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DI CLASSIC: The Legend of Todd Tutterow

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Even though it’s been 27 years, Maurice Hayes vividly recalls the greatest drag racing success story to ever come out of his Auto Mechanics class at Pender High School. On a particular afternoon at school over a quarter century ago, Hayes still remembers the day his students were talking about careers. That’s when an 18 year old, skinny kid named Todd Tutterow spoke up and said he wanted to become a professional drag racer. “I laughed and told him that there was about as much chance of him going to the NBA,” said Hayes.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #37 in the summer of 2009.]

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Maurice Hayes, who still teaches Auto Mechanics at Pender High, readily admits that Tutterow was a mechanical whiz even then, but the thoughts of Todd racing in the Pro ranks seemed like a far-fetched pipe dream at the time. After the graduating class of 1982 went their separate ways, Mr. Hayes kept close tabs on Tutterow’s drag racing career as it began to take shape. Then one night 25 years later it finally happened. Mr. Hayes felt it was time to go see his star pupil in action. “I heard that he was going to be racing at Dunn-Benson, so I drove out there to watch him,” says Hayes, who hadn’t seen Tutterow since he graduated in 1982.

Mr. Hayes marveled as he rolled up to Tutterow’s pit and saw his 1941 Willys that had been hauled to the track with a chromed-out Kenworth rig, complete with living quarters, and a sprawling 53-foot trailer. As awe-struck as his former teacher was, Todd Tutterow was just as astonished to see Mr. Hayes. “Todd introduced me to his family and crew, and still called me ‘Mr. Hayes’, even though I told him that I was simply ‘Maurice’ to him now.” The reunion couldn’t have been scripted any better. Todd won the race that night at Dunn-Benson; dedicated the win to Mr. Hayes and handed his former teacher the trophy as they walked from the winner’s circle. “He pretty much floored me that night at Dunn-Benson,” says Hayes.

It’s actually a pretty fine example of fate that the paths of Todd Tutterow and Maurice Hayes even crossed to begin with as Todd’s father, Tom Tutterow, worked on a construction crew that built highways. Needless to say, the family moved from town to town on a regular basis. Born in Salisbury, NC in 1964, Todd found himself living near the coast of North Carolina in the early 1980’s. Because of the constant relocating, Todd attended 13 different schools during his youth, ultimately graduating from Pender High in 1982.

Even before he graduated, Todd Tutterow was introduced to drag racing at a young age. “My dad was a pretty serious drag racer in his own right,” says Tutterow. An ironic similarity can be traced all the way back to the 1960’s, when Tom Tutterow bought the car that won the 1969 U.S. Nationals in A/Gas – a 1941 Willys. Tom Tutterow could have hardly foreseen the future, and how his first-born son (5 years old at the time) would one day be behind the wheel of a 3 second, 41 Willys that gained international fame.

Years before he climbed into his first pro-built race car, and long before t-shirt requests were coming in from places like Sweden and Australia, Todd Tutterow started out as so many racers do – flooring the throttle of his street car at the local drag strip. In his case, Tutterow and his Plymouth Roadrunner were regulars at Coastal Plains Dragway in the early 1980’s.

Shortly after IHRA dissolved a popular class called Modified, a brand new league known as the Sportsman Class Racers Association (SCRA) sprang up. The Dick Moroso-sponsored series held their first event at North Carolina’s Piedmont Dragway. By now, Tutterow was behind the wheel of a Plymouth Duster and wanted to try his luck in the new SCRA series.

At the opening event, a 23-year old Todd Tutterow and his Duster (the lone Mopar in the class) placed runner-up. It didn’t take long before rumblings were heard among his competitors, who complained that Todd’s Duster had illegal shocks, and thus came the first known “Tutterow rule” ever issued. Todd showed up at the next race with the correct shocks and promptly put his Duster in the winner’s circle. By season’s end, the SCRA Modified Championship could have gone in 3 different directions, and would ultimately be decided at the season ending event. Todd eventually won the race, clinching the first of 14 championships he’s won in a variety of racing leagues.

