Riding the Hound to Darlington on Labor Day - September 5, 1966

Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
08/19/11 01:41:17PM
9,070 posts

A post about the cancellation of the Darlington Fall Festival made me realizethat thecalendar is fast approaching Labor Day, a sacrosanct date once synonymous with what was termed "The Granddady of Them All" - the Southern 500 stock car race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. The temperature is now dropping out of the nineties at night occassionally, the days are getting shorter, the ground is covered with heavy dewfall in early morning. All signs that the good ole boys should be getting ready for the one they all wanted to win.

The Southern 500 was the one race my buddy, Frank and I most wanted to see. More than Daytona, more than Charlotte, more than Atlanta. It was the race we had listened to Bob Montgomery announce on radio after the strains of "Dixie" faded.

On Labor Day 1965 I was enlisted to help my Dad with the repainting of our Richmond home. We had big extension ladders propped against the back of the house. Much to my mother's consternation, I mounted a radio in an upstairs dormer window, cranked to full volume with the Southern 500 broadcast and listened as Ned Jarrett won. There wasn't much said on the broadcast of the death of Buren Skeen, but a lot made of Cale flying over the guardrail in Banjo's #27. I was so impressed with stories I read afterwards about Ned speaking to church groups about winning the Southern 500, that I incorporated that into my sermon when I was named the "Youth Week Minister" at my Southern Baptist church the following spring - 1966 - my senior year in high school.

Although one gentleman in the church congregatation worked on Al Grinnan's modified, I guarantee I was the first (and probably the last) to preach stock car racing from the church pulpit of Monument Heights Baptist Church!

I have recounted on these pages the adventure Frank and I took in March 1966 when we took the race train from Richmond to Rockingham for that track's first spring race - the first, last and only Peach Blossom 500. Well, we knew we were ready for Darlington - but, our parents didn't share our readiness. Although we were both 17 and had graduated from high school in June and would head to college right after the Southern 500, both sets of parents forbid we two 17 year oldsdriving from Richmond to Darlington and back on Labor Day. However, we weren't to be stopped. We finally convinced our folks to let us take a bus to Darlington, an idea that seems pretty stupid in 2011, but one we thought was outstanding in 1966!

Around 8 or 9 pm on Sunday night of Labor Day weekend, my father dropped us off at the downtown Richmond Greyhound bus terminal, not a very nice place, even in 1966. We already had our Darlington race tickets and we had previously bought two round trip bus tickets to Darlington. We were the only two caucasians on the "Hound" and the rest of the bus was filled with folks going to Labor Day family reunions in South Carolina. Everybody but us had fried chicken to eat on that long bus ride. We rode through the night, departing out of Richmond on Interstate 95 South, which still hadn't been completed between Gold Rock, north of Rocky Mount, NC and Kenly, south of Wilson, NC. At Gold Rock the bus cut over to U.S. 301 and sometime after that Frank awakened me full of excitement. To our left we were passing the brightly lit,now long goneSouthern 500 Truck Stop, which in the 70s I learned was in Elm City, NC and frequented by the racers after Saturday night shows at Wilson County Speedway.

We still had a long ways to go, but sometime around 7:00 a.m. on Labor Day Monday that Greyhound let the two of us off at a little Pure Gas station in what I guess was downtown Darlington. It had one of those little rectangle signs you used to see at country stores, etc. that read, "bus." The place was closed, of course. In fact, everything was closed and we were totally lost without a clue how to get to the track.

I only remember that we walked for a long ways until we came upon a big open field with hundreds of cars and tents. There were campfires everywhere and a local church had erected a big tent and was serving breakfast to race fans. We thought we'd died and gone to heaven.

Our seats at Darlington were in the main grandstand, a place I never sat again, preferring Robert E. Lee's Paddock on the old turn 4. The cars ran right up on the wall out of turn 4 and all we could see on the main straight that day was the roofs of the cars.

Prerace was spectacular, much bigger than anything we'd seen at Richmond or Rockingham. The one similiarity was Ray Melton bellowing on the P.A. system, god bless him. We'd never seen a drag car before and during prerace the gold Hurst Hemi Under Glass Baracudda did wheelies down the main straight. Don't know if Linda Vaughn was riding along or not. Then our hearts really stopped. Coming in a parade down the front stretch were all the cars on exhibit in the Joe Weatherly Stock car Museum. The Johnny Mantz 1950 Plymouth, Buck Baker's Olds, Jim Reed's '59 Chevy, Little Joe's #8 Merc and the lavender #22 Ford of Fireball Roberts. By then we were ourselves steeped in the Darlington tradition and had each purchased a "Darlington Cushion," a seat cushion with the Southern 500 logo that we each carried like a badge of honor for years to come to races all over Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina as proof that we'd been to "The Grandaddy of Them All." Lord,I wish I knew what happened that cushion.

