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The good guy in the black cowboy hat

24 Nov 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

My most enduring memory of Larry Sutton is from a cold and misty night at Orange County Int'l Raceway, where Sutton, dapper in his trademark black cowboy hat, was on his third tour of duty as the chief starter at one of Southern California's iconic quarter-miles.

It was in late September of 1982, my first year here at National DRAGSTER, and the Funny Car final for OCIR's Parade of Champions event was up – Don Prudhomme against John Force and his Mountain Dew Citation. As "Snake" is backing up from his burnout, a pretty healthy trail of oil is spewing from beneath his Pepsi Challenger Pontiac. Prudhomme stops behind the line, and Sutton leans in and tells Prudhomme to shut 'er down, but the Vipe ain't having any of that.

Prudhomme dry hops the car forward a few feet, and Sutton gets even more emphatic. Shut it off. Prudhomme raps the throttle again and jumps forward another foot. I'm not sure why Prudhomme was so intent on winning what was pretty much an inconsequential match race, but I guess that's part of what made him a four-time world champ. Sutton knows he's not going to win this man versus machine standoff by stepping in front of a nitro-snorting Funny Car.

So Sutton reaches over and grabs a couple of the starting-line mops and chucks 'em onto the ground in Prudhomme's lane. Game over. "The Snake" shuts 'er off, and crew chief Bob Brandt is immediately in Sutton's face.

"Brandt starts calling me every name under the sun," recalled Sutton, "but Prudhomme comes walking up, pokes Brandt in the ribs, and says 'Go to the truck.' Prudhomme takes his helmet off, looks me in the face, and says, 'Larry, thank you very much.' He turned and walked away about four feet, stopped, and came back and said, 'I'm serious. Thanks.' "

And that, in a nutshell, is the respect and trust that Larry Sutton has earned and commands from the drivers for whom he has turned on the green light during a six-decade career at the switch.


(Above) Larry Sutton and assistant starter Bill Keys conferred with tuning master Gene Adams. The trademark black hat that Sutton first adopted at Lions was almost by accident. "My hair was already getting thin, and I just couldn’t get the rubber off my head after a day on the line," he recalled. "One day, the guys from the Magic Muffler fuel altered were giving away straw cowboy hats, and I wore one and realized that was going to stop that problem." (Below) Sutton doused his ex-ride, the Butters & Gerard fueler.

Off to a good start

If it seems to SoCal race fans that the man in the black cowboy hat has always been "their" starter, there's a good reason. He began working at Lions Drag Strip in 1956, handing out time slips at the tender age of 13 before graduating to helping tech cars. And when regular starter Danny Larus injured his back in 1959, Sutton filled in for him and ultimately replaced him, beginning a 13-year stint at the switch at "the Beach."

Part of what made Sutton a great starter is the fact that he not only sent the cars on their way, but he drove them, too. From age 16 until just very recently, Sutton piloted a variety of machines down the quarter-mile.

"I drove my first blown car at 16, a blown small-block gas dragster that I had gone into partnership with two other guys," he recalled. "I was working quite a bit, doing whatever I could to throw money into it. My parents had no idea what I was doing at the track until I brought the car home. They said, 'What's this?' and I said, 'Well, this is the car I've been driving.' I had a small-block Chevy C/Fueler that held the record in 1962 at 8.05, 182 for a short time until Jim Brissette broke it.

"When I was driving for Butters & Gerard in Top Fuel, I invited my parents and aunt and uncle to the track to watch me race. I made a run, and right in the lights, it lifted the blower and had a major fire. I turned off, and the ambulance and fire trucks were all there. I was totally fine but covered with oil, and I had to get back to tell my parents I was okay. I walked up behind them in the stands, and they were still looking down the track at all the flashing lights. I walked up and said, 'Hi, Mom.' She looked at me and said, 'Excuse me, was that you?' and I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'This is all very exciting, but I will never come back again.' She did, of course, but by then, I was in the rear-engine cars and a little bit safer."

Sutton wheeled several injected fuel cars and even the Traveler Willys, then went into partnership with Bill Carmichael on the Joint Venture A/Gas Dragster that also was a national record holder in Comp.