Todd and Denise Tutterow

Back in the early days, Todd worked as a mechanic at Western Auto. Just up the street was a restaurant called Chevy’s where Todd would eat lunch most days. The owner of Chevy’s had a teenage daughter named Denise, who thought Todd was the bomb. Young Denise decided one day that she would ask Todd to take her to her prom in a few weeks. Thrice the starry-eyed teen walked to Western Auto to essentially ask Todd out, but couldn’t muster the courage. When she finally put courage into words, Todd agreed, but only on the condition that her daddy said it was ok.

Three months later, Todd asked Denise to marry him as they sat together on the hood of a 67 El Camino. Despite a 5-year age difference (at a time when it was slightly noticeable) Todd and Denise were married on December 13, while Denise was sill in high school. Denise fell right into the drag racing scene and has been by Todd’s side ever since.

As the 1990’s approached, Todd had teamed up with his cousin, Larry “Tater” Tutterow. Together, they campaigned a Chevelle in IHRA Hot Rod. One day at Bristol during a national event, Tater looked around at all the flashy hardware in the pits and suggested to Todd that maybe they, too, should get a “fast car”. From that casual remark at Bristol launched the beginning of Todd Tutterow’s heads-up career. “If you could have any car you could think of, which one would it be?” Tater inquired of Todd. “I’d buy Rickie Smith’s Pro Stock Trans Am,” Todd replied, after giving the question some reasonable consideration.

The car of which they spoke was actually for sale through Jerry Bickel’s race shop, and Tater placed a call to inquire about purchasing the car. “Would you be interested in a chicken farm as partial trade for Rickie Smith’s Pro Stock?” Tater asked Bickel. All these years later, Bickel still remembers the hilarious proposal. “Coming from a man who called himself ‘Tater’ I thought it was a legitimate offer,” laughed Bickel, who still jokes with Tater to this day about the fowl bid. The Trans Am was indeed purchased (with currency, not chickens) and Todd and Tater embarked on their “fast car” adventure.

Todd got the feel of the car briefly during the final season of Factory Modified. The following year, the duo got a hold of a Lenco and one of Rickie Smith’s old 500 c.i. motors, with the intentions of competing in a few local Quick-8’s. Additionally, and despite being outmatched by several hundred cubic inches, Todd also figured he’d try his luck in IHRA Pro Stock, but first he’d have to get his IHRA license upgraded. An IHRA sportsman race at Farmington Dragway would be the test bed for Tutterow’s professional license application.

Only a year earlier he was behind the wheel of a Hot Rod Chevelle that you could almost drive on the street, but now he’s strapped into a potential 4-second doorslammer, ready to make the fastest run of his life. His first time out with a big motor and having never driven a Lenco car in his life, Tutterow was about to show IHRA officials that he could handle a car of this caliber. “I had decided that for this first pass I would shut it down after second gear,” said Todd. “I did the burnout and it was pretty exhilarating; then I dropped the clutch and that car was so smooth,” recalled Todd.

Shortly after pulling second gear his original plan was falling apart fast. Todd kept pulling sticks until there was none left to pull. After calmly ripping off a 4.77 elapsed time, Tutterow returned to the pits and asked IHRA official, Satch Gragg, if the run would be good enough to get his license upgraded to Pro. “At Farmington, that pass would be good enough to get your Top Fuel license,” laughed Gragg.

And so it goes, Todd and Tater showed up for war on the IHRA mountain motor battlefield, but it didn’t take but a few races before the handwriting was on the wall. “It was obvious we were going to need more horsepower to run with these guys,” recalled Todd. Together they pooled their resources and purchased a second-hand motor that, although outdated, would be more suitable in IHRA Pro Stock. With a shoestring budget and a second string engine, Tutterow placed 4th in the world in IHRA Pro Stock points in 1991.

With travel and equipment costs presenting the inherited burden that goes along with going fast, Todd decided to build a nitrous motor out of the spare 500 inch power plant with plans of hitting a few races closer to home. The transformed Pro Stock motor was a stick of dynamite with nitrous injection, and the car was quite competitive at local Quick-8 events.

