“The Woodstock of Pro Stock” at Wilkesboro Dragway
By Becky White
If you missed it, you missed one the greatest drag racing events ever seen in the Carolinas. What a fantastic race. Racers came from as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin as well as many other far away places to participate. Will races such as this save the future of drag racing? If Wilkesboro Dragway’s event is any indication, it has a good start. Every parking spot to be had, inside the gates, was filled with racers and race cars…spectators were parked in the fields opposite the road from the track. In my 36 years of working in this sport, this was the most exciting race I have ever attended.
A multitude of special guests made it even more special…the children of Don Carlton…Donnie, Jr and Robyn; Stuart McDade; Harold Denton and crewman Bill Lamm; Bruce Walker along with his son Mark and Ronnie Hood…for those of you who don’t remember, Bruce drove Barry Setzer’s Pro Stocker back in the ‘70s; Morris Johnson, Jr; Jerry Eckman and Bill Orndorff; Dwight Arrowood and Roy Johnson; Terry Adams; Roy Hill and Bill Ellis…former owner of Wilkesboro Dragway and the person who supported and promoted Pro Stock racing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s more than any other single person in the sport.
Charlie Woodard of Lenoir was present along with all his drag racing friends…Charlie never actually drove a race car but he was instrumental in several Pro Stock cars over the years and was always in the background…giving MANY racers the chances they would never have had without him! He has been one of the biggest supporters ever of drag racing for nearly 50 years! Original Pro Stock race cars on display were Eddie Merritt’s Don Carlton Motown Missile Challenger and Mike Fonz’ Motown Missile Duster. Eddie is from Richmond Hill, GA. Eugene Coard brought the Ronnie Sox tribute car of Ron Lyles. Roy Hill and Sam Snyder both displayed sleek Pro Mod cars.
Between the rain on Thursday and the ‘bull’ all weekend, you just about needed hip boots to get around! The rain didn’t really bother anything…just took up a few parking spots with a mud hole, but the ‘bull’ was something else. A body could learn a LOT standing around listening to those guys talking about the ‘old days!’ People who race now have NO clue what these guys went through back in the ‘60s and ‘70s…they couldn’t just go out and BUY parts…they had to MAKE most of their high performance parts and they had to MAKE them work. There were almost no companies doing research and development on high performance parts…that was ALL done by the racers themselves in small back yard shops and sometimes even under their back yard shade trees.
One example…Don Carlton and Stuart McDade. Their ‘garage’ was Don’s basement…they couldn’t even get the whole race car inside. They worked under the hood inside, but the other work had to be done out in the elements! All those original Pro Stock racers can tell you multiple horror stories about how they did things…the hard work they went through…sometimes just to get to a race. Many of them didn’t even have decent tow vehicles! They just got to the races on a wing and a prayer and sometimes that didn’t even get them there without blow outs in worn out tires, not enough tools to work on their cars when they got to the races and many times, when they did get there, they STILL had to work on their cars because they couldn’t get them finished before they left home.
But nothing kept them home…the instinct was too strong to just GET THERE! When they broke their cars during time trials or the race, they didn’t give up, pack up and go home. They at least tried to fix what broke or blew so their hard work would not be wasted! For example…Harold Denton had a crank explosion in the ‘Cisco Kid’ Mustang one weekend at an IHRA points race. The explosion was so violent, pieces of the engine and crank literally blew the BACK hatch out of the car. He was VERY lucky he was not hit by flying hot metal! They either found or borrowed another engine, put it in the car, taped up the hatch and kept racing! These men…and the few women…who ran Pro Stock ‘back in the day’ gave us drag racing as we know it now but things are surely different than they were then.
Racers now don’t have to do their own R&D, they just either buy new engines or call up a company and order whatever parts they need, put them in or on and go to the races with new motor homes, new enclosed trailers and everything else they need. I recently told someone Friday was used for parking but not just parking…they had to not only unload their cars and check them over, they had to put up their awnings, get out their generators, their grills and their lawn furniture! Some racers in the early years didn’t even have lawn chairs…they just used their open trailers to sit on…when they got a chance to sit! (I ruined many a pair of jeans sitting on open race trailers while I did interviews!)
Racers who attended this race and received plaques for all they did for drag racing…especially Pro Stock racing…deserve a lot more recognition than just a plaque! They deserve our undying respect and adoration! THEY are the reasons we have the sport we have today…without them…we would never have had drag racing as the wonderful sport it is now. That is what Jeff and Tyrone hope to do…thank these people for all they have done…for us! To quote Jeff Rudisill, “This has been a history making event. There has NEVER been a race like this in the history of drag racing and we hope we can continue to have more so the young people will know what a great and wonderful sport they are part of!”
Original Pro Stock cars running in the event was a ’78 ‘Dyno Don’ Mustang owned by Gordon Moore of Statesville; a ’76 Grumpy Jenkins Monza owned and driven by Doug Thompson of Murphy, NC; Jim Kinnett’s Volare, owned and driven by Kurt Huntington; a ’76 Dave Shaffer Mustang owned by Dr. Ron Burgess; James Brown of Kittrell, NC in the Bo Beverly Dodge Dart; Ed Miller in his ’70 Plymouth Duster and ‘Bullet’ Bob Reed in his ’68 factory built Barracuda Super Stock/Pro Stock car. Bob is 78 years old and still driving his car…he beat all three of the racers he ran during the event!
