Ipart One/I: Tribute To A Classic

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Editor's Note: The Daytona 500 is more prestigious. The Talladega races are faster. The World 600 is longer. The Brickyard 400 attracts more hype. But none of those races are as rich in history and tradition as the Granddaddy of them all, The Southern 500. Sunday will mark the 54th running of the Labor Day weekend classic, and sadly it will be the last Southern 500. The Labor Day race date will move to California.

Darlington will still have a second race date in late November and it hasn't been announced what the race will be called (The Realignment 500?) or whether it will be shortened to 400 miles. Either way the unique challenge of racing for 500 miles in the oppressive late summer Carolina heat, a true test of man and machine, will be no more. But as the Lady in Black hosts her final Labor Day party Matt would like to reflect back on the event’s rich history. This is part one of a six part series that will run this week on Racingone.com.

The Southern 500; back when Daytona Beach was still a quiet resort community, back when NASCAR was only a year old, back when some race cars still ran whitewalls and could be driven to the track, back when almost all stock car races were held on dirt tracks, there was the Southern 500. It was the first 500 mile stock car race, in an era where most races were 100 miles. Darlington originally measured at 1.25 miles, back when race tracks were mostly half mile ovals. There are other races faster, there are other races that pay more, and there are others that get more media attention, but there are none as steeped in history as the Southern 500. NASCAR, and the world for that matter has changed a lot since September 4th , 1950, the date of the first Southern 500. But one thing has remained the same. On Labor Day weekend the best and the bravest competitors, driving the fastest and sleekest cars of the era, show up at Darlington, South Carolina, each trying to add their name to the record book as a winner of the Southern 500, a list that reads as a "Who's Who" in NASCAR history. And there is not a driver yet to add his name to that list who won't tell you how much it would mean to him, or a driver determined, brave, skilled and lucky enough to have already made the list that won't tell you winning the Southern 500 was one of the highlights of his career.

Darlington Raceway was the dream child of one Harold Brasington who, while attending the Indianapolis 500 "up north", thought to himself what the rural South needed was a 500 mile race for stock cars. It was his dream and he went ahead and built the track. The trouble was Bill France, who held the reins of the fledgling NASCAR sanctioning body wasn't so sure a 500 mile race for stock cars was such a good idea. A lot of people doubted any production car could run that fast that long and survive. If there were no cars left running at the end, or even if there were only a handful, the sport of stock car racing would receive a black eye, and it would be used by the Indy car fans, who already looked at stock car racing as "real racing's" bastard hick cousin, as proof further stock car racing was a regional oddity worthy of only contempt. Recall also at that point the longest race to date was 200 miles at the Daytona Beach and Road Course, and most events were still 100 miles. Imagine someone today proposing a 4000 mile NASCAR race and you can imagine why France was skeptical.

Just as a rivals intentions forced Bill France's hand to stage the first "Strictly Stock" race the previous year, the announcement by a rival league, the CSRA, was going to stage a 500 mile event caused France to quickly reconsider. While the planned 500 mile race drew enormous media attention, it did not draw a lot of entrants. There were a couple reasons for that. NASCAR ruled their roost with an iron fist in those days, and any driver competing in race put on by a rival sanctioning body immediately lost all his points accumulated towards the NASCAR championship to that point. Secondly Mason Brenner, head of the CSRA had planned to hold his race at the Lakewood track in Georgia. Lakewood was a rough as a cob one mile dirt track that would have destroyed cars and probably caused the second dust bowl in the rural South. France sat down with Brenner and said he would have no trouble providing enough drivers to fill the field, and thus the planned event was co-sponsored by NASCAR and the CSRA. France was also able to convince Brenner, if there was to be a 500 mile race the paved mile and a quarter track at Darlington was a far more suitable place to hold the event. Brenner quickly agreed and history was made.

True to his word Bill France had no problem lining up drivers. In fact the starting field consisted of 75 drivers for the first Southern 500. They were lured by the then outlandish purse posted at $25,000. It took 16 days of qualifying to determine the starting grid. Almost six hours and thirty nine minutes after the drop of the green flag, 28 cars were still officially listed as running when the checkers waved. While mechanical attrition had been high, as expected, the biggest problem turned out to be tires, which blew out with frightening regularity due to the high speeds (by standards of the day), the weight of the cars and the distance. Defending NASCAR champion Red Byron suffered 24 blowouts on the land barge 50 Cadillac he drove that day. Despite that, he finished third, albeit 10 laps off the pace. The winner that day was Johnny "Madman" Mantz.

