50 Years of NASCAR Racing ~ Post 40
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor’s note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin’s “50 Years of NASCAR Racing”, written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR ‘s 50th Anniversary celebration that year. In keeping with the RacersReunion mission of passing the history of our sport down to younger fans, Matt has kindly granted us permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
**Special Notice: Next week this space will carry Matt McLaughlin’s two-part salute to Tim Richmond. Tell your friends! No one will want to miss this, even if you’ve read it before. ~PK
Darlington is the Granddaddy of all the Superspeedways on the NASCAR circuit, with the first race held there in 1950, when the facility was the only fully paved track on the circuit. That inaugural race was also the first 500 mile event run in NASCAR history, a distance that at that time a lot of people thought no stock car could survive. The egg shaped track, which legend tells us was designed in that shape rather than a true oval to preserve a neighboring minnow pond, was originally measured at 1.25 miles but through different types of measurements it’s length gradually increased to a stated 1.33 miles. More recently, the traditional front straight has become the back straight. But over all those years and all those races one thing has never changed… the track’s reputation as being “too tough to tame.” Winners at Darlington include most of our sport’s legends, but along with their wins, every driver has received his hazing ritual to the Darlington fraternity, a Darlington Stripe added to the right rear quarter panel coming out of turn four a little too high.
Darlington’s history is impossible to sum up in an article like this, so I’ll just concentrate on some of the highlights over the years. That first race, September 4th, 1950 was won by Indy car legend “Madman” Johnny Mantz, in an innocuous looking 1950 Plymouth. That same car was used during the week to run errands around the area, hanging up flyers, picking up the trophy and such. The secret to Mantz’ success was running truck tires rather than passenger car rubber that proved not to be up to the pace and length of the grueling event. Mantz won easily and took home the trophy that had been bought to the track in the same car, a car incidentally, co-owned by one Bill France Sr.
The Spring race at Darlington was usually a wild affair that went by the name of the “Rebel 500″ in those pre-sponsor days. Rather than the traditional checkered flag, a Confederate Battle flag was used to announce the end of the race, and that flag was one of the most coveted trophies in most NASCAR drivers’ collections. If Darlington has earned it reputation as “Too Tough to Tame” honestly, the old girl does have a sentimental side when it came to hometown hero David Pearson, who was “too potent to pass” at a lot of events held there. Throughout his storied career Pearson won ten times at Darlington, including 6 times with the Wood Brothers in the legendary number 21 Purolator Special Mercurys. In fact, at the April 15th 1973 event, Pearson was a mere 13 laps up on the his closest competitor when he took the Cross and Stars. That gave him plenty of time to figure out and mail his taxes before anyone else even finished the race. (Almost unbelievably, that is not a record for domination at the track. Ned Jarrett won the 1965 Southern 500 by 14 laps.) In light of that record it is perhaps a bit ironic Darlington was also the last track that Pearson ever drove at for the Woods. At the Southern 500 in 1979 Pearson came into the pits to the attention of the Wood Brothers crew and there was a miscommunication. David thought it was a two tire stop while the crew intended to change all four. When the jack was dropped on the right hand side of the car Pearson dumped the clutch and left. Unfortunately the lugs nut were already off the left hand side of the car and those wheels fell off as he hustled down pit road. A few days later Pearson was released from the team with whom he had scored 43 victories driving a limited schedule each season from 1972 until that race in 1979. Perhaps feeling a special need to redeem himself, David Pearson won the fall race at Darlington that same year, driving Rod Osterlund’s Chevy in place of an injured Dale Earnhardt. Pearson won the next race at Darlington as well, in the spring of 1980, aboard a Hoss Ellington Chevy, which turned out to be the last victory for the second-winningest driver in NASCAR history. (105 victories to Richard Petty’s 200.) It only seems appropriate that those last two wins took place at Darlington.
Despite his illustrious career, Darlington was the one track where Richard Petty never enjoyed much success. In his entire career, he won at the track only three times, twice in the Spring, and one Southern 500 in the Fall. Two of those victories came in the 1967 season, where Petty was so dominant it seemed he couldn’t lose anywhere, and those were his last Darlington triumphs. The Old Girl was no respecter of royalty it seems, and she made that horrifyingly clear in the Spring race of 1970. It was one weekend Richard Petty would rather forget, and he does in fact, forget a lot of it. The weekend started badly when Richard wrecked his sleek Superbird in Happy Hour, totaling the car. A truck had to be sent hastily North to pick up a spare car, and as no Superbirds were prepared, Petty had to settle for one his short track Road Runners. Petty was already having an uncharacteristically poor run, leading only one lap under caution when disaster struck. Coming out of four, Richard added a Darlington stripe to his collection, but it was a beauty. The resultant impact sent his Plymouth angling across the track, and the King hit the pit wall so hard concrete shrapnel flew in every direction, some chunks the size of boulders. The 43 car began a series of four violent flips with Petty’s head and left arm coming out the window opening as the car disintegrated. By coincidence, ABC’s Wide World Of Sports had just joined the race in progress when the wreck occurred, and take it from one viewer and long time Petty fan, I swore there was no way he could still be alive after the violence of that wreck. Petty was taken from the car unconscious and to this day recalls no details of the wreck. Not to belittle the pain and severity of a broken shoulder, but it is a near miracle that was the only serious injury the King suffered that day. Recuperating from the injury caused Richard to miss five races, and dropped him hopelessly out of title contention that year. To that point in the season the King had turned most of the other ABC broadcasts into snoozers, with Petty several laps ahead by the time the network began their telecast, making racing look easy. That day he showed everyone at home, just how tough it could be.
