By Tim Leeming
I can remember long ago, before NASCAR had been around long enough to have really establised its own “tradition” or “traditions”, the Big Bill publicist often used that word to give the feeling of “family” to the sport. In reality, it was somewhat like a family, sometimes dysfunctional but still a family, of racers, mechanics, officials and fans. I have oft repeated the camaraderie among most all involved in the sport in the early days. For my purposes, the definition of the “early days” runs through the late 70s. Not sure exactly why that cutoff date, but having been around the sport since the 50s, it was in the late 70s when I perceived the first real change in attitude in the sport.
Perhaps it was in the 1979 live, flag-to-flag coverage of a very exciting ending to the Daytona 500 that opened the sport to a national audience, many of whom were snow bound and had no choice but to watch television that day. At the very least that is what we were led to believe. And over and over the mantra was repeated that the turn three fight between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough is what drew the world to the sport. I refuse to accept that reasoning, however, as the sport of the day was racing, you know , that competition between men and machines, and it was NOT fisticuffs because of a wreck. The only laugh I get out of that fight is Bobby Allison’s explanation as to how Cale kept hitting Bobby’s fist with his nose. Bobby has gotten so good with that explanation that he can now say it with an almost straight face. It was a great day at the races, but I just refuse to accept the explanation that without the fight, no new fans would have been acquired.
Our country, the United States of America to those of you listening outside our borders, has a long list of traditions, as I’m sure each of your respective countries do. Families have traditions passed down from generation to generation just like the valued family recipe with the “secret ingredient” known only to the mother and daughter between whom it is exchanged. Tradition is important to countries, families, groups, companies, and even sports. NASCAR would have us think that although the sport has advanced to the huge stage on which it now plays every week that tradition is important. They run commercials during race broadcasts that show that the more things change, the more things stay the same. The “catch phrase”is something like “everything has changed; nothing has changed”. As to that, I won’t go into detail here tonight but some day we can have a long discussion how what we see today is nothing, and I mean nothing like what we were seeing even in the 90s. About the only constant is that the cars still have four wheels and tires, at least when Goodyear can figure out how to keep the tires from blowing. But tradition? Where? Show me.
I still have vivid memories of my first trip to Darlington in the spring on 1957 for the convertible race. Uncle Bobby and I had listened to the Southern 500 for as many years as I could remember up to that point, and Uncle Bobby had been taking me to races all over South Carolina and some adventures into North Carolina back then. But all those tracks were quarter and half-mile dirt tracks. I had often tried to imagine what Darlington may look like, but at my young age and never having seen a “super speedway” I was little prepared for what I saw in the early morning sunshine that morning we entered the Darlington infield. It was a world of its own and would, from that day until 2004, become my twice a year weekend retreat into racing history.
Darlington is unique in all the world of racing. Imaginative marketers nicknamed it “too tough to tame” and “the lady in black”. Kyle Petty once said they should fill the place with water and make a lake out of it and stock it with catfish. Some drivers got it and could win more than once. Other drivers just had heart break after heart break as the track seemed to show favoritism to one or the other. But, Darlington had tradition behind it by the time I made my first trip there.
Joe Weatherly had a love/hate affair with Darlington that is little remembered now but was a big part of racing there in the 50s through Lil Joe’s death in 1964. Fireball Roberts found the key to success more than once but when Darlington decided to “bite him” it did so with a viciousness well recalled. Men died there, both on the track, and in the pits, and that is a part of Darlington as much as the famous “Darlington Stripe” which was a badge of honor earned by every competitive driver to ever run there. Maybe, just maybe, Herman Beam never earn that stripe, but the rest did.
I remember those days when the guardrail, the metal kind, in turns three and four were actually used to gain speed. Drivers had 2X4s in the right side of the car to keep the sheet metal from bending in, but they ran right against the wall. I remember going over for qualifying one day and driving past turns 3 and 4 from the outside of the track as practice was underway. It was a thrill to watch that rail “wiggle” back and forth as the cars rubbed it. Truly the phrase “rubbing is racing” was no more evident than at Darlington.
I remember the pageantry of Darlington. Everything that went on there. The Miss Southern 500 Beauty Pageant. The Golf Tournament. The Pure Darlington Record Club. The Southern 500 Parade. Darlington is a small town located in the Pee Dee of South Carolina and it was through Harold Brasington’s dream and hard work that such a place became a Mecca for Stock Car racing. The sleepy little town of Darlington awoke to racing twice a year. Sort of like the mythical Scottish Town of Brigadoon that came to life for one day once every 100 years.
I remember going to some of the Southern 500 parades which were always full of Shriners, Scouts, both Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies and Cub Scouts. Movie and Television stars came to the little town for those parades and to be Grand Marshalls at the race. Some of those stars I actually had a chance to meet after the parade. Also in the parades were almost any and every local organization located in Darlington. It was a local event, full of local color and local people. In short, it was an amazing display of Americana displayed for all interested parties to see once a year.
