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NASCAR Darlington Preview

by Dave Grayson
Thursday, May 05, 2011

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Darlington Raceway
With all proper respects to the residents of Dallas-Texas, it's always been my personal belief that the term "Big D" stands for Darlington-South Carolina the home of the "lady in black" and "the track too tough to tame": Darlington International Raceway. There are some very personal reasons for that sentiment. I was born and raised in that area of South Carolina and this race track, along with the NASCAR events that it hosted, turned out to be a big part of our family life.

Speedway archives tells us that the history of this race track was created by a single Darlington area businessman who had a great American dream. It all began with Harold Brasington attended the 1933 Indianapolis 500 and then returned home to South Carolina filled with inspiration. Brasington began developing his dream of creating a massive super speedway that would accommodate stock car racing that was so prominent in the southeast at the time. Brasington also believed in another man's great American dream. He truly believed that Bill France Sr's newly formed NASCAR was going to catch on with the fans and become the next big thing in auto racing.

In 1949 Brasington finally acquired the acreage, from local farmer Sherman Ramsey, he needed to build his race track and began the process of creating his dream track out of a 70 acre plot of land that was originally used to grow cotton and peanuts. He even contributed his own muscle and blood to the project and often spent long days sitting on top of a road grader. This was despite the doubts of family, friends and just about every Darlington resident who truly believed that Brasington had completely lost his mind. Harold Brasington's one and a quarter mile super speedway was quickly dubbed "Harold's Folly."

While the overall construction process was quick and smooth, there was one unexpected change that would become highly significant to the Darlington Raceway legend. Sherman Ramsey approached Brasington and informed him that, under no uncertain terms, this race track was in no way going to impact his very lucrative minnow pond located on the property. To accommodate that demand, Brasington had to alter the design of turns three and four. That's how Darlington Raceway got its unique egg shaped oval. Also because of that modification, the drivers had to negotiate turn three by entering the turn at the highest point of the track. In most cases the right rear quarter panel lightly grazed the guard rail and that's how the legend of the Darlington stripe was created.

On Labor Day of 1950 NASCAR's first ever Southern 500 was set to take the green flag. Neither Harold Brasington or Bill France Sr was exactly sure what to expect. Their dream scenario was 10,000 ticket buying fans and were truly amazed when the official head count turned out to be 25,000. There was also pre event uncertainty regarding the car count for Darlington's first ever race. That issue was quickly resolved with the 75 cars and drivers who turned up that day.

California driver Johnny Mantz won that first Southern 500, driving a Hudson Hornet, after starting the race from the 75th starting position. The inaugural event took in excess of six hours to complete but turned up an astounding average race speed of 76 MPH.

Back in that time there was no Goodyear truck filled with all of the racing tires a team could ever need. Tire wear during this first ever Southern 500 became a huge issue. Race teams were actually canvassing the track's infield in an effort to purchase spare tires from spectators in order to continue the race. The lone exception was race winner Mantz who was smart enough to use truck tires which had a great deal of durability. That's how you win a Southern 500 from the 75th starting position.

The official debut of Darlington Raceway was both a critical and commercial success. A true legacy was created on that long Labor Day afternoon. When city officials and residents became aware of the tourism dollars this new race track was going to bring to Darlington, all of a sudden Harold Brasington didn't seem to be crazy anymore.

Regarding yours truly, I made my Darlington debut in 1959 at the age of seven when Dad decided I was now old enough to accompany him during a race weekend. I vividly recall the sense of awe struck wonder as the starting field took the initial green flag and those cars, painted in every color of the rainbow, went flying into turn one. It was the beginning of my own personal Darlington legacy.

I also vividly recall the controversy that came with the conclusion of the 1959 Southern 500. The major issue had nothing to do with NASCAR or the speedway. It was actually a cultural matter. It seemed that a genuine Yankee by the name of Jim Reed towed a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, from his native Peekskill-New York, to Darlington and won this race.

At first, the sons of the south were stunned and later became livid. There were post race boos and cat calls from the majority of the capacity crowd. The situation marked the first time I ever heard someone yell the "F" word. Not since the time of the civil war, when General Sherman marched his troops into Atlanta and set the town on fire, has a genuine Yankee angered that many southerners.

The 1960 Southern 500 also stands out in my memory because of the unique circumstances that saw NASCAR legend Buck Baker win his second of three Darlington races. Baker was driving a 1960 Pontiac owned by driver Jack Smith.

Jack Smith was one of the true NASCAR pioneers who began his career with the Grand National Series, now Sprint Cup, back in 1949. During the 1958 Southern 500 Smith was the victim of a horrendous accident. His car sailed over the guard rail, flipped five times and then rolled down an embankment where it came to rest in the speedway parking lot. Smith walked away from the accident but swore he would never race at Darlington again.

That's how Buck Baker wound up behind the wheel of Smith's Pontiac for the 1960 race. During the final moments of this race Baker was in the lead but discovered that his left rear tire was going flat. The tire eventually blew and, during the white flag lap, the rubber flew off in large chunks. When Baker crossed under the checkers he was literally riding on his left rear rim with sparks flying from the car. It was truly a stunning display of driver control.

