34 years ago.
Mention the name Don Carlton and Satch Gragg’s eyes still well up with tears. Time is supposed to heal all wounds but for the IHRA race official who grew up under the tutelage of the great Pro Stock driver, time only reminds him of the mentor he lost nearly
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him,” admitted Gragg, IHRA’s Div. 9 director.
Carlton was killed in 1977 while testing his Pro Stocker for the Chrysler Corporation.
Recently, at Rockingham Dragway, Gragg shared memories of watching his childhood hero dump the clutch at the legendary facility located across the street from the NASCAR track just outside of Rockingham, NC. After all, it seems just like yesterday when Gragg watched Carlton make Pro Stock’s first eight second pass at the famed dragway.
When the pair first met, Gragg was the 8-year old kid down the street who would find his way to Carlton’s shop in Saw Mills, NC, a small burb outside of Lenoir, NC. At the time, Carlton wasn’t a Pro Stock racer. In fact, Pro Stock hadn’t been created yet. Carlton and partner Phillip Mast were tearing up the dragstrip with a trick A/Gasser, 1936 Ford Coupe powered by a Chevrolet 409.
Gragg remembers all too well that it was Carlton who took him to his first drag race. The son of a truck driver, Carlton made for a sufficient father figure even though he was on 12 years older than Gragg.
The kid often tagged along with Carlton like a shadow on a sunny day. Wherever, Carlton went … Gragg followed. When Carlton accepted a job offer from Sox & Martin, Gragg came along as sort of a “package” deal. He remembers spending his high school summers toiling away alongside many of Pro Stock’s legends.
As Carlton’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, he eventually branched off on his own with a factory-backed effort, the Motown Missile and later the Mopar Missile, and subsequently spent most of his time up north in Detroit leaving Gragg, a newlywed, to keep Carlton’s North Carolina shop going toiling away faithfully on Carlton projects..
“He was more than someone who signed my paycheck,” remember Gragg. “He was like a dad and a good friend all rolled into one.”
Gragg believes the most profound lesson Carlton ever taught him was to never forget where you came from. Even though Carlton was a drag racing legend, to meet him on the street you never would have known how famous he was in the world of drag racing.
“He always remembered your name because he was good at names. He would make it a point if you were on the other side of the street walking to run over there and say hello and shake your hand,” Gragg recalled.
Carlton was an innovator and Gragg can only wonder what he might have developed as the Pro Stock division evolved into big business. He has no doubt Carlton would have made a significant impact on today’s Pro Stock.
“You know a lot of people don't know Don built and developed the first clutchless four-speed there ever was,” Gragg said. “Don had the first one and in fact he had one he brought home from Detroit. At the time I was driving Larry Parsons’ Camaro, running local, and it had the Chrysler transmission stuff in it. I tested it for him. In the first pass, I gained three-tenths. I ended up gaining a half-second from his innovation. He was well beyond his years as far as his knowledge. He was always thinking ahead.”
Carlton was a master of preparation, using test sessions to prepare for every race. Gragg said it wasn’t uncommon for Carlton to make a number of test runs in the days leading up to an event.
Ironically, it would be Carlton’s methodical preparation which would lead to his untimely death.
It was an extremely humid day in Milan, Mich., July 5, 1977, as Gragg was told, with temperatures hovering in the 90-degree range. Carlton was doing factory tests and had made two back-to-back test runs in his Dodge Colt. He returned to the pits long enough to drop the water in the car and replenish in order to test another part in the combination.
The run would be his last and Gragg, who was working in the shop back in North Carolina, will never forget the phone call he received informing him of the accident.
Carlton’s wife, Johnnie, told him that her husband took his helmet and driving jacket off, went over to the cooler and drank a cold drink down before jumping back into the car and heading out for another run.
This was the last time Carlton’s wife or kids, in attendance at the test session, would see him alive.
“Everybody seems to think he either fainted from going from hot to cold to hot in the way he did. He just seemed to black out. I was told he started drifting from the eighth-mile on and went over into the other lane and just got over into the grass. I think when he hit the grass, it kind of shook him up … maybe brought him back too. But by that time the car had started barrel rolling.”
Carlton’s death left a major void in Gragg’s life. He remained involved in drag racing and later accepted a job with the IHRA where he still works to this day.
Gragg said he still runs into Carlton’s son, Donny, a couple of times each year.
Gragg was reunited with Johnnie in 2007 when Carlton was inducted into the inaugural class for the North Carolina Motorsports Hall of Fame. The honor of presenting his childhood hero was bestowed upon Gragg. By virtue of alphabetical order, Carlton was the first inductee.
“I think it was fitting, he and Ronnie Sox went in together … they were both great and deserving,” said Gragg. “In my heart I always believed he should have been first and that’s no disrespect to anyone. It was just personal.”
For years, the IHRA, Carlton’s primary sanction, presented a sportsmanship award annually but ended the recognition in 1998. Gragg presented the award to many drivers who epitomized a similar spirit as Carlton. Gragg believed Carlton employed a spirit of his own.
“If he had to run you next round and you needed something, no problem, he'd try and help you fix your car,” said Gragg. “He didn't feel like that was a way to win a race. He believed you go to the starting line and take the tree and the best man at the other end won. If you beat him he would congratulate you. He was a good person.”
Sometimes the practice came back to bite him. But Carlton refused to let it affect his willingness to help someone the next time. This is why, Gragg believes, Carlton’s passing was tough not only for him, but the racing community as a whole.
Gregg believes that while Pro Stock has had some good racers over the years, there was only one Don Carlton.
“I'm sure there's some out there, I just haven't had personal contact with them,” said Gregg, when asked if there was anyone who was like Carlton. “You know there's a lot of good racers out there and there have been up through the years and prior to Don but having the personal contact with him and understanding the things he went through and how he reacted to them made him special to me.”