What is Don Garlits’ Net Worth?
Don Garlits is an American drag racer and automotive engineer who has a net worth of $15 million. Don Garlits is considered to be “the father of drag racing,” which has earned him the nickname “Big Daddy.”
He began drag racing in the mid-1950s in a car he built himself. That car, made up of parts from a 1927 Ford Model “T” Roadster, a 1948 Mercury, a 1939 Ford, and a 1948 Ford, would help him win his first NHRA championship race. He turned pro three years later and spent the next few years popularizing drag racing on the East Coast and in England. After his front-engined car blew up and tore off a part of his right foot, Don built the first rear-engined drag racing vehicle. The new design solved multiple safety issues that had been problematic in traditional drag racing vehicles, and after Garlits proved that the new model was faster as well, the new design became commonplace. Don has won 17 championships (10 American Hot Rod Association, four International Hot Rod Association, and three National Hot Rod Association), and he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1989. He opened the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida, in 1984, and he has published the books “King of the Dragsters: The Story of Big Daddy ‘Don’ Garlits”(1971), “Tales from the Drag Strip: Memorable Stories from the Greatest Drag Racer of All Time” (2004), and “Don Garlits and His Cars” (2013).
Don Garlits was born Donald Glenn Garlits on January 14, 1932, in Tampa, Florida. His father worked as an electrical engineer before opening a health food restaurant, and his mother was a cashier at the business. After Don’s parents divorced, his mother married a dairy man, and Garlits told “Florida Trend” in 2012, “They built a dairy in north Tampa by Lowry Park. We had about 50 head. My brother and I and my stepdad milked those cows seven days a week. During high school, you got up at 4 in the morning, milked the cows, cleaned up, went to school, came back from school, milked the cows, did the homework, went to bed, got up, milked the cows. That’s how it went. That really puts the work ethic in you.” Don studied accounting at school and was at the top of his class. After graduation, he took a job at the Maas Brothers department store as an accountant, but his stepfather told him, “You want to go through life doing something you love — and you love cars. You should go work at a garage.”
Garlits built his first drag race car in the yard of his North Tampa home in 1954, and he modified a 1927 Ford Model T Roadster using a cutting torch and arc welder. He added a floor shift transmission from a 1939 Ford, an engine block from a 1948 Mercury, and an axle and differential from a 1948 Ford. According to the blog TBucketPlans.com, “It was this successful, formative roadster that would give Don the beginnings of his first rail job dragster when he took off the body, moved the engine back and moved the seat behind the rear end. This would be the 12.1 second, 108 mph early slingshot dragster with which Big Daddy would win the first NHRA race he entered when the NHRA Safety Safari came to Lake City, Florida. Three short years later, he would become a professional drag racer.” Garlits competed in the first national drag racing event, which was sponsored by the National Hot Rod Association, then he raced in the US Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield, California. He won the 1964 U.S. Nationals, then he traveled to England to compete in the International Drag Festival. In March 1970, Don was driving his Swamp Rat XIII when the transmission exploded, causing the car to break in half. The incident resulted in Garlits losing part of his right foot, and he told “Florida Trend,” “That’s when I drew up plans for what I thought would be a championship rear-engine car. I would go out to the shop in Seffner on my wheelchair, saw stuff out on the band saw and make the parts.”
In 1971, Don began racing in the Swamp Rat XIV, a mid-engined, front-cockpit car, and he soon won two Top Fuel Eliminator titles. In 1977, he switched from a 426 hemi engine to 417 cu after being persuaded by Ed Donovan, a parts and engine builder who was later inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. After a brief hiatus, Garlits returned to NHRA Top Fuel in 1984. In 1987, Don was injured in a blowover at an ADRA event and temporarily retired from racing. He subsequently spent four seasons as a color commentator for NHRA telecasts, and in late 1991, he raced in the Snowbird Nationals. He went back into retirement before the end of the 1992 season due to a detached retina, but he briefly returned to racing in 1998 and 2003. At the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series in 2003, Garlits qualified 16th and set a personal best speed (4.788 seconds at 319.98 mph) in the quarter-mile. In 2014, 82-year-old Don set a speed record (184 mph) in Swamp Rat 37, followed by a quarter-mile record (189.03 mph) in Swamp Rat 38 in 2019. Garlits has won more than 140 national events.
Don welcomed two daughters, GayLyn and Donna, with his wife, Pat. Sadly, Pat passed away in 2014, and Don told Hemmings.com, “My dear wife of nearly 61 years left this world and went over to the other side. She has been suffering a lot these last few days, and it was a blessing to see God take her into His care. I will miss her very badly, but will be with her sooner than I realize, as time is very different here that over there.” In 1994, Garlits ran for office in Florida’s 5th Congressional District as a Republican, but he lost to Democrat Karen Thurman. During the 2008 presidential election, he supported Republican Ron Paul.
Awards and Honors
Don’s Swamp Rat XXX was inducted into The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in 1987, and Don was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1989, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997, the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2004, the Gateway International Raceway Hall of Fame in 2008, and the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame (Overseas Member) in 2014. The National Hot Rod Association ranked Garlits #1 on its “Top 50 Drivers, 1951–2000” list, and in 2008, ESPN ranked him #23 on its list of the “top 25 drivers of all time.”