Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, August 28, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
Pack Darlington Raceway, and the crowd is still only about 60,000, but for many reasons unique to yours truly, the Southern 500 is NASCAR’s biggest race.
It’s in my home state. It was NASCAR’s first race on a track larger than a mile and first on a track that was fully paved. That was in 1950. The “road” part of Daytona Beach’s Beach/Road Course was paved.
More important personally is that it was the first major race to which my father took me. I had gone to a 1965 race at Bristol with some family friends, but five years later, when I was 12, I watched Buddy Baker drive Cotton Owens’ burnt-orange Dodge Charger Daytona to glory. Much later in life, I got to know both Buddy and Cotton, gone now but two of my favorite people in racing or anywhere else.
I remember Cale Yarborough’s Mercury skittering along the top of the guardrail at the inside of the track in front of me. I remember taking a Kodak Instamatic picture of Wendell Scott’s robin’s egg blue Ford flashing by that was remarkably clear because I was doing something known as “panning” the car. I thought a “pan” was for frying eggs back then.
I wish I knew where that photo is today. Maybe it’s in a shoe box at my mother’s house. Maybe it’s not. Probably it’s gone forever, but I remember it.
I also remember sitting on the back straight, mostly near kids in Cub Scout uniforms, and after the leaders flashed by, leaning forward and craning my neck to see who was ahead when they dove into turn three, which is now turn one. I remember that long Daytona of Baker, sliding through turn two like an aircraft carrier running rapids. Buddy drove a race car, but he could wrestle.
The slowpokes had to pit on the back straight, and I watched a driver named Johnny Halford get out of his car and change his own tires. It was a pretty purple No. 57 Charger (non-Daytona), but it wasn’t any faster on the track than in the pits.
At the time, I was introduced to the notion that a car could have a wing that would hold it down. When I went back home, I pulled out several World Book encyclopedias to research the matter.
For the next few years, Daddy took me to the Rebel 400 in the spring, but I had to practice football on Labor Day. All the practices were hard, but that was annually the hardest. My mind was in Darlington.
My next Southern 500 was in 1976, when I was already enrolled at Furman University. Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the crowd, as did the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Bob Dole. It was a time long ago, when race fans would still cheer a Democrat, particularly one from Georgia.
David Pearson won. He won every Darlington race I attended in those days. I drove all the way from Greenville to Darlington by myself, and it was the first time I watched a race at Darlington from the covered front-straight grandstands, where, man, was it loud.
Ray Melton was the public-address announcer. He was as unforgettable as the racers, describing the action in a Virginia drawl that surely only fellow Southerners could decipher.
Lez and gennuhmen, wellum to the Suh Five Hunnud, the Granddaddy of ’Em All, heah at Dahlinton Resweh, the Track Too Tough to Tehm …
The cars ran “hah, wahd ‘n’ hansum” through the turns, and Melton devoted an inordinate amount of time to telling kids to get away from the fence at the bottom of the grandstands because it was “danguhs” down there.
Melton died in 1986, but I should thank him for teaching me how to later make out what Ward Burton had to say.
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