Black arm bands for the Lady in Black
By TOM HIGGINS
It's time once again for those of us who treasured the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway to break out the black arm bands.
We mourn for a second year the passing of NASCAR's oldest superspeedway event at its longest-lasting big track. An event that from 1950 through 2003 was as much a part of summer-turns-to-autumn tradition in the South as kickoffs in Athens, Blacksburg, Chapel Hill, Knoxville and Tuscaloosa.
Black arm bands for The Lady In Black. How appropriate.
The Lady In Black is the nickname a couple of motorsports writers tagged on Darlington Raceway in the early 1960s when the speedway's reputation for fickleness and treachery grew with each race there, especially the Southern 500.
NASCAR jilted the grand old Lady In Black and her mother lode of racing lore in 2004 for what officials deemed to be a younger, prettier, more vibrant face – California Speedway, which is near San Bernardino. The new gal also seemed to offer greater riches.
Thus, because of pieces of silver, the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day is no more.
Memories are all that's left for those of us that loved that race and that place far beyond any others in NASCAR.
And what memories they are!
The Southern 500 was Johnny Mantz outlasting a whopping, track-clogging field of 74 rivals to win the inaugural in 1950. Mantz, driving a Plymouth, averaged just 75.250 mph in a marathon lasting almost 6 hours, 39 minutes on the layout that raceway founder Harold Brasington carved out of cotton and peanut patches.
The Southern 500 was bon vivant driver Curtis Turner's party in the mid-1950s running out of booze on a Sunday, 24 hours before the race on Labor Day. South Carolina law forbade the sale of alcohol on the Sabbath, and tough track president Bob Colvin had spread the word that any local resident providing "refreshments" to the drivers would answer to him.
So Turner, a pilot, flew one of the party-goers 200 miles to the latter's home in Easley, S.C., to fetch enough liquor to keep the revelry going. There was no airport in the town, so Turner landed his plane on the street in front of the fellow's house.
Turns out a Baptist Church was on the other side of the street, and the landing-takeoff of the plane greatly disrupted services. Expectedly, Turner lost his flying license for awhile.
The Southern 500 was Fireball Roberts driving a '57 Chevrolet to victory in 1958, maintaining a consistent high, fast line through dangerous Turn 1. Never mind that the steel guard railing there had been knocked down by the crashes of Eddie Gray,Eddie Pagan and Jack Smith. The car of Smith actually went through the battered railing and out of the track.
The damage was so extensive that NASCAR gave up on trying to replace the rails and ordered the drivers to "go low and slow" through Turn 1.
Practically all complied except Roberts, who triumphed by five laps.
This was the first Southern 500 I covered and 55 years later it remains one of the most memorable assignments in a newspaper career that covered four decades.
The Southern 500 was Junior Johnson being flagged the winner in 1962, seemingly realizing a deep personal goal of capturing the race.
Johnson, a former moonshiner-turned-farmer, declared that he was going to use his approximately $21,000 in winnings to "build some more chicken houses."
Around midnight, after repeated checks of scoring cards, NASCAR declared that Larry Frank actually had triumphed, with Johnson second.
Associated Press motorsports writer Bloys Britt memorably observed, "Junior counted his chicken houses before they got built."
It proved to be the only victory of Frank's career.
The Southern 500 was Ned Jarrett winning in 1965 by an incredible margin of 14 laps, the greatest runaway in NASCAR history.
The articulate, gentlemanly Jarrett had spoken to a church youth group in the Darlington area on the eve of the Monday race.
As the teenagers said goodbye, they told Jarrett they were going to pray for his safety and good fotune.
"I've always believed in the power of prayer," Jarrett said, replying to a question about his incredible rout. "But never to this extent."
The Southern 500 was the race which had a number of big-name TV stars serve as grand marhals in the 1960s, much to the delight of fans. Mainly, they were western heroes like Cheyenne Bodie, aka Clint Walker; and Marshal Matt Dillon, the immensely popular James Arness of Gunsmoke.
One year there were co-grand marshals, Gunsmoke's Doc and Festus. They were veteran character actors Milburn Stone and Ken Curtis.
At a race-eve party a buddy of mine, somewhat inebriated, sidled up to Stone at the bar.
"Doc, Doc!" my pal shouted while pumping Stone's hand. "I've always wanted to drink as much as you do at the Long Branch Saloon!"
Stone eyed my buddy evenly, smiled slightly and said, "Apparently you have."
The Southern 500 was Richard Petty winning in 1967, continuing a victory streak that eventually reached a record 10 races.
Petty led all but 19 of the 364 laps in winning for the fifth straight time.
"This is really big for us," Richard said of the Petty Enterprises team. "Even if we win the rest of the races, this has to be the biggest thrill. We've been trying to win this race for 18 years. Daddy (Lee Petty, a three-time NASCAR champion) never was able to win it. I can count a dozen Southern 500s Daddy or I should have won."
