Drag Illustrated Senior Staff Writer Van Abernethy usually goes solo whenever he rolls into America’s dragstrips, taking with him only a camera, a laptop, and stacks of DI shirts and back issues packed into the DI Sprinter van. However, he had a special guest with him when he attended the Don Carlton Memorial and Nostalgia Pro Stock race at Wilkesboro Dragway last summer. Van’s older brother, Mike Abernethy, grew up as an avid fan of Pro Stock racing during the class’s heyday, so he was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend what was one of the largest gatherings of nostalgia Pro Stockers ever. Mike provided us with this recap of the weekend’s festivities.
A Trip Down Memory lane
By Mike Abernethy
Photographs by Van Abernethy
In 1977, the Oakland Raiders began the year hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The average cost of a new home was just $43,000, and a gallon of gas was only 65 cents. Star Wars and King Kong were the popular films of the day and Rocky Balboa was the king of the ring.
Things seemed to go downhill from there that year, as Jimmy Carter was inaugurated king of the political world, and President of the country. The music world lost its king. Elvis Presley died in the summer of that year from a heart attack.
I’ve mentioned several “kings” thus far, and for a reason. On July 5, 1977, the sport of drag racing would lose one of the kings of Pro Stock, Don Carlton. Don was killed while testing at Milan Dragway in Michigan. As a boy of 12 years old in ‘77, anyone out of high school seemed like an AARP member and so did he, but in reality he was only 36 young years of age, and in the prime of his career.
We all remember where we were when notable events have taken place – the day President Reagan was shot, the space shuttle disaster, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and all other incidents that have shocked us down through the ages. This event was no different, as I remember exactly where I was when I got the horrible news that day. As a young drag racing fan, this was one of the worst things imaginable. As bad as this news was, over time, life and racing somehow went on. As we all grow older, life itself becomes more hectic. We get caught up in day-to-day activities, and new events and challenges seem to come our way to shape who and what we are. As a result, many of our memories of the past become just that – memories.
As a young kid growing up consumed with drag racing, what a stroke of luck it was that our family just happened to live right next door to a dragstrip. I often wondered how it could get any better than this. Back then, the only thing that could ruin the week was a dreaded four-letter word…rain. Since my world would be perfect with the absence of moisture, I watched the weather forecast more than any kid on the planet. I think I followed it more closely than The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore!
With just a little cooperation from Mother Nature, the weekend would deliver and all would be well. I’d get to see the likes of Don Carlton, Stu McDade, Harold Denton, and local favorites Clyde Curtis and Terry Adams. The hit parade would just keep coming when a young Rickie Smith, Roy Hill, “Dyno Don” Nicholson, or Lee Edwards would join the lineup. Those early years of Pro Stock were something else. We all have our “war stories” and we all talk about the “good old days” but those days sure were good. I once heard it said that “the good old days weren’t all that good, we were just young”. That may be true, but it was still good.
In recent years, Nostalgia Pro Stock racing has captured my imagination and interest because it conjures up memories from another time. Those iconic paint schemes rekindle that love of racing that had been all but forgotten.
That interest led me to attend the first annual Don Carlton Memorial and Nostalgia Pro Stock event at Wilkesboro Dragway. What an event it was. Wilkesboro is nestled in the foothills of North Carolina and was the perfect venue for this race. Many of the pioneers of early Pro Stock had scorched this scenic eighth-mile dragstrip many moons ago when weekend match racing was a way of life.
It seemed I was transported by time machine to the 70s when I saw the Rod Shop Dodge Colt, Doug Thompson’s original Grumpy Jenkins-owned Monza, and all the others that made the trip. Almost instantly you’re brought back to those early years that started it all. My trip down memory lane can’t go on much longer without a “hats off” to current racers Jeff Rudisill, Tyrone Graham, Bob Mayerle, North Wilkesboro track owners Phil and Pat Prout, and all the others who had a hand in organizing this memorial and bringing Nostalgia Pro Stock racing to the Southeast. Without a doubt, countless hours went into the planning and preparation of such an event.
Many memories came flooding back as so many of the racing legends I had not seen since childhood made an appearance to honor Don Carlton, and be a part of this inaugural event. In many ways, this was a family reunion – a reunion of a family of drag racers who started it all. Yes, the legends of our sport. They all seemed to be in their element signing autographs for us gray-headed fans that remembered their contributions, but more importantly seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the day spending time with old friends, former competitors and reliving memories from the track days themselves.
Making my way through the pits, I heard many stories about the drivers themselves. Many of the stories revolved around Don Carlton. I recall one story Bob Mayerle told me. When he decided to bring back the red, white, and blue “Rod Shop” paint scheme, he rightly wanted the Carlton family’s blessing to add Don’s name to the door since he piloted the car during that era. Don’s son, Donnie, told Mayerle that if his dad was here, he’d probably want to get behind the wheel and shake it down himself, so the blessing was granted.
I later talked with Donnie, and we discussed the event and what it meant to him, and how much it would have meant to his dad. He reminded me of what a humble man his father was. Donnie recalled how when he was a kid himself, he made up Don Carlton racing t-shirts and was going to proudly wear them to school. Don, being a modest man, and the wise father he was, forbid his son to wear them. Donnie wasn’t impressed with this proclamation, but obeyed nonetheless. Don went on to explain how they had been blessed with so many opportunities that many of the school kids’ parents had not had. He didn’t feel comfortable “flaunting” their success. He also added, “It’s not good to go around talking about yourself”. If you accomplish anything worthwhile, someone else will do the talking for you. And talk they did.
The events of the Don Carlton Memorial weekend that brought back memories of yesteryear have undoubtedly created even more memories and talk for future generations. And all this was made possible by a humble man that on this day would have been very proud.