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Racing's "Big Daddy' to appear at zoo

Drag racing legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, who turned 60 last month, will sign autographs and talk to racing fans today during a special appearance at Lowry Park Zoo.

Garlits recently began racing again after a fiery crash sent him into retirement four years ago. In December, he tied for third place in the 1991 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Pepsi Snowbird Nationals at DeSoto Memorial Dragway in Bradenton.

A Tampa native who grew up in Seffner, Garlits has been racing for 35 years. He won 50 consecutive races in one stretch and has won 144 national events and set numerous speed records.

Although Garlits won't be bringing his top fuel "swamp rat" dragster for his appearance at the zoo, he will have his beloved 1950s Mercury driven by the Fonz in the television sitcom Happy Days.

"I think it's wonderful," said Bet Mickler, zoo spokeswoman. "We're always trying to add to the zoo experience."

If it seems awkward that the owner of the Museum of Drag Racing in Marion County is appearing locally at the zoo, there is an explanation.

Garlits' mother, Helen, lives down the street from the zoo and raises orchids. Zoo workers who were buying orchids from her asked for her advice on some flowers that were donated to the zoo. When they realized she was the mother of the famous "Big Daddy," they asked to get in touch with Garlits.

"The ladies that work in the office came down here and bought an orchid from me, and I told them they could have a beautiful orchid garden down there," Garlits' mother said. "I had no idea they'd be interested in anything to do with racing."

Fans of all ages can get an autographed photo or have their picture taken next to Garlits' car. Posters will also be available for purchase.

Garlits facts

WHAT: Drag racer Don Garlits

WHEN: Today, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

WHERE: Lowry Park Zoo, 7530 N Boulevard

COST: $5.50 adults, $4.50 seniors, $3.50 children under 12 (includes zoo admission)