Our hero, JT Putney, had contracted to carry an onboard camera in his #19 that day in order to shoot footage for the annual Southern 500 promotional film. Seemed like he stopped every 20 laps to change film. I remember james Hylton in his pale yellow #48 pitted right across from us. I must have a thousand shots of him on 8mm film leaving his pit that day (or did until NASCAR lost all my film).

The big happening that day was Earl Balmer getting up on the fence in Turn 1. His K&K Dodge chopped off the tops of the guardrail posts and threw them into the open air press box like so many wood chips. The race was stopped for an eternity while the guardrail was rebuilt.

In the closing stages, Richard Petty cut down a tire and gave up the lead to Darel Dieringer who was flagged the winner in his Bud Moore #15 Mercury Comet.

When we left the track it started raining. We tried to thumb a ride back into Darlington and the closed bus station without any takers. We did both get hit in the head with rolls of wet toilet tissuetossed by drunks in a passing pickup. Sometime that evening, the bus enroute to Richmond picked us up at the closed bus station. My dad met us in the wee hours. We had survived our first Southern 500 and there would be many more Labor Day Monday adventures. But that was the the first and last time we rode the "Hound" to Darlington!




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"

updated by @dave-fulton: 12/05/16 04:02:07PM
Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
08/19/11 02:47:44PM
9,070 posts

Found this photo of the former Southern 500 Truck Stop building in Elm City, NC on a roadside architecture blog:




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
Tim Leeming
@tim-leeming
08/21/11 09:14:54AM
3,119 posts
What a wonderful read for a Sunday morning. If I had read this on Labor Day morning, I would have really been nostalgic. I was at that was, infield, turn three. I thought my guy (The King) was going to win it. The following year (1967) the U.S. Navy had me in San Juan, PR. The only Darlington race I missed between 1957 and 2001.
Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
08/21/11 12:33:01PM
9,070 posts

Tim, I didn't make it to Darlington after our 1966 adventure again until 1971. That Labor Day Sunday, 6 of us from the Wrangler/ Blue Bell, Inc. operation in Wilson, NC piled into truck driver Dennis Page's big, ole, maroon Pontiac Bonneville for the trip down to Darlington. That was the vehicle where I'dfirst been exposed to Sun Drop soda one evening, being taught that you held the green Sun Dropbottle in your left hand to wash down the swig of KentuckyTavern bourbon you had just swallowed from from your right hand holding the community bottle being passed around the car in a brown paper bag. We got to the racetrack late Sunday afternoon and parked in a lot right in front of the Robert E. Lee Paddock where we had tickets. That lot was run by the DarlingtonRescue Squad and we pretty well behaved ourselves, catching a few hours of sleep while sitting upright in the Bonneville. I always remember the Oasis Shrine clowns performing in their crazy vehicles every year. They've probably pushed them out by now, too. The next year, 1972,we made grander plans. The same group of six would go, but we would leave Wilson early on Sunday morning. The late Jerry Jackson, manager of our Bethel, NC plantand I had bought a six person tent (that slept 4 comfortably) and we rode from Wilson to Darlington in Cutting Room manager, Eston Smith's famed (at least in eastern NC) black Buick Electra 225, known to everyone as "Black Beauty," the car you'd have to shoot if it could talk. That was a wonderful experience. This time we again pitched our tent outside the turn 4 Robert E. Lee Paddock and were ready for serious partying. In those days the deputy sherriffs used to erect several portable jails inside and outside the track. All around the track there were bands playing music on flatbed trailers. Country, bluegrass, rock n roll - you name it. In a field just across Highway 52, this one band kept playing Rubyyyyyyyyyy.... don't take your love to town. By 10pm Sunday night, you could no longer feel the ground under your feet, because you were walking on crushed beer cans. Unbeknownst to him, we entered our truck driver, Dennis in the "World's Ugliest Human" contest. He won. We told him about it when he regained consciousness and showed him the sign that we had made and hung around his neck. Another of my great racing memories is the 8 mm film we shot on Monday Labor Day morning of the six of us passing around a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket and shaving out of it. We probably drew flies all day. Again we sat in row 17 of the Robert E. Lee Paddock and watched Bobby Allison in the Richard Howard/Junior Johnson Chevy, much to our delight, outrun David Pearson in the Wood Brothers Merc. Those row 17 Robert E. Lee Paddock seats were so good, that for years Doris Mims, the Darlington ticket manager, would keep a block reserved for me at Wrangler and 7-Eleven. Only problem was your ears rang for two days. Didn't get back again until 1979, when DW went to sleep at the wheel while leading and knocked down the wall, allowing David Pearson in the Osterlund Chevy to win.