Richard Petty raced for another quarter century before retiring at the end of the 1992 season with 200 victories. He never won the Southern 500 again.
The Southern 500 was fun-loving David Pearson playing practical jokes, including a classic one on his best pal, Bobby Isaac.
In the early 1970s Pearson phoned a local ice company and identified himself as Isaac. He explained that he was hosting a huge party at the Swamp Fox Motel between Florence and Timmonsville, S.C., and needed a truck load of ice on Sunday afternoon before the Monday race.
Because of S.C. "blue laws," there was no on-track activity at Darlington Raceway on Sundays in those days. Isaac was napping in his room at the motel when the "iceman cometh."
The driver of the ice truck knocked on Isaac's door to give him the bill and ask where he wanted the ice unloaded. Pearson and people he had tipped off about the prank gleefully peeked through the drapes from nearby rooms to watch what happened.
A groggy Isaac opened the door and, not surprisingly, reacted to what he was told with confusion, and then more than a little agitation.
Bobby Isaac was one of the most volatile characters ever in NASCAR. The delivery guy must have sensed this, and seen that a boiling Isaac was hot enough to melt that whole truckload of ice.
He went away with little argument.
The Southern 500 was Cale Yarborough, who had crawled under the fence as a boy of 11 to watch the first race in '50, realizing a lad's only-in–America dream and winning it himself in 1968.
The local hero from nearby Timmonsville was to win the 500 a record five times overall.
The Southern 500 was driver Jim Vandiver inexplicably stopping in Turn 3 after a checkered flag in the early ‘70s, jumping from his car, scrambling up the banking and over the wall, disappearing into the crowd.
Two Darlington County deputy sheriffs had been standing behind Vandiver's pit late in the race, and his crew had been showing him a board with the word "LAW" chalked on it.
What was going on?
The officers had a summons for Vandiver in a civil matter, and they planned to serve it when he came in.
Only Vandiver didn't.
After some time the deputies realized they had been hoodwinked. Red-faced, they left pit road with the laughter of crewmen ringing in their ears.
The Southern 500 was Jimmy Carter and Bob Dole campaigning simultaneously at the track for the presidency of the United States in the fall of 1976.
Carter dismayed his Secret Service detail by insisting on walking through the infield, a notorious place in those days.
"I can understand the agents being upset," cracked one wit in the press box. "In that infield, Carter simply could get hit by a stray (bullet)."
The Southern 500 was Terry Labonte, Buddy Baker and Joe Ruttman crashing on the backstretch while running under caution in the late ‘70s.
"It seemed," Labonte famously said, "that an invisible hand came out from the wall and smacked our cars into one another."
The Southern 500 was David Pearson, filling in for injured rookie Dale Earnhardt in 1979, driving to Darlington's Victory Lane once again.
Pearson, the "Silver Fox" who used smarts to post 105 victories, second on the alltime list, triumphed 10 times at Darlington overall, thrice in the Southern 500.
This was the last of those 500 wins, and came in dramatic fashion. Pearson rallied from a lap behind after leader Darrell Waltrip spun twice in 10 laps.
Five months earlier Pearson had been embarrassed mightily at Darlington when a misunderstanding in the pits caused a wheel to fall after as exited from a stop. Two days later Pearson and his team of many years, the Wood Brothers, parted ways.
"Momma told me everything happens for a reason," said Pearson. "Momma was always right."
The Southern 500 was Bill Elliott winning in 1985, a victory that brought him The Winston Million Bonus.
The prize went to a driver winning three of the sport's Big Four, or Grand Slam, events in a season. Elliott previously had won the Daytona and Winston 500s, then misfired in the Coke 600 at Charlotte. Darlington was his last chance.
Elliott escaped three close calls to collect the $1 million—the strong car of leader Harry Gant developed engine problems; he narrowly missed crashing into a spinning Earnhardt; and smoke from Yarborough's loose power steering line blinded him.
Elliott managed to barely edge Yarborough at the finish line.
"Everything fell into place for us," said a delighted Elliott. "Things fell perfect."
Well, not exactly.
Phony $1 million dollar bills that bore Bill's picture were poured over his head in Victory Lane. His name on them was misspelled "Eliott."
That made him "Milion Dolar Bil."
The Southern 500 was Earnhardt scoring his Labor Day classic victory in 1990 at Darlington, where he was to triumph nine times overall.
Typical of the man, he toughly managed to driving and ill-handling car for the final 75 miles to outrun Ernie Irvan and six others on the lead lap.
"It felt like I was dragging a cow around or had a tree hung up under the car," said Earnhardt. "My hands were getting numb from the vibration of the steering wheel. I felt sure a tire was going to blow, but Richard Childress talked me through it."
Afterward, the fierce competitor known as "The Intimidator," showed his soft, human side. He brightened the day for the depressed teenage daughter of a friend, saying that he had won the race just for her.
All this and much, much more was the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway for 54 years.
It is history and color that never will be matched at California Speedway, no matter how long NASCAR stages races there.
Where's my black arm band?