Don Carlton (left) talks to...
Don Carlton (left) talks to the Rod Shop team at the Dallas IHRA race in 1973, which Carlton won. He later drove for Rod Shop
Joe Pappas worked directly for Carlton from January 1973 until the end of 1974. Pappas explained that while Chrysler provided many of the engineers and technical experts on the Motown Missile and Mopar Missile programs, Carlton, as a contractor to Chrysler, also hired many of the team members personally.
"In the early days," Pappas said, "the drag racers were just out there developing as much horsepower as they could by the seat of their pants. After 1970, it became both a business and a science-and it changed the sport dramatically." When large companies invest huge amounts of money in something, it is always with the expectation that there will be a return on that investment. Wins, championships, and record-breaking runs were the measuring sticks.
Before his death in 1977, Carlton had won six major NHRA events and had earned at least one major title each year for five consecutive years. Following a particularly dominant season, one well-known magazine reported "the earth rotates a quarter-mile every time Don Carlton drops the hammer."
Don Carlton won the '76 NHRA...
Don Carlton won the '76 NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis in this Dodge Colt. This is the car he would be killed in the following summer
Dick Oldfield, who was also a key part of the Motown Missile and Mopar Missile programs, said the team relied heavily on data to ensure consistent performance. "Our instrumentation included a variety of sensors and transmitters in the car," Oldfield explained. "We had the ability to see everything that happened in the car sequentially, from the launch through the finish line. That was 35 years ago; I don't think most of the teams can do that even today," said Oldfield.
Other tests the team conducted involved taping small pieces of string all over the car to monitor airflow and resistance. Oldfield was often tasked with taking pictures while hanging out the window of a car driving alongside the Motown Missile and Mopar Missile.
The innovative Motown Missile and Mopar Missile programs are widely recognized for being among the earliest to use computers. The team did extensive development and testing with ClutchFlite transmissions and worked on both two- and six-speed configurations. The infamous Don Carlton Wire Car utilized titanium and magnesium components from the suspension and axle tubes down to the nuts, bolts, and pins. Because the chassis ended at the rear wheelhousing, the rearend of the Wire Car was literally held together with wires. Much of what they did was light years ahead of its time.
The team's technical philosophy was simple: eliminate all variables. By knowing the oil pressure, temperature, airflow, rpm, and everything else that could possibly be monitored by computer, the crew could easily determine the best configuration for the car at any given time. Testing and re-testing was the foundation of the entire program. Although the program focused on gathering information about the cars, the team also relied heavily on Carlton's skill in the driver seat.
"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."