NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Some closure for one of drag racing history's mysteries

14 Jul 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Tim Ditt is circled in this famous Jon Asher photo of Don Garlits' trans explosion.

Although he is part of the legend of one of drag racing's great forks in the road, even the most hard-core fan would be hard-pressed to finger Timothy Daniel Ditt's place in the sport's history. For nearly 40 years, he has been largely anonymous, known only to many as the unknown and blurry figure in the grandstands, ominously circled in a crude hand-drawn oval on a famous photograph.

On March 8, 1970, Tim Ditt was just a 16-year-old fan like any other teenager, drawn to famed Lions Drag Strip that cool day to see the stars of the sport at the season-opening AHRA Grand American. He left the famed facility not the way he expected, in an ambulance and in peril, clinging to life at the end of a well-placed thumb in his armpit that stemmed the flow of lifeblood from his unconscious body.

Ditt was not at ground zero for the explosion heard 'round the drag racing world – the disintegration of the two-speed transmission in Don Garlits' Swamp Rat 13 front-engined Top Fueler that led "Big Daddy" to design the sport's first successful rear-engined dragster from his Long Beach, Calif., hospital bed – but he was at the cruel end of it when a random piece of debris nearly severed his left arm. Only the quick action of Lions starter Larry Sutton likely saved his life as the cowboy-hatted SoCal legend jammed his thumb onto the pressure point in Ditt's underarm and, like Peter and the dike, kept it there for the long ride to the hospital, where doctors completed the job of saving his life.

Top Fuel racing then was at a pivotal and, some might say, very experimental point in its history, and this near-tragic incident also paved the way for rules for better containment and other safety devices that have given our sport the tremendous safety record it enjoys today. Ditt is glad to be here to see it.

Larry Sutton (minus his trademark black cowboy hat!), left, was reunited with Tim Ditt, right, whose life he saved nearly 40 years ago at Lions Drag Strip.

More than 39 years after that fateful day, Ditt and Sutton were reunited at Sutton's Wrightwood, Calif., home, where they posed for this photo -- with a cardboard stand-up of "Big Daddy" – and where Ditt, now 56, learned firsthand of the day that changed his life, a day that until just recently was nothing but a jumbled memory.

Sutton dropped by the office yesterday to give me this photo, thanking me for my small part in the reunion. It had been my article about Sutton and his heroic actions and the help of Todd Hutcheson, nephew of former Top Fuel racer George "the Stone Man" Hutcheson, who is writing a book about that period in the sport's history, that got the two together.

It was an emotional moment for both, Sutton told me. "He's got a wife and two kids and some grandkids, and he told me he's had a wonderful life he wouldn’t have had if it weren't for me," he said. "I'm just glad for him to finally have some closure. He knew he was part of drag racing history but wasn't sure of much else that happened that day. He told me all he remembered was looking down at his injured arm and then falling backwards, then he remembered a real hard pain in his armpit. That was my thumb."

Hutcheson, who with co-writer Mickey Bryant hopes to release their book, Don Garlits, RED, early next year on the 40th anniversary of the incident, went to great pains to track down Ditt. He had a personal attachment to the incident because he, too, had been there, standing close enough to Garlits' side of the track to be bathed in the oil of Garlits' parts.

Hutcheson, a photojournalist for United Press International who has traveled the world covering royalty and rock stars, the Olympics , and more, used his reporter's nose to track down Ditt, beginning with nothing more than a name, then scoured phonebooks and the Internet before finally finding him in May.

"When I finally got ahold of him, he was overjoyed that someone else knew something about the incident," recalled Hutcheson.

Ditt, who underwent six hours of surgery on the day of the accident and 10 more surgeries in the next four years, finally met Sutton Saturday. Before driving off to meet his savior, he dropped Hutcheson an e-mail that read, in part, "I've prayed that I would live to have a chance to say thank you to the person (or persons) who saved my life. I'm really hoping I'll do more than cry and hug him. 39 years of feelings put on my mental back shelf, with no answers or closure may be over."

What a great moment and a great ending to an amazing story.