After a successful, yet short run with his first fast car, the Trans Am was sold, and suddenly the man with all the talent in the world was out of a ride. As you may expect, Todd was picked up quickly as a wheelman and tuner after catching the eye of Quick-8 Racers Association founder, Don Plemmons. The partnership lasted nearly a decade and yielded several Quick-8 Championships.

In 2000, Tutterow set out on his own, placing an order at TM Race Cars for the 1941 Willys that catapulted Todd’s fame to another world entirely. The car was an instant hit, but you’d have to hear the story of the prior two weeks before delivery to fully appreciate the car’s debut. There was a Quick-8 event in two weeks at Farmington Dragway, and Tutterow was determined to unveil his new weapon at the track that’s located 5 minutes from his shop.

The car needed two full weeks of work to be complete, and chassis man Tommy Mauney was leaving town on a racing trip. “I told Tommy that if he’d leave me a couple of his guys, I’d stay and finish the car at his shop,” recalled Tutterow. In need of a wiring specialist, Todd then drove across town and persuaded Gene Fulton to let him hire Stacy Hall for a couple days. With his workforce assembled Todd and crew flew into action to complete the Willys. While the car was being finished, Todd moved in with his brother Mike, who lives a few miles from Tommy’s shop.

After round the clock labor for 14 days straight, the time had finally come. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Carolina there was a Quick-8 in progress at Farmington Dragway. Pro Modified cars had already been called to the lanes for 1st round qualifying. Tutterow is nowhere to be found, in fact, he’s back at his shop putting rods in the motor. First round qualifying order has already been established when the call goes out for second round. Suddenly, a car hauler comes barreling through the gate. Tutterow unloads the Willys and falls in line at the back of the staging lanes. On the car’s maiden voyage, the Willys goes up in tire smoke at the hit of the throttle.

With one final shot to qualify, Tutterow dropped the clutch and danced the Willys to the finish line, squeaking into the field with a middle of the pack 4.24 elapsed time. “I came back and tweaked it a little and hooked up the third nitrous system,” recalled Tutterow. He then proceeded to lay down a trio of 4-teens and won the race on the first outing of the Willys. A fellow Quick-8 competitor reportedly commented with conviction, “Well boys, that’s it, this year is over.” He pretty much said it all, as Tutterow cruised to the Quick-8 Championship that year. With a total of 7 Quick-8 Racers Association Championships, Tutterow is the winningest driver to ever compete in the original heads-up doorslammer series.

Tutterow’s success in Piedmont’s Big Dog Shootout is also well publicized, winning 4 championships to date. He’s even won the championships of Piedmont Dragway’s notorious Big Dog Shootout Series as well as the Quick-8 Racers Association in the same year. The Willys will forever be a defining chapter of Todd’s career, producing some of the most talked about “Tutterow moments” of his drag racing life. Back in 2002, Todd clocked 4.02 in the Willys when it still had a nitrous motor between the frame rails.

Then there was the short stint with the turbo power plant, which lasted exactly 3 outings. “We ran 4.15 with a turbo in the Willys 6 years ago,” recalled Todd, and this was at a time when the best numbers from that combination typically yielded 4.30’s. “The turbo deal was cool and it ran pretty good, but there just wasn’t anywhere local to race it,” says Tutterow. Todd eventually became interested in blower engines, and his career was once again taken to another level entirely.

After racing with rules throughout his whole career – most of which were invented in his honor – Tutterow was eager to check out a brand new racing league where performance restrictions simply didn’t exist. In February of 2005, Todd traveled to Hattiesburg, Mississippi for the inaugural event. This “anything goes” style of racing sounded like a winning ticket, but there’s no need to get excited because this outlaw sideshow wasn’t going to last more than one season if you asked people in the know. The once-fledgling sanctioning body turned out to be the American Drag Racing League. Five seasons later, it’s grown into its own brand and provides racers like Todd Tutterow the opportunity to compete on premier tracks, while giving massive exposure for the weekend warrior and their pro-built race cars.

Then came the sad day for many of his fans, in May of last year, when Todd received a call from a potential buyer of his 41 Willys – even though the car was hardly for sale. It’s been said that everything has its price; just ask Danny Blankenship of South Carolina, who drove off into the sunset with one of the finest, most dominating cars in doorslammer drag racing.

