Darlington Raceway - Written August 27, 2003
This is the second of three stories written in 2003The end of an eraDarlington Raceway August 27, 2003 From Dargan WattsIf you want to start a good argument, just mention making changes in auto racing. Six people will be in favor of changes, but a half-dozen will be apposed, so we're right where we started.At the Southern 500, many things have changed in the last 53 years, but then again, nothing has really changed.The track has changed ownership, been enlarged slightly, had the start/finish line moved to the other side, the event has changed from Labor Day to the Sunday before Labor Day and the purse is about 500 times greater than it was in 1950. And the cost of getting a car in the starting line-up is in the million dollar range today as compared to a couple of thousand dollars in the beginning.In the beginning, no one knew how to survive 500 miles and there were many plans sketched out as to how to get around the 1.25-mile paved oval in a stock car. The main concern was tires and the Thompson Brothers had the solution. Since the temperature would hover around 95 degrees and the track temperature would be much warmer, the brothers felt that there had to be a way of keeping the inner tubes cool. Their theory was to drill holes in the casing and the air would circulate and both the tube and the casing would stay cooler.Buck Baker, a former bus driver from Rock Hill, and a modified race driver in the Charlotte area was part of the Thompson team and he was given the task of drilling the holes in the tires. Baker said, "I spent three days drilling those tires and stacking them on top of one another, but I didn't drill any of the ones I was to use. After the race got underway, the tires would blow in about eight laps and those brothers would have to come in for replacements. So many tires blew, all the fenders were missing on the three cars."Baker told another story about his experience in the first race and it just shows how far out on limb everyone went before and during that day. Many of the cars were family sedans that were driven to the track where the owners removed the headlights and hub caps and then participated in qualifying to determine the 75-car starting field. Some of the seat belts were made of burlap bags and baling wire and the doors were secured with leather belts. The regular seats were left alone and served as a means of storing food and drink since no one had any idea as to how long it would take to finish 500 miles."I tucked a couple of sandwiches between the front seats along with a Thermos bottle filled with tomato juice so I was ready for the long haul. I don't remember where I started, but it wasn't near the front, but I was making my way through the field when this car spun in front of me and I T-boned him," Baker said. "I was so tired and was so let-down, I just rested my arms and head on the steering wheel for a couple minutes. I was not aware that the tomato juice had hit the dash and had spattered all over me and the inside of the car, but when a rescue squad member walked up and peeked into the car, he saw the red juice all over me and nearly fainted. He yelled to another squad member, 'someone call a doctor! This man's bleeding to death.' After finding out what had happened, I had myself a good laugh."Johnny Mantz was the winner of the first event in a showroom new Plymouth, averaging 76.26 miles per hour. Mantz collected his money, put the headlights back into their sockets and drove the car to California where he lived.Herb Thomas won the second race in a Hudson Hornet while Fonty Flock drove an Oldsmobile to victory in 1952 and Baker was first in another Olds in 1953. Thomas repeated as the winner in 1954 in another Hudson and became a three-time winner the next year in a Chevrolet.In those days, the cars were pretty much strictly stock, but today, there is not a single item on them that is stock. In the early days, you could look at the car and readily see what make and year it was, but now there is a "common template" that makes it virtually impossible to tell one car from another. The front air dam and the rear spoiler are different by fractions of an inch, but the only way you can tell a Pontiac from a Dodge is by the stick-on emblem on the front. The headlights are even fake.Crew members in the early days were friends or relatives of the car owner or driver and many times, they wouldn't get to the track until the morning of the race. Pit stops were in minutes and not fractions of seconds as they are now. The famed Wood Brothers revolutionized pit stops as team members actually practiced during the week and started servicing cars in seconds instead of minutes. A Wood Brothers driver and a driver from another team could come into the pits at the same time, but the Wood driver would leave so much quicker that he would be a half-lap ahead after a pit stop. The Wood Brothers pit crew was made up of men who worked other jobs in the Stuart, Va. area during the week and serviced the race car on week-ends.The car manufacturers started seeing the benefits from racing as the winner on Sunday was a sales winner on Monday, so they started funneling money to some of the teams and eventually formed factory teams and hired the drivers. The factory supported teams were reaping the benefits of unlimited parts, engineering assistance and plenty of finances, while the "independents" struggled with "deals" for financial assistance made with the promoters. Knowing that they had no chance against the factories, many of the drivers would start the race and after a few laps would pull into the pits with various reasons for retiring. The most popular one was "vibration".Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Richard Howard devised a system several years ago where if a team would sign an agreement to run all of the events, it would be guaranteed a certain amount per race depending to the size of the track. There was also the "winners circle" for a certain number of drivers who had won races. This was all good, but the cost of equipment was shooting upward like a rocket and fewer and fewer cars became available to fill the starting fields. With each team trying to out-do the other, racing became a corporate giant with some of the biggest companies in the world becoming involved. The cars became 200 mph billboards and it is said that United Parcel Service is paying the Robert Yates racing team and its driver, Dale Jarrett, $20 million for one season. In addition to this money Yates also receives money from "associate" sponsors.Drivers no longer are seen with cigarettes hanging from their lips and are well versed on what to say on camera and to members of the media. They're sales people as well as drivers. Each team has its own PR department, purchasing agent, team manager, parts manager, shop foreman, crew chief, travel secretary, engineer, from two to eight pilots as well as 30 or more mechanics.The teams are flown to the tracks on private jets and have rental cars awaiting them when they arrive at the airport. The drivers and team owners have their own personal luxury motor coaches waiting for them in a secured area when they arrive.I don't know the cost of a ticket in 1950, but for the first Rebel 300 in 1957, the cost was $5. The ticket Sunday will probably set you back somewhere in the $75 range, but the purse is over $4 million.The France family controlled International Speedway Corporation, which also controls NASCAR, has decided that this will be the last Southern 500 as we have known it all these years. The Labor Day weekend race date has been moved to another ISC owned facility in California and Darlington will have its Labor Day weekend event in November next year. This date came available when ISC decided to transfer the fall date from North Carolina Motor Speedway, another ISC owned track.Darlington has only been assured the 2004 fall date and its fate for a fall event depends on profits.Many things are changing and will continue changing as long as there is a future in auto racing. Strom Thurman, who was there for the ribbon-cutting for the opening of the track died this year. R. J. Reynolds is pulling out as the title sponsor and is giving way to Nextel and Union 76 will no longer supply the racing fuel as it has for more than 50 years while Sunoco will take over.Are the changes for the better? It's six one way and a half-dozen the other.....Only time will tell.One thing is for sure..... It just won't feel right wearing a COAT to the Southern 500.