Some of the high-tech test...
Some of the high-tech test instrumentation in the trunk of Carlton's 340 Test Racer (the race-day "Don Carlton" car is visible in the background)
In 1977, following a few seasons competing in the Comp Eliminator and Sportsman categories because of rule changes and uncertainty about the Chrysler Racing Program, Carlton was back at the top of his beloved Pro Stock game. Coming off a '76 National Title win at Indianapolis, the team was busy fine-tuning a '76 Dodge Colt that looked like the ticket to another dominant season.
"We had just come off about four or five days of intense testing in Milan, Michigan," Oldfield recalled. "It was Tuesday afternoon, July 5, 1977. We'd been running that Colt all day, and the temperature was well above 90-degrees-it had been for about four days in a row. It was a normal test run. Don launched the car and everything looked perfect until it sounded like his foot came off the pedal; the car just started coasting. Then it started to swerve and it dug in. The car rolled, and he sustained a serious head injury."
Carlton, who was only 36 years old, never regained consciousness following the crash. A thorough investigation of the car he was driving did not identify any mechanical problems that would have contributed to the crash. Crewmembers who were at the track that day believe he simply passed out from dehydration and the stifling heat. Following the investigation, the wrecked '76 Dodge Colt was buried in a landfill.
At the time of his death, Carlton was so far ahead in the lead for the Grace Cup-the points program that determined the NHRA's Champion-his lead stood for months before it was overtaken.
Today, Donny Carlton runs a machine shop out of the building that was his father's garage in Lenoir, and has partnered with Gary Olliver (formerly of Tri-City Buggy) to build racing chassis' for weekend racers. So far, the chassis business has sold more than 1,700 units.
Life for the drag racing champions...
Life for the drag racing champions of the early '70s was primarily spent on the highway, not the dragstrip. Here, Carlton (right) is on his way to another race in 1973.
Now 43 years old and the father of three, Donny has a trophy case in his office with a large collection of national championship trophies and awards bearing his dad's name. Donny's son, Don Allen Carlton, is a huge racing fan and plans to someday be the third generation to stand in a winner's circle.
"Dad was a one-of-a-kind," Donny said. "He was so good at what he did, but he always stayed very humble about it. He absolutely loved racing, and he would have told you that he was lucky to have been able to make a comfortable living doing what he loved."
Donny Carlton raced stock class cars for a few years, but has not been involved in drag racing since his father's death. "They have a Don Carlton Memorial Race every year at the Wilkesboro track here in North Carolina," Donny said. "I'd like to go to it sometime, but it's just not the same going to the races without my dad."
Most drag racing fans from the'70s would agree with Donny-going to the races just isn't the same without his dad.