But that day the Madman drove a docile looking black 50 Plymouth his granny could have taken to church. The car had in fact set the slowest speed for any car that had made the field. Mantz played a strategy as conservative as Strom Thurmond's voting record and ran truck tires rather than passenger car tires like the other entrants. The heavier tires held up to the rigors of the race far better than their weaker counterparts and Mantz won by nine laps over second place Fireball Roberts aboard a much faster 50 Olds. The winning car was co-owned by Herb Westmoreland and Bill France. It had been pressed into service all week prior to the event to run errands for promoting the upcoming race. Imagine if Jeff Gordon tried to run the 24 Chevy into town to pick up lunch for the crew today.

There were 82 cars in the field at the 1951 Southern 500. The crowd was treated to an electrifying charge through the pack by Marshall Teague who drove his Hudson from 46th to first in the first 13 laps. To do so Teague took a line where angels fear to tread, and only the bravest drivers have ventured since, running the high line inches off the sheet metal hungry outside fence. Unfortunately a blow out and a late race crash dropped Teague back down to 33rd in the final run down. Driving more conservatively Herb Thomas managed to get his Hudson to the front on lap 95, after all the hot shots had crashed or blown up, and led the rest of the race. He won by a lap over Jesse James Taylor (No relation to the outlaw or folkie.)

The 1952 Southern 500 was run under threatening skies, and indeed had to be red flagged because of rain at one point, but over 32,000 fans were on hand to see what had become the biggest race on NASCAR's schedule. Joe Weatherly, better known then as a motorcycle racer than a stock car driver, but a driver who would go on to win two championships, made his first Grand National start that gray day. Fonty Flock in a 52 Olds clearly had the fastest car that day and led most of the race. To show how different things were back in 1952, in the charming days of NASCAR's infancy, Flock was nattily attired in a pair of knee length shorts that day to beat the heat and humidity. After winning the race he stopped on the front straight, climbed up on the hood and led the entire crowd in singing a rousing rendition of Dixie. It was after all the Southern 500. (No I do not recommend some modern day driver hop out of his car and lead the crowd in a rousing rendition of his sponsor's jingle).

Stock car racing was becoming a lot more competitive and merely lasting 500 miles at Darlington was no longer going to earn a driver a win by 1953. Driver's who had become heroes of the sport put on a thrilling show for the fans on hand that day. There were 35 lead changes among four drivers, Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts, defending Southern 500 champion (and vocalist) Fonty Flock and Buck Baker. A future champion making his first Southern 500 start that day was Ned Jarrett, who would probably prefer you not remember he was racing way back in 1953 or that he finished dead last that day. After all the scrambling for the lead Herb Thomas aboard a Hudson seemed to emerge as the car to beat, though Baker was still hounding him, but with ten laps to go Thomas lost his engine. Baker shot into the lead. Another Hudson driver Gene Comstock, tried to assist Thomas by pushing him to the finish but NASCAR disallowed that trick. Baker went on to take the win.

There was another thrilling battle during the 1954 Southern 500, with Herb Thomas, defending Grand National Champion, and "tough as railroad spike" Curtis Turner. Turner was a hard charger who never breathed the throttle from the moment the green flag dropped and he led most of the race. Thomas was able to save his car for a late race charge and got by Turner with 20 laps to go to take the win. That day Thomas became the first two time winner of the Southern 500. Tuner could take consolation in the fact he actually earned more money than the winner. In those days NASCAR paid "lap money" a certain amount for each lap led, and Turner by leading all those laps had grabbed the biggest chunk of it.
The 1955 winner of the Southern 500 relied on the same trick that had won the first Southern 500, a special tire, but stock car racing had come much too far to allow him to use the tires off a tow truck to take the win. Going into the event the big white Chryslers of Carl Kiekhaefer were heavy favorites to win, especially with Fonty and Tim Flock at the controls. But like the Caddilac Red Byron drove in the 1950 event, the Chryslers were just too big and powerful for their tires. Stock car racing had become so popular that fans had to be turned away after a sell out of all 50,000 tickets was announced the day before the event. As usual Curtis Turner charged towards the front as soon as the green flag dropped and led the event awhile. He found a unique way to fall out of that race, even by Curtis's standards. During a caution flag he was trying to light a cigarette, looked down and ran into another car. Herb Thomas, who was badly hurt and almost lost his life in a wreck at Charlotte that May, had vowed from his hospital bed not only would he be racing in time for the Southern 500, he meant to win it. And win it Thomas did, in one of the finest drives of his storied career, aboard a 55 Chevrolet, the first Southern 500 win for Chevy. He used a new Firestone tire developed for sports car racing, and managed to run the entire 500 miles on one set of tires. Again, I don't think we'll ever see anyone duplicate that trick again.

