50 Years of nascar racing ~ The Southern 500: The Grandaddy Of Them All, Part 2 (Post 82)
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. Matt has kindly granted me 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.
As speeds crept ever upward, it seemed inevitable that frightening wrecks were bound to occur, and the Southern 500 at Darlington became as much a test of a competitor's nerves as of his driving prowess. Such was the case in 1958 and the winner was a young man with plenty of both the above. There were several horrifying looking wrecks in that race, though thankfully no one was badly injured. Eddie Pagan had the worst-looking wreck of all on lap 136, going into and through the first turn wall, tearing his Ford to shreds, with everything from the firewall forward simply torn off. The damage to the track was so extensive it could not be repaired and NASCAR warned the drivers to stay low in one to avoid shooting out the opening and going airborne. 24 laps later, Eddie Gray lost control and went sailing out that very same opening. Shortly after the halfway point of the event Jack Smith hit the first turn wall just short of the gaping open, got airborne and flew out of the race track. Most of the drivers were giving that devilish corner a wide berth at that point. But there was one driver who kept running the very top line of the track, the same line Marshall Teague had used to win the race in 1951. Fireball Roberts ran that high groove, the right side of his 57 Chevy inches from the gaping opening, but never lifting, flirting with disaster but safe in the arms of Lady Luck. He came home the winner, five laps ahead of second place Buck Baker. Such