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Drag racing changed drastically in the early '70s, and one driver whose career mirrored those changes was the late Don Carlton. He successfully drove for both Sox & Martin and Rod Shop, but will always be remembered best as the pilot of the legendary Motown Missile and Mopar Missile Pro Stock cars.
Don Carlton's racing career started like the careers of many drivers-in his spare time. But this hobby for average guys who labored over their cars after putting in eight hours at work quickly evolved into a mainstream sporting event with sizable corporate sponsorships and previously unthinkable amounts of money.
Even though drag racing has existed since the '30s, when racers gathered in California's Mojave Desert to test their mechanical and driving skills, it didn't get organized until the '50s, when the first dragstrip opened at an old airfield in California, and modern day drag racing was born. During the '50s and '60s, it was still viewed more as a "pastime" than a "sport."
Carlton's racing career began while he was still working in the furniture factories near his home in Lenoir, North Carolina. Like many drag racers of that era, he put in long hours at the factory before going home to work well into the night on his cars. Weekends for him could include as many as four races, many of which were hundreds of miles from home.
The typical drag racer of the late '60s spent a considerable amount of his own money building-and rebuilding-his car, only to spend more of his money taking that car to the track. Every now and then, he might win a race and recover a small portion of what he invested, but it was not a sport that made people wealthy.
According to Carlton's son, Donny, things started to change during the '67 and '68 racing seasons. "Before that time, a guy working out of his own basement or garage could show up and be competitive," Donny said. "By 1970, it was very difficult for the weekend guys to compete with the full-time teams."
Don Carlton launches the legendary Motown Missile at Pomona Raceway.
The changes in drag racing were obvious to fans and racers alike. Racing events that had been sponsored by small, locally owned businesses (primarily auto dealerships) were now being sponsored by large national corporations. Team sponsorship was following suit, and cars that once had "Ernie's Garage" on the side were now sporting beer logos. It didn't take the major auto manufacturers long to recognize the potential.
With a major sponsor of his own-Chrysler-Carlton left his job at the furniture factory and became a full-time drag racer. He was now able to implement many of the things he wanted to try with his cars, but couldn't afford in the past. The relationship with the factory allowed him access to professional automotive engineers from Chrysler's racing and testing programs. With a new team, new cars, and corporate funding behind him, Carlton was winning championships, setting records, and making a living doing what he loved to do.