"My dad was never boastful," Donny explained. "He would have quickly pointed out that there were ten or twelve other drivers out there in the early '70s-guys like Ronnie Sox and Dick Landy, who were all equally talented. Dad never thought he was doing anything new or different behind the wheel. He was confident in his driving, but he knew he could beat those guys with technology. Dad always believed it was the technology that won races."
Pappas agrees with Donny's assessment of his father, but is quick to point out that Don's skill behind the wheel was a significant factor in winning races. "I watched a lot of drivers, and I worked with a lot of them," said Pappas. "Don Carlton was by far the best driver I ever saw-ever. He believed in the technology, and that was very important," Pappas continued. "But as we worked to eliminate variables, we knew the one place most racing teams had huge variables was in the cockpit. Not us. When Carlton was behind the wheel, he was so methodical; we knew we'd get exactly what we asked for from him." According to Pappas, Carlton had the unique ability to duplicate a run flawlessly many times in a row, a critical part of the team's testing program. If the engineers asked Carlton to shift to third gear at very specific rpm, he would shift at precisely that rpm without any variation, and, according to Pappas, Carlton could do that all afternoon. "For every one run we did at the track on race day, we did 50 test runs in the week leading up to the race," Pappas said. "We were always well-prepared, and we always knew what we had to do before we ever got to the track. Knowing what Don was going to do was as important to the plan as knowing how the engine would perform. Fortunately, we always knew how Don would perform."
Because Carlton believed races were won and lost before a car was ever staged, his pit operations were noticeably different than most racing teams. He and his team were more like a surgical staff than a pit crew. Cursing, yelling, and throwing damaged components-all commonplace with many racing teams-was not part of what they did.
Don Carlton stages the Mopar Missile in Gainesville, Florida, in 1973.
Everything the team did was deliberate and precise. Under normal circumstances, the crew rarely did more than minor adjustments once they arrived at the track-all of the major work had been done the days, weeks, and months before during the design and testing stages of their preparation.
The ultra-high-tech Motown Missile and Mopar Missile programs relied on a large number of specialists. The team, at various times, included Joe Pappas, Dick Oldfield, Clyde Hodges, Ted Spehar, Tom Hoover, Mike Koran, Tom Coddington, Al Adams, Len Bartush, and Ron Killen. Each contributed a special expertise, and the results were consistently successful.
While Carlton recognized the value trained engineers brought to his team, he also treasured the roll-up-your-sleeves approach of his long-time friend, Clyde Hodges, who had been with Carlton from the beginning. Also a Lenoir, North Carolina, native, Hodges was a self-taught mechanic who knew his way around an engine and could be relied upon for ideas that "educated" mechanics were quick to dismiss. "There were many times that my dad and Clyde were told something simply would not work," Donny recalled. "Some of the things they wanted to do looked impossible on paper, but they did them anyhow. Sometimes the engineers were right, but many times the ideas worked, and they worked well." Unfortunately, Clyde Hodges passed away in 2004.
Carlton prepares the Mopar Missile at the 1973 IHRA race in Dallas, Texas.
In keeping with the "eliminate all variables" technological philosophy, the Motown and Mopar Missile programs also relied on sciences not normally associated with drag racing. At a time when many racing teams could barely afford a trailer to haul their car to the track, Carlton's race-day equipment included a fully equipped weather van. "We had this cargo van full of weather-monitoring equipment," said Pappas. "It was a full-scale weather station, and it told us how much moisture was in the air, what the track temperature was, and what the weather was going to do to the car's performance that day. No one else was doing that kind of thing in the '70s."
The introduction of fully staffed racing teams, a never-ending supply of components, and large-scale testing programs forever changed the daily routine for professional drivers.
"As more money came into drag racing, it started to change some of the drivers and racing teams," Donny said. "Some of the guys were really concerned about who had the biggest trailer and the prettiest paint job. My dad was never into all of that. He didn't care about the politics, the huge trailers, and the fancy jackets. To him, it was all about being the fastest, and a lot of people loved him for that." Although Carlton never viewed drag racing as a popularity contest, he was a track celebrity by the mid-'70s. Recognized as both a mechanical genius and a top-notch driver, he consistently won national titles and set the standard for speed and elapsed time in the Pro Stock category. His match-ups with Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins and Don "Dyno Don" Nicholson are the stuff of drag racing legends.