From 1981 - 1999 I went to every spring race and every Southern 500, working various programs. For a couple of years at Wrangler we rented a separate motel room facing the pool at the Sheraton Swamp Fox in Florence and set it up with several blenders. With the track closed on Sunday, we provided frozen treats to all the racers, beginning Saturday night. I could go to another million races and not recapture the feeling I had at my first couple of Southern 500s. Lotta lost friendships since then and some fellas no longer with us. There is something to be said for being young.




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
09/05/14 10:40:25AM
9,070 posts

Today, September 5, 2014, marks exactly 48 years since my buddy, Frank and I boarded a Greyhound Scenicruiser bus in Richmond, Virginia just after midnight on September 5, 1966 for a 301 mile ride to Darlington, South Carolina to attend our very first Southern 500 on Labor Day at Darlington Raceway.

The memories of that first time visit and how we accomplished it never grow old.

With the historic Southern 500 returning to Labor Day weekend for 2015, here's hoping some other high school boys might take an adventure to Darlington that will stick in their memories some five decades later like that day is emblazoned in the memory banks of Frank and me.




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
Johnny Mallonee
@johnny-mallonee
09/05/14 02:51:15PM
3,259 posts

I have a fond memory of riding a Bus on Labor Day weekend to Myrtle Beach in the late 60s.. will put that story up on here a little later. you got my memories going again.

Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
09/05/14 03:17:36PM
9,070 posts

So far, that's one thing (memory) that still works... mostly!




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
TMC Chase
@tmc-chase
09/05/14 08:16:06PM
3,890 posts

Coincidental timing Dave! One of my Matchbox toy vehicles was a Greyhound bus. Try as I might, I cannot recall how I got this one. Unsure if it was given to me or if I bought it with my allowance. I do remember riding The Hound:

  • from Nashville to Estill Springs, TN with my grandmother as I went to spend a week with her
  • from Greenville SC through Knoxville to Nashville with my sister and brother after we'd spent a week with our cousins
  • from Nashville to Jacksonville FL on a Friday overnighter in February 1980. My mother nervously put me on the bus solo so I could go to my first Daytona 500. One of my uncles picked me up at the bus station on Saturday morning, and another one put me on an Eastern Airlines one-way flight to Nashville Monday morning.




--
Schaefer: It's not just for racing anymore.
Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
09/04/16 04:07:48PM
9,070 posts

It has now been exactly a half-century since I headed to Darlington for my first Southern 500 in 1966. Wonder what winner, Darel Dieringer would think of ground effects, aero push, radial tires, glass dashes, and the front stretch being the backstretch?




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
Tim Leeming
@tim-leeming
09/05/16 08:38:43AM
3,119 posts

Dave, each time I read this story I admire the adventure minded two young men who went to that length to get to Darlington. I'm sure that on that day you (nor Frank) ever suspected what racing would become to each of you and what each of you would contribute to the sport. Thanks for putting this story back to the forefront on Labor Day weekend.

Just wondering if you heard the comment from the announcing booth last night talking about how hard today's drivers have it try to "wrestle" a car around the "treacherous" tack. Thinking back to 1957, I wonder how many of those drivers out there last night could have driven around the track without getting lapped every 10 laps or so.

Oh, the memories. It's just too bad the errors made in the scripted notes of "history" provided to commentators these days. Some of the comments last night during the broadcast were not only inaccurate but were insane with the references made.

The race was great! The crowd was great! What did NASCAR learn about the nostalgia of the fans for what once was? Do you think they learned anything?

Thanks, Dave. You bring back so many memories for me. However, I only rode the hound twice in my life and neither trip was racing related.

Dave Fulton
@dave-fulton
09/05/16 10:16:36AM
9,070 posts

I always shake my head, too, Tim, when the announcers tell me how tough it is. They don't even know that old turn 3 was widened a bit when the concrete walls replaced guardrail. The picture in my mind of little Danica Patrick "wrestling" one of those full-size cars of the 60s with no power steering is not pretty. Heck, first time Mark Martin drove there I thought he would wind up in the Robert E. Lee paddock. It was just too much for him. All I could think was that little Rex White and little Joe Weatherly were men among men.




--
"Any Day is Good for Stock Car Racing"
TMC Chase
@tmc-chase
09/05/17 10:24:37AM
3,890 posts

A Greyhound Bump




--
Schaefer: It's not just for racing anymore.