I remember every race morning walking over to the infield fence in turn four where they pushed the cars for the lineup. Charcoal smoke always hung heavy in the humid air as I stood there until the entire field was put in place. Over in turn four, but on the other side of the infield fence, was where many of the drivers’ families would be. Even as a kid myself, I would hold conversations with many of the wives and kids. Sometimes, before the race, the drivers would come over for a last minute bite to eat and I would get to talk to them through the fence. Didn’t matter who the driver might be, he was going to race at Darlington and in my eyes that made the conversation one worth having. I always treasured every minute I could spend with any, I repeat ANY driver on the circuit. In reality, although I had my favorite driver, and you all know who that was, I was always in awe of every one of them. Still, to this day, I am thrilled to be in any group of drivers from that era that gave so much for so little. Not so much with the drivers of today, although I have to say Ryan Newman is a definite exception, but then he is about the only one of the current drivers I’ve had a chance to spend a great deal of one-on-one time with in several year.
I remember,so many years, standing against the fence going into turn three at Darlington and pressing my face into the wire to get the first glimpse of the cars coming around on the parade laps. About half way down the back straight (now the front straight) the Darlington Pace Car, always white with two yellow flags flapping from the rear bumper, would appear as if by magic and behind that car would come the snarling field of cars ready to do battle. I never really knew if it was the ground shaking that much, the fence, or my knees as I anticipated the start. But it was always exciting.
In 1974, my vantage point became the top of my parents’ motor home always parked behind Victory Lane. From there I could see the entire track and although I no longer felt the ground moving effect of the cars on the parade lap, my heart was beating just as fast as in the old days. The Rebel 300, 400, or 500, didn’t matter, it was Darlington. But, THE SOUTHERN 500 on Labor Day, later Labor Day Sunday, was THE event of the year for me. Oh we went to Daytona, Charlotte, Atlanta, Talladega, Rockingham, for both races at those tracks each year, along with many of the short tracks in the south, but THE SOUTHERN 500 was the most anticipated race of the year for our band of roving race fans. Nothing, in our book, could approach the racing at Darlington or the pageantry. but most of all the TRADITION.
Think about this. If Harold Brasington had not taken such a chance with his vision, would we have Daytona? Maybe, but when the track opened in 1950, all bets were no stock car would make 500 miles. That,of course, is no longer an issue but think of how that move put the wheels in motion for what was to come. After all, Darlington opened in 1950 and Daytona, the next superspeedway opened in 1959. Long time coming, don’t you think.
This weekend Darlington will host what is called the Southern 500 on Saturday night. While it is still Darlington and the beauty of the skill required to run there makes the race special, THE SOUTHERN 500 should be run on Labor Day under the blazing South Carolina Pee Dee Sunshine. The heat and the humidity. The tradition NASCAR wants so much to be a part of the scene when it suits their advertising purposes is not a Saturday night race on the majestic track with the egg shape. The tradition is a Labor Day weekend race. We had it all then. The good racing, a wide variety of cars, and drivers who could handle the heat without power steering. Such folks as Tim Flock, Fonty Flock, Herb Thomas, Buck Baker, Ned Jarrett, Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Nelson Stacy and so many more. If you are listening today and don’t recognize at least three of the aforementioned drivers, please study the site here at RacersReunion. Because of these guys, they will be racing under the lights this Saturday. Oh, and the long range weather forecast for this weekend is actually good and rain free, but then this is only Tuesday.
As for this past weekend, congratulations to Chase Elliott for a super run in the Nationwide race. I have stated before that you didn’t impress me much (isn’t there a song on the pop charts with that title?) but Saturday night you truly did. To win that race showed the potential I believed you may have a year or two from now. To show it this early in your career promises us a future star for sure.
The Cup Race? Well with a sponsorship name like “Duck Commander 500” why should be we be surprised with the rain out. But I guess the Robertson family and their silliness on television earned the right to a race rainout. To show the impact of that group of bearded “blow hards” (reference to duck calls) I was at the mall at Christmas when a little kid about 5, being held by the hand by his mother, passed Santa’s chair and instead of insisting on seeing Santa, he screamed “Uncle Cy, I want to see Uncle Cy”. Boy, marketing words for the Robertsons.
But, as could be expected, NASCAR fouled (get that pun) up the end with the bogus last lap caution. Congratulations to Joey Logano for spoiling race control’s intended outcome with the throwing of that flag. It is no longer a suspicion of fans about the bogus debris cautions, it is now the common joke among fans. We sort of sit there anticipating the yellow in the last five laps. At least those who are watching.
Speaking of which, at least NASCAR has a built in excuse for poor attendance and low television ratings. After all, many had to work on Monday, hence the small grandstand crowd and what is sure to be a small television audience. But, I want you all to be aware of the new NASCAR definition of “huge crowd”. During the Nationwide race Saturday night I heard the announcers refer to the gathering in the center of the grandstands as a “huge crowd”, with the accent on huge. Folks, back in my partying days, I had more people than that at a New Year’s Eve party in a 12X60 mobile home and the yard. “Huge” now has a new definition in NASCAR. But, after all, if traditions can be changed upon the whim of NASCAR, then surely word definitions can be as well.