Richard Petty is not the only driver who can tell you just how suddenly fortunes can be reversed when someone loses respect for Lady Darlington. The old adage goes, “At Darlington you race the track, not the other drivers.” Benny Parsons and favorite son David Pearson forgot that in the Spring race of 1975, and Darlington quickly reminded them. Those two drivers were about to settle it out amongst themselves, having a two lap advantage over third place driver Bobby Allison, with only 17 laps to go. As per normal, Pearson had a dominant car, but a pesky Benny Parsons stayed right with him and actually passed him. Pearson tried to dive low to retake the lead, lost control and slammed into the side of Parsons’ Chevy sending both hard into the wall. A startled Bobby Allison found himself in the lead but his brother Donnie and relative newcomer Darrell Waltrip were right on his bumper, eager to make a race of it. Waltrip took the lead, but he had lost third gear in his transmission. On the restart after a late caution, Bobby was able to get the jump on Darrell’s self owned Chevy and hold him off for the win, with Donnie Allison coming home third. To add insult to injury, Bobby was driving one of those misshapen AMC Matadors that day, a car every bit as ugly as Waltrip’s attitude after the race.
The race in ’79 that cost Pearson the Wood Brothers’ ride, also produced one of the greatest finishes in Darlington history. Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty seemed to have equally matched cars and had been trading the lead between them. The King took the white flag ahead of Waltrip by a whisker, but the lead and a whole lot of paint was traded four times on that final lap, with Waltrip emerging as the victor by about three feet. Of course those two drivers were involved in an epic battle for the points title as well late that season, and in that contest the King emerged victorious despite the bitter disappointment Darlington dealt him that day.
The Spring race of 1985 was another epic duel between two drivers that were scrapping over the Winston Cup championship that year. It seemed fitting, as Bill Elliott had emerged as the king of the big tracks, while Darrell Waltrip was the master of the rough and tumble world of short track racing. Darlington is a big track, as tough as any short track, so it was no surprise to find Bill and Darrell scrapping over the lead late in the event. Bill Elliott was as tough as the track that day, racing with a broken leg he had suffered in a wreck at Rockingham earlier that season. 21 drivers took their turn at the front that day, in an epic battle. Dale Earnhardt was a contender but was felled by mechanical problems, while Buddy Baker, David Pearson and Ricky Rudd all got a taste of the wall to drop them from contention. Bill and Darrell were having a go of it when Tim Richmond in the Blue Max Pontiac hurried in to join the fray. Waltrip and Richmond got preoccupied arguing over second, allowing Bill to scoot to a 1.86 second victory over Darrell with Richmond in third. It was Elliott’s third win in six races that season, on his way to an 11 victory year, but he placed second to Waltrip in that year’s Winston Cup chase.
The 1982 Rebel 500 was one of the most important wins of Dale Earnhardt’s career. He had been mired in a 39 race losing streak, the longest of his career up until lately, that had a lot of people thinking out loud he was washed up, including his car owner Bud Moore. With victory in sight, Earnhardt hit the afterburners and shoved his way past Cale Yarborough with 12 laps to go, and Cale was not the easiest man in racing to pass… not by a long shot. Dale’s problems weren’t over either, because if there was one situation worse than having Cale ahead of you coming down to the end of a race, it was having Yarborough, the master of the last lap slingshot on your rear bumper on the last lap. Add to that, Cale was a bit annoyed about the rough pass Dale had made, and the entire crowd was on its feet when the duo took the checkered flag. Cale made his attempt coming out of the fourth corner for the final time, but a hungry Earnhardt refused to be denied and held him off by about four feet.
Perhaps the most storied finish of Darlington’s history involved a young up and coming Fred Lorenzen, and seasoned veteran Curtis Turner in 1961. Turner was so tough to pass or race with, he made Dale Earnhardt look like your nerdy high school Driver’s Ed teacher, Peter Polite. Fireball Roberts had been leading before a blowout took him out of contention. Turner inherited the lead, with Lorenzen right behind him. Lorenzen had the faster car, but Turner had beat a lot of other drivers with faster cars before. In fact he had often beat them right into or over the guard rail then beat them with his fists in the infield just for good measure. Lorenzen, who had a reputation as a clean driver was well aware of Turner’s reputation but engaged his opponent in an on track dogfight anyway. That day, Fred gave as good as he got, with both drivers laying a bumper into one another’s cars countless times. Lorenzen kept trying to pass on the high side but Curtis would shoot up the track and block the pass by banging into the side of Fred’s car. More than once, Turner stuffed Lorenzen into the outside guardrail but the Golden Boy kept coming back for more. With two laps to go Lorenzen faked high, and when Turner once again drifted high to block, Fred dove low. Seeing he had been duped, Turner reversed course and came flying down the track sending Fred’s Ford convertible into the inside guard rail in turn one. Lorenzen’s car shrieked in protest as the left side sheetmetal sent up an arc of sparks and Turner kept right on shoving as the two cars rode around turn two. Going onto the back straight Lorenzen cut his wheel hard right and sent his nemesis flying up the track. That gave him enough breathing room to take the victory though Turner was closing in hard in the end, with fire in his eyes. Curtis’ intent wasn’t to try to take the victory by that point. As Turner told reporters later, “If I could have caught him before he reached the checkered flag, I guarantee you he would never have finished the race.” Of course nowadays such remarks and Curtis Turner’s other antics would cause NASCAR to come flying, blowing the whistle and issuing heavy fines. But it still probably wouldn’t have made Curtis behave. Like Darlington, Curtis Turner was just too tough to tame.
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