Of all the Southern 500's that I attended, the 1965 race stands out in my memory the most. That's because there was a high level of drama connected to this particular race. Sadly, during the opening laps of this race, rookie driver Buren Skeen spun out and was struck by two oncoming cars. Tragically the injuries Skeen sustained from this accident would claim his life.

Despite that stunning circumstance, the race had to go on. Midway through the event drivers Sam McQuagg and Cale Yarborough were racing each other hard for the lead. Contact was made and all of a sudden Yarborough's Ford went flying over the guard rail. The car rolled down the embankment a reported six times and then came to rest against a light pole in the speedway's parking lot.

In what could only be termed as a true miracle, Yarborough emerged from that destroyed race car uninjured and even waved at the crowd when he returned to pit road. ABC Sports was there filming the event and, for many years, the video of particular crash was included in the opening of their famed "Wild World Of Sports" program.

The intense drama of the 1965 Southern 500 wasn't quite over. With less than 50 laps remaining in the race, drivers Fred Lorenzen, Darel Dieringer and Ned Jarrett occupied the top three positions. Lorenzen's efforts to win this race ended with a blown engine. Moments later traces of engine smoke began to emerge from the Mercury of new race leader Dieringer. Opting to go for a race finish, he backed off of the pace and limped his car home to a third place finish.

That set of circumstances placed Jarrett's Ford in the lead who had a whopping, not to mention record setting, 14 lap advantage over Buck Baker in second. However, the drama of this race wasn't quite over yet. It turned out that Jarrett's car was developing a serious overheating problem that made observers wonder if he would become the next victim of an expiring engine. It also made us wonder if Baker, driving an independently owned Chrysler, was going to be handed his fourth Southern 500 victory. Fortunately for Jarrett the engine didn't blow and he parked that Ford in victory lane with the car spewing steam like a geyser.

My personal Darlington experience also included another significant event in 1965. Our family dutifully made the trip to the speedway to be present for the official opening and dedication of the newly built Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum .

Often referred to as "the clown prince of racing" Joe Weatherly was a NASCAR pioneer and very popular series champion. Following a visit to the museum at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Weatherly contacted then Darlington Raceway President Bob Colvin and suggested a similar museum at Darlington for stock car racing. Colvin loved the idea and immediately launched the moves to make the project a reality.

Sadly, Weatherly didn't live long enough to see this museum. He was tragically killed in a racing accident at the former Riverside Raceway in California at the beginning of the 1964 racing season. Colvin decided that it was only proper to name to now completed museum in honor of Weatherly.

The dedication ceremony was held before a capacity crowd on May 2nd, 1965 with the notorious South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond on hand as the key note speaker. Hindsight being 20/20, this was probably a mistake. Often described, during the lengthy political career as a segregationist, a high profile word for racist, Thurmond unleashed a speech on this crowd of racing fans touting the evils of conservatives who were in favor of integration that was heavily peppered with racial slurs. Somewhere near the end of his speech, Senator Thurmond did eventually mention NASCAR and Weatherly. However, it was completely obvious that he knew virtually nothing about American stock car racing and very likely had no idea who Joe Weatherly was. It was a inappropriate display that yours truly, a 13 year old junior high school student at the time, never forgot.

However not even the rants of a cranky politician could ruin the majesty of walking into that museum for the first time. With the entire history of Darlington Raceway on display, the exhibits were awe inspiring and highly educational. In 2003 the facility was renamed the Darlington Raceway Museum, following a complete renovation and expansion, and remains a true testament to the history of stock car racing, Darlington Raceway and NASCAR.

In the late 1960's my personal Darlington experience took an unexpected turn. Following two decades plus of service in the United States Air Force, my Dad announced his retirement. But the thought of not getting up in the morning and putting on that uniform never really set with him. He moved the family to Darlington and became an Air Force ROTC instructor at a high school in the city of Florence just down the highway.

It wasn't the only major change Dad made that year. He also joined the Darlington Rescue Squad. In addition to providing medical aid and comfort to the injured, this volunteer unit also provided medical services during the two NASCAR weekends at the Darlington Raceway. That allowed me the opportunity to spend those weekends camping out in the raceway infield underneath massive Army tents. My primary job on race day morning was to pass out aspirin and cups of water to race fans who had way too much fun the night before. Believe me when I tell you that job kept me very busy.

Once the race started I got to stand on top of a large medical van overlooking turn one where I enjoyed a very up close and personal view of the event. The Darlington Rescue Squad also provided me direct access to the speedway's garage area. It was autograph heaven to a young NASCAR fan. It provided me the opportunity to meet the popular drivers of the day. Many of the drivers I met are the very names associated with the current and future induction into NASCAR's newly formed Hall Of Fame.

While my die hard race fan family spent many weekend trips visiting southeast based race tracks on the NASCAR schedule, none of them really had the impact on our quality time together the way Darlington Raceway did. Over the years the concept of life happens led me to my present home in southern California. Despite that, I remain true to my southern racing roots and the precious memories that they have provided.

When the green flag falls on Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500, I will of course be in front of my television taking in this classic event. But, at the same time, I will also be thinking about the days gone by and the time I've spent at "Big D."

By the way, in case you're wondering the answer is a resounding "YES!" I am one of those die hard fans who truly believes that the Southern 500 should be returned to its traditional and historical Labor Day weekend race date the way Harold Brasington, Bill France Sr and God intended.

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