Sutton quickly decided that handicap racing wasn't for him, and before long, they were in NHRA's new Pro Comp class. Their dragster, with tuning help from Dale Armstrong, became the first Chevy-powered Alcohol Dragster to run in the sixes at the 1975 Fallnationals in Seattle and won a handful of big local shows.

"I think I've driven in every category in drag racing, including a blown fuel Corvette. At that time, it was almost like 'Have firesuit, will travel' because there was always someone in need of a driver. There were plenty of opportunities. Most people didn’t realize I was driving and starting," he said with a laugh. "They would bring the car up to the line, I’d get in and drive, hop on a motorcycle, and shortly after that, I'd be back on the line. I think a lot of people thought there were two Larry Suttons."


Sutton was the starter at Lions from 1959 until its final race in 1972 and witnessed Top Fuel's evolution. Here he readied to send Larry Dixon Sr.'s slingshot and Jeb Allen's rear-engine digger down "the Beach."


(Above) In his return to the class in 1977, Sutton drove the Circuit Breaker of Bob Richardson and Mike Roberts and later the Boyles-Meredith-Bertell-Sebek Hard Times dragster (below).

Moving on

Sutton's long tenure at Lions ended when the track did, on a cold night in December 1972 (legend has it that it wasn't Top Fuel finalists Carl Olson and Jeb Allen who made the last passes down the fabled Lions quarter-mile but rather Sutton and his assistant, Bill Keys, who were towed down the track while standing inside a wooden outhouse), but he wasn't idle long and quickly found a home on the starting line at Irwindale Raceway, where, as at Lions, his stint between the lanes lasted only as long as the racetrack, which closed in 1977.

The 1977 season also marked Sutton's return to Top Fuel; he stepped into a partnership with Bob Richardson and Mike Roberts on their Donovan-powered Circuit Breaker dragster when their shoe, Ken Moitoza, built his own car. Sutton licensed with an impressive 6.07 at the OCIR PDA event and drove the car to a pair of big wins in 1978, at the Nitro Championships and the PDA race.

Sutton delights in telling the story of how he won that PDA race despite barely being able to walk after rupturing a disc in his back.

"Richardson knew I was having back problems and that I had taken some time off of work, so he came to my house the week before the PDA race. I was on the couch and literally could not even walk, not even one step; I had to crawl everywhere I went. My wife let him in, and he asked if I was going to be able to drive the car and told me he'd need to see a doctor's release before he'd let me drive. This whole time we're talking, which was about two hours, I had to go to the bathroom, but there was no way I could walk there, but I couldn’t let him see that. I promised him that I could drive the car.

"Two days later, I crawled into the garage and into my 280Z, drove to the racetrack, and pulled up alongside the trailer. The crew brought a chair next to the car and was able to hoist me in and out of the car and into the chair without Richardson seeing me. I was able to pull myself into the cockpit and warm the car up and pull myself out, and this went on all day because it was a 32-car show. I'd get the crew to pull the truck up next to the chair, grab onto the doorhandle and pull myself into the cab, lay down, and pull on my firesuit, then crawl from the truck into the cockpit. At the top end, I'd crawl out and sit on the ground next to the car until the truck came, and we were able to do this all day without Richardson catching on because he was so busy working on the car. I ended up winning the show, but when we got back to the trailer, all of the stuff had been packed up, and my chair was gone. So I laid on the ground. Bob came up and said, 'Come on, let's go take the [winner's] pictures. I told him, 'You go; I can't walk.' He couldn't believe it. I told him, 'Bob, I told you I could drive the car; I didn't tell you I could walk.' Two weeks later I had back surgery, and two weeks after that, I was driving in Seattle."

Sutton also drove the Boyles-Meredith-Bertell-Sebek Hard Times Top Fueler and the Whitmore & Reed Top Fueler -- in which he was the No. 1 qualifier and runner-up to Don Garlits at the 1987 March Meet -- and a handful of Alcohol Dragsters, including a fun stint in Dave Hage's Donovan-powered Landlord and a four-year stint with Jerry Darien and the Darien-Meadows-Sutton car. Sutton almost put together a Top Fuel car in 1995 with his longtime heroes, James Warren and Roger Coburn, but Bruce Sarver brought some money and stepped into the car instead to earn his license.


