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