Carl Kiekhaefer was back at the Southern 500 in 1956 with all his guns blazing, determined to claim the prize that had eluded him in 1955. He had three cars entered that day, driven by Speedy Thompson, Buck Baker, and Frank Mundy who served as an "enforcer" of sorts there to take out the competition. Baker was in a tight points battle with Herb Thomas, and Keikhaefer wanted to see Baker win and Thomas eliminated. By that point the fans had turned on Carl and his team, partially because they were so dominant and partially because the Chrysler was a "rich man's car." Few of the fans in the stands could afford such a car, and they had "working man' cars in their driveways, Fords, Plymouths and particularly Chevys. As such they were partisan to seeing their brand of car prove it was the equal of or better than the high priced Chrysler 300. Seventy thousand fans were on hand to see the showdown. Herb Thomas endured not one, but three, separate wrecks not of his own making, and some that looked like an on track mugging. It was a chilling harbinger of things to come a couple months later on that dark day in Shelby, North Carolina. Ironically Baker could never get going that day either, and he wound up well back in the pack. A mechanic did something amazing that day. Not only did he prepare a Ford that survived 500 miles at Darlington, he prepared a car that lasted 500 miles with Curtis Turner at the wheel. Needless to say Turner and the natty purple and white Schwam Motors Ford won the race, a victory made that much sweeter for Turner after all the 500's he had led but failed to win.

Carl Kiekhaefer had left NASCAR racing and his cars did not participate in the 1957 Southern 500. Unfortunately Herb Thomas didn't compete that year either as he was still recovering from the injuries he sustained at Shelby in 1956 thanks to Kiekhaefer's "Win at any cost" strategy. Thomas had been slated to try to make a come back but turned over the wheel of his car to Fonty Flock when he found out he was not able to drive competitively yet. Unfortunately Flock and Thomas's car were involved in a tragic wreck on lap 27 of that year's Labor Day classic. Flock spun on the back straight and wound up facing traffic in the corner. Bobby Myers, (Father of Chocolate Myers, former RCR gasman) driving a Petty Engineering Oldsmobile had nowhere to go and slammed head on into Flock's disabled car at top speed. The big Olds rolled up and over Flock’s car strewing debris in every direction. When the rescue crew arrived they found Myers dead inside his car. While no announcement was made at the track fans who witnessed the violence of the wreck and the Confederate flag being lowered to half staff knew Myers had lost his life. Flock was rushed to the hospital in serious condition. While thankfully he survived the injuries he sustained in that horrendous wreck he would never drive another Grand National race again. As it always must, the show went on and Curtis Turner and Speedy Thompson engaged in a spirited duel in the middle stages of the race. Lee Petty managed to get himself into the mix and while he was battling with Turner the two cars made contact and Curtis wound up in the wall. His Smokey Yunick led crew managed to repair the car and get him back on track, but Turner's hopes of winning the race were dashed. So were Petty's though his car was not badly damaged…yet. Turner's good pal Joe Weatherly didn't think too much of how Lee Petty had taken out his friend and casually pulled along side Petty and pile drove him into the wall ending Lee's race. Meanwhile back up front Thompson cruised on for the win, winding up with a three lap advantage over Cotton Owens. Despite the caution flags for the wreck, Thompson became the first winner of the Southern 500 to average over 100 MPH, posting a 100.094 MPH average speed.

The cars were getting faster and the track was still just as tough. The Lady in Black had claimed a life in 1957 and put the drivers on notice she was not to be trifled with. It's a lesson she has repeated numerous times to the unwary and unlucky ever since.

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