After Lions closed, Sutton became chief starter at Irwindale Raceway and stayed until it closed in 1977. (Above) Sutton between Don Garlits and Dan Richins' Iron Horse and (below) after he put two fire extinguishers in front of a none-too-pleased Garlits to get him to shut off his leaking car.


Sutton was ever resourceful. At OCIR's Last Drag Race, he duct-taped Lou Gasparrelli's broken throttle linkage back together on the starting line.

Conflict of interest?

One naturally would debate the fairness of a track's starter also competing at the same track and wonder if the specter of a conflict of interest ever reared its head, but you'd be surprised to know that it was seldom a concern for those whom Sutton started and those whom he raced while the starter at Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County.

"At Irwindale one time, [track manager] Steve Evans told me that I had to choose, that I could either start or drive because he didn't want any conflicts of interest. So I told him, 'Okay, I'm going to drive; see you later,' so he quickly decided to leave well enough alone. Another time, I was driving the Joint Venture car and lost to Dale Armstrong, but Dale came up 20 pounds light for some reason, so they told me I was back in the show. Evans called me to the tower and told me, 'I have to put Armstrong back in because this is not going to look good.' Next thing you know, the racers all heard about it, and about 20 of them came charging up the return road to insist that I be put back in the show. Armstrong was a total sportsman, too; he agreed with the decision, but it was great to see that the racers all supported me."

Being one of them also earned Sutton the respect of the drivers – from the unknown to the superstars, who knew that he knew when a car was safe to run.

"Garlits had a big oil leak one time at Irwindale, and I told T.C. [Lemmons, Garlits' crew chief] to shut him off; he told me 'You tell him!' So I told him to shut it off, but he kept creeping forward, so I put both fire extinguishers in front of his front spoiler so he had no choice. I could see him throwing me a dirty look all the way down the return road. The next weekend I'm racing at Bakersfield, and I feel an arm come around my shoulder, and it was Garlits. 'Sure is a nice day, isn't it Larry?' he said. I said, 'It's a beautiful day, Don.' He said, 'Okay, have a good one!' That was Garlits' way of saying 'You were right.' He would never admit it, but that was his way of telling me I was right.

"I was filling in as the starter at Sacramento when Dwight Salisbury came up in the first round of Top Fuel and the visor of his helmet broke. I straddled the car and ripped the visor the rest of the way off. His eyes got so big like, 'It's over.' I took my sunglasses off, turned them around, and stuck them on his face. He staged, won the round, and brought me back my sunglasses and told me, 'That's the most bitchin' thing I've ever seen.'

"A lot of starters were never racers; they're up there, and they turn on the button but don't always know what's going on with the cars," he noted. "I can relate to what the drivers do, and I think that earned me a tremendous amount of respect because if I told them something was wrong with their car, it was wrong. No one wants to get shut off for no reason."

Former Top Fuel and Funny Car racer Mike Dunn, whose fuel license was signed by Sutton, recalled, "Larry was our Buster Couch. He was firm but fair and obviously loved the sport. I'll never forget what he told me after he and my dad signed my license: 'I really think you're going to go places,' he said. I thought that was pretty cool."

Randy Gillis, who raced bracket cars at OCIR under Sutton's command through the track's closing in late 1983, said, "Larry was a tough but great starter; everyone respected him, even in disagreements."


Being a starter ain't easy. (Above) Sutton suffered broken ribs when he was hit with a piece of Carl Olson's flywheel. (Below) As Sutton, third from left, arrived with a fire extinguisher to put out a small blaze on Joe Rodrigues' roadster, assistant OCIR starter Ron Morse was out cold after smashing his head on the suspended Christmas Tree.


Sutton can't help but flinch as Davey Uyehara's blower backfires on the starting line at Orange County I'l Raceway.

In the line of fire

Standing between two potential ticking time bombs primed to explode off the starting line, of course, put Sutton in a combat zone of sorts, and anyone who has spent as much time there as Sutton did in those early experimental years has the scars to go with the stories.

