The good old boys will be in Darlington this coming weekend to run the faux "Bojangles Southern 500". It is not the Labor Day race which began in Darlington in 1950 and it has none of the tradition and spectacle of those Labor Day afternoons in the hot and humid Carolina Pee Dee. But, it is Darlington, and as such, deserves the respect of all race fans.
Today we are going back to May 6, 1961, when convertibles would run 300 miles on that 1.375 mile track in what was known as "The Rebel 300". The pre-race show included many displays of the Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America along with beauty queens and even Johnny Reb. I was there, tucked up against the fence in turn three (now turn one) to witness 32 cars battle it out for 219 laps on the slippery asphalt that was Darlington.
Fred Lorenzen, a young, blond haired "yankee" from Elmhurst, Illinois would start on the pole in a Ford. Fireball Roberts would be to his outside in a Pontiac. Fred led the first five laps before Fireball slipped by him. On lap 10, Lorenzen would go back to the lead and would hold it until lap 71. Joe Weatherly took over when Lorenzen pitted and Joe would stay out front for two laps before making his pit stop leaving Ralph Earnhardt to lead a lap. During the course of pit stops, Curtis Turner, Johnny Allen and Banjo Matthews would take turns out front until Fireball restablished his dominance on lap 81. Fireball would lead until the next round of pit stops when Turner, Weatherly, Bob Burdick, Earnhardt and Johnny Allen would get turns out front. Fireball was back in front on lap 157 and would remain there until lap 198 when he lost a lap in the pitswith tire problems.
The race was now between veteran Curtis Turner in a 1961 Wood Brothers Ford and upstart Fred Lorenzen in a 1961 Holman Moody Ford. Laps 199 through 219 of the 1961 Rebel 300 have often been called the "most exciting stock car race of all time" but I'm sure such a description has long been lost to history. But let me tell you what I remember.
From my vantage point against the infield fence going into turn three, I could see the cars as they exited turn two and headed down the back straight. I could see them all the way through turn three and all the way to the exit of turn four on the high side. What I witnessed between those two Ford drivers that day makes me tingle with excitement as I sit here writing this.
The red Ford of Turner and the white Ford of Lorenzen would run nose-to-tail or side-by-side, slamming and banging into each other over and over. Going into three, Lorenzen would go high to pass as Turner has the low grove but as Lorenze would pull up, Turner would drift up and close the door. More than once, Lorenzen would bang Turner, then the guard rail. It was cloudy that day and that made the shower of sparks coming off the side of the car as it slid on the rail even more noticeable.
Although you could really see the drivers in the convertible cars, and you could even see their faces with those open face helmets, it was impossible to tell what expression was on the faces of those two competitors. There was, however, no question as to the tempers flaring in both those Fords as the laps ran down.
With two laps to go, coming into three, Lorenzen made his once again move to the high side to pass Turner and Turner once again moved high to block. Immediately, Lorenzen shot to the inside and was around Turner before Curtis knew what happened. When the two entered turns one and two, there was more slamming and banging and the two literally beat each other's cars to scrap. Lorenzen scooted out of turn two with a six car length lead which Turner could not overcome. I remember when the two came into my sight with two laps to go and Lorenzen was now out front it was exciting and to watch Turner throw his Ford into turn three with wild abandon was more than exciting.
Turner is quoted as saying, after the race, that "if I could have caught him before he got to the checked flag, he never would have finished the race". I have no doubt of that statement. But, in 1961, that two car battle was one of the record books for sure.
Top five finishers were:
1. Fred Lorenzen, Holman Moody Ford, winning $8,420.00
2. Curtis Turner, Wood Brothers Ford, winning $4,600.00
3. Johnny Allen, B. G. Holloway Chevrolet, winning $3,200.00
4, Bob Burdick, Roy Burdick Garage Pontiac, winning $2,400.00
5. Fireball Roberts, Bud Moore Pontiac, winning $1,865.00
Sixth through tenth were Marvin Panch, Ralph Earnhardt, Banjo Matthews, Bobby Johns and Ned Jarrett. Eleventh was Nelson Stacy who would come back Labor Day weekend and put on another awesome show. Larry Frank was 12th and he would win the 1962 Southern 500. Emanuel Zervakis was 14th. Rex White, the defending National Champion was leading the points going into the race by a large margin over Ned Jarrett, but Rex was eliminated in a crash on lap 173 while Jarrett would finish tenth. Rex still led the points by 262 after the race but Ned would go on to win the 1961 title.
For those of you who have seen "Days of Thunder", you may remember the "hero" of the movie, Cole Trickle, running Darlington and fighting with the "star" when Harry Hogg convinced Cole to try a move with the "special tires". That is pretty much a battle scene in the movie loosely based on the Turner-Lorenzen fight in this 1961 Rebel 300.
Honor the past, embrace the present, dream for the future.
updated by @tim-leeming: 12/05/16 04:00:58PM