With a fist full of dollars, Tutterow’s desire and resources supported buying a brand new car, but the wait was 6 months. That’s when he came upon his latest ride, a Larry Jeffers-built 2005 Corvette. Jeffers, who hails from the chassis builder-rich state of Missouri, had actually built the ‘Vette as his personal car and planned to put a hired driver behind the wheel. The deal quickly fell apart, and when Tutterow first learned of the car it had fewer than 10 runs on it.

Todd promptly purchased the car and brought it home to Yadkinville, NC, but finding the tune-up on this beast was something Todd struggled with to the point that many onlookers thought he had made a bad mistake. In resilient Tutterow fashion though, Todd and the Corvette found harmony. “I tried to throw too much at this car too soon,” says Tutterow, who now has the ‘Vette glued to the track, with consist runs as straight as a string.

When you consider a drag racing career that’s as storied, feared and celebrated as Todd Tutterow’s, it’s pretty ironic that he was just recently tagged with a universally recognized nickname. Honestly, a 14 time champion should have been marked with some sort of moniker years ago, but it wasn’t until the season opening ADRL event in Houston last March, that this often shy and humble man did something so unbelievably memorable that there was simply no getting around coming up with a nickname to mark the occasion.

Over the span of 2 days in early March, the term “200mph Todd” was coined. It’s not the catchiest thing in the world, and it hardly rhymes, but man does it ever fit. No, Todd Tutterow wasn’t the first to crack the magical barrier in the 1/8 mile or even the 1/4 mile, but when he ran 200mph 7 times in a row on Houston Raceway Park’s eighth-mile, the deal got noticed in a big way, especially since no one had done it before, nor has since.

The ADRL event in Houston is among Tutterow’s most cherished racing milestones. In addition to his phenomenal string of 200mph blasts that weekend, Todd took his first National Guard ADRL Minute Man trophy back home to the sleepy town of Yadkinville, North Carolina.

After the Houston race, it seemed that clocking 200mph on cue is something Todd Tutterow does more often than not. At the local O’Reilly Farmington Dragway the phone rings constantly, often with one question: “Is Tutterow gonna be there today?” The locals come out in droves to watch his Corvette accelerate from a standing stop to 200mph in 3.something seconds. It boggles the mind when you see it for the first time, and it ought to even if you see it as often as the sunrise.

Although incredibly fan-friendly, Todd Tutterow is not the most outgoing person by nature, to know him is to love him for many. Considering his somewhat shy demeanor, Tutterow seemed like an unlikely choice when a basketball coach once asked Todd to come help him motivate a group of youth that was struggling with their game. The team was made up of kids who were either troublemakers or knew nothing about the game to begin with. “We did it the Bad News Bears way,” laughed Todd, as he recalled his one-year stint as an assistant coach. The team, which started out close to the bottom at the beginning of the season wound up winning the championship.

Inspiring tales of dreams and desire can sometimes have a tendency to come full circle, and in the case of Todd Tutterow, it’s amazing how the small town legacy still motivates students at a tiny high school near the coast of North Carolina.

Maurice Hayes, the veteran educator who knew Todd way back when, will soon celebrate his 35th year teaching the Auto Mechanics class at Pender High. All these years later, one of the greatest lessons ever learned was the one that the teacher learned from a student. “I learned from Todd Tutterow to never make light of a kid’s dreams,” says Hayes. “Now days, it doesn’t matter if a kid tells me he wants to pilot the space shuttle, I tell him to go for it.”

As for the trophy that Tutterow gave his former teacher 25 years after graduating, Mr. Hayes takes it to school at the start of each new school year. “Every year at orientation I talk a little bit about careers and dreams,” says Hayes. “I pull up video clips of Todd from the internet and I put them on the big LCD projector so the whole class can see it. Then I point to the trophy and I tell those kids that in 1982 there was a young man named Todd Tutterow who sat right where they’re sitting now. I tell those kids that Todd lived out his dream, and I encourage them to do the same.”

Photographs by Bubba Smoothe and Van Abernethy

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