"I have never been hurt in a race car, but on the starting line, I've had my leg broken three times, I've had four broken fingers, six broken ribs, and all kinds of cuts and bruises and spent, all told, about a month and a half in hospital," he said, checking off the list as easily as if he were making a grocery list.

"Carl Olson broke the driveline, and the fire bottle on his steering came around and locked the throttle wide open, and the clutch exploded," he recalled painfully. "A six-inch chunk of the flywheel hit me in the chest and sent me flying through the air like Superman, broke a bunch of ribs.

"Then there was the time we had a turbine motorcycle running one night at Lions. It was running in the right lane, and I was standing just to the left of the center pole. Their tow vehicle was back by the rollers, and he took off after the motorcycle did and hit me dead center in my back with the right headlight. My right foot was flattened by the rear tire so that when I sat up, my foot was pointed straight at me."

Sutton was calm when those around him might not have been. He remembers wellwhen Joe Rodrigues' roadster caught fireon the starting line at OCIR and assistant starter Ron Morse, in his rush to help, charged headlong into the suspended Christmas Tree and was knocked out and spent two days in the hospital. "When something's wrong, you can't panic," he said.

He was on the line when Larry Dixon Sr.'s supercharger went nuclear on the starting line in January 1974 in the final round of the inaugural Cragar Five-Second Club race against Garlits, and Sutton also was the man in the middle for one of Garlits' career- and life-changing moments, his ghastly transmission explosion on the starting line at Lions in early 1970 that severed the front half of "Big Daddy's" foot. Sutton rushed to the cockpit that had tumbled to a stop just a few dozen feet downtrack but soon realized that his aid was needed elsewhere.

"I went to the car, and there were a lot of people there; I could see what had happened to Don, but there also was a young gentleman in the stands who was bleeding really bad from his arm. I got up into the stands, and, let me tell you, I've seen the good, bad, and the ugly in my years in drag racing, and this was the ugly. I reached up under his armpit and was able to stop the blood flow, but I knew I couldn’t let go. I held him all the way to the hospital and the doctors could tie him off. They told me later he was about out of blood.

"I turned around, and there was Garlits on the stretcher next to us. I could see his foot hanging off. He said, 'Larry, how's the kid?' He was worried about this fan, and I told him, 'Hey, you've got a pretty good cut yourself,' and he said, 'Well, I guess I won't have any problems with ingrown toenails.' That's Garlits for you."


(Above) Sutton was always in control, even sitting down on the job. (Below) When OCIR closed, the late Richard Schroeder presented him with a TV Guide on behalf of the staff, but he was far from retiring.

Leaving a legacy

"I have started at so many different racetracks I can’t begin to tell you all of them," said Sutton, who now enjoys a slower pace with wife Pam, who worked at tracks alongside Sutton and for NHRA for more than 40 years. "I've done pretty much everything I wanted to. I always wanted to start at Bowling Green and at Cordova, tracks back east that I'd always heard of, and even got to do that. I started three races for ADRA and got to start Cordova before that deal folded, and then [Parks NHRA Museum's Steve] Gibbs asked me to start at the [National Hot Rod Reunion] at Bowling Green, so I got to cross both of them off my list here the last couple of years.

"I've had racers call me every name in the book, but I sleep at night because I never hurt anyone by sending them down the racetrack in an unsafe car. Most of the time, they come back and thank me for shutting them off.

"The best example of that is Lew Arrington at Lions. We've all seen that photo of his car totally engulfed in fire, right? He had come up to the line for that run, and I shut him off because he didn't have any gloves on. C.J. [Hart] backed me up, and Lew goes and gets his gloves, and we all know what happened next. I put the fire out, and he climbed out of the car, laid his helmet and mask and gloves on the hood of the car, unzips his firesuit, and bends over and tells me, 'Okay, kick my ass.'

"Just a few years ago, a young gentleman came up to me and thanked me for saving his 'dumbass dad' … it was his son, Lew III, who works for John Force. It meant a lot to him all those years later. That really made me feel good."

They say that it's only the bad guys who wear black hats, but that must be only in the westerns, because as far as this longtime fan can see -- and tons of West Coast racers whom he sent safely on their quarter-mile journeys will attest -- Larry Sutton is truly one of the good guys ... black hat and all.