Racers who brought their replica Pro Stock cars were Mike Roppo of Chicago who owns and drives the black and gold Rod Shop Trans Am Butch Leal raced…the only black and gold car to ever run under the Rod Shop logo; Bob Mayerle who owns the Rod Shop Dodge Colt…driven by Roland Lursky; Rick Cassel…owner and driver of a replica of Bob Glidden’s ’79 Plymouth Arrow; Kevin Prior in his replica Warren Johnson ’87 Olds Firenza and Jeff Rudisill in the replica Jerry Eckman/Bill Orndoff ‘68 Camaro, driven by Jeff and owned by Jeff and Tyrone Graham.
This entire event was the brain child of Jeff and Tyrone…they have worked tirelessly for more than a year to get this one race put together and scheduled at Wilkesboro Dragway with much help from Pat and Phil Halberdale, the track owners. This was one of the most well run races ever in the history of our sport…no hitches, no glitches! Over 3000 spectators came to be a part of this event…the largest crowd ever in the history of this track!
Racers came to the Carolina track from Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Maine, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and several other states. Some came from as far away as Canada and California, Maine and Massachusetts to see how this race would turn out. And last but not least, naturally there were more cars and stars from North Carolina than any other state because this is where the most famous of ALL drag racing classes…Pro Stock…got its start. More replica cars are in development as I write this…a Jim Ruth/Harold Denton ‘Party Time’ Trans Am…one of the most popular Pro Stockers ever; a Darrell Alderman Pro Stock Dodge Avenger; two more Pro Stock Monzas from the ‘ 70s; Joe Lepone’s JOB Pro Stock Beretta and a Lee Shepherd/Bruce Allen Super Shops Beretta.
There are others in the works…many right here in both Carolinas and we are all excited to hear about this fire storm of ‘new’ OLD Pro Stockers we will have on tap for next year! ‘Southern Style Pro Stock Match Racing’ was a BIG deal here and all across the eastern U.S. for many years and now we are going to be privy to see these types of races again here in the south.
This was a very emotional race for a lot of people. Many racers who attended literally got started because of Don Carlton. Don was a furniture factory employee in his youth but he had big dreams and he made them all come true. He worked hard and struggled for years to become one of the most famous drag racers in history. He was…and still is…a hero to so many people, not just the fans but the many racers he and Clyde Hodges gave encouragement to…a man who went on to become famous as well in just the few years he got to do what he loved to do most and make his dreams come true!
A ‘missing man’ parade lap was held to honor Don…leaving his spot empty to show the honor and respect all racers have for this man who brought Pro Stock racing to the forefront of our sport so long ago. Don was killed in a testing accident for Chrysler Corporation in 1977 at the young age of 37 but in his short career, he made his mark on this sport and everyone in it. A quiet, unassuming genius when it came to cars and drag racing, Don’s legend lives on almost 40 years after his death! He still is and always will be our hero.
Biographies on many racers to follow.
By Becky White
Don Carlton was one of the most popular, most famous and most remembered drag racers to ever come from this part of the country! He and his partner, Stuart McDade, started racing in the mid ‘60s and raced until he passed away in an accident testing a car for Chrysler in 1977. Stuart quit shortly after. They started with Chevys and ran several in Super Stock and Modified until 1968…at which time Don got a ’68 Barracuda SS/A car. He ran it through ’68, ’69 and ’70, winning races and setting records nearly everywhere he went.
In 1970, he got a ’70 Challenger which was one of the first early primitive ‘southern style’ Pro Stockers. Buddy Martin wanted him to drive for the Sox & Martin Race team and do some match racing. It seemed he always got stuck in the lower classes when he raced with them so he set out on his own. When Dick Humbert broke his leg and could no longer drive for Billy Stepp, Billy hired Don to drive his Pro Stock car for about half a season. Chrysler’s Tom Hoover was able to watch Don drive at some test sessions, liked what he saw and put him in the Mopar Missile Challenger.
Dick Oldfield was the driver of that car but when they went to a stick shift, Dick had to step out of the driver’s seat. That started his Mopar Missile career…one of the greatest teams to ever participate in this sport. Don won his first major NHRA Pro Stock race in 1972 at the GatorNationals running 9.58, 9.56, 9.55 and 9.55 over Melvin Yow. At the 1973 WinterNationals in Pomona, Don not only out-qualified Dyno Don Nicholson, he outran him when the two top qualifiers met in the finals.
In his short, but illustrious career, Don won 6 NHRA National events and had one other major win not to mention hundreds of match races all over the country. When NHRA legislated the Mopars out of NHRA competition with weight rules and such, Don quit racing for Chrysler. But he didn’t quit racing. He came home and started his own Pro Stock teams. He built a lot of cars and became a member of the United States Pro Stock Racing Team.
Don won more than his share of those southern style match races which were so popular for so long. His cars were some of the most popular cars in the country and he was always a favorite with the fans. Don Carlton was a hero to many, especially in the Carolina hills. He was one of the winningest drivers in drag racing in the short span of his years. He was only 37 when he slipped the bonds of this earth. He is still missed.