be heading north of the border soon.

Octogenarian “Big Daddy” Don Garlits – one of the most legendary names in drag racing history – will serve as Grand Marshal of the International Hot Rod Association Mopar Nitro Jam Nationals, June 20-22 at Grand Bend Motorplex (about 110 miles northeast of Detroit).

Garlits, who owns the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., has earned 17 world championships across three sanctioning bodies in his six-decade career, including four Top Fuel titles in the IHRA. He also has 144 national event wins and became the first drag racer to break several speed barriers, including 170 mph, 180, 200, 240, 250, 260 and 270 in a dragster.

“I loved racing with the IHRA. They were always really good to me,” Garlits said. “(IHRA founder) Larry Carrier was always one of my favorite guys. In fact, the largest contract I ever signed in drag racing was signed with the IHRA and Larry when I inked a contract worth $100,000. It was a great time with a lot of memories. It is really a wonderful organization and I am looking forward to being back.”

Although he likely won’t race it, Garlits is bringing one of his fabled “Swamp Rat” dragsters — he’ll likely fire it up for fans to hear its earth-pounding power and sound — with him to Grand Bend to be displayed. He’ll also be on hand to sign autographs and pose for pictures, in addition to his other Grand Marshal duties.

“I am really looking forward to the trip to Canada,” Garlits said. “It has been a long time since I have been up there and I think it will be a great event and a great time for everyone involved.”

While other drag racers his age have been long-retired, the 82-year-old Garlits continues to challenge the pavement. He recently set a world record at Bradenton (Fla.) Motorsports Park by taking his battery-powered dragster down the track at 7.258 seconds at 184.01 mph.

Garlits is hoping to break the 200 mph barrier in a lithium battery-powered car in the coming months during more test attempts. If he does smash that mark, it would come on the 50th anniversary of Garlits becoming the first driver in drag racing history to hit 200 mph in a fuel car.

“This barrier is very important to me,” Garlits said in an IHRA media release. “It has been 50 years since I broke the 200 barrier in Top Fuel and I would like to do that again this year, hopefully before the 50-year reunion celebration of that run in August.

“But more importantly, it is important to me to show the world that there is another avenue that drag racing can take that is cleaner and much less expensive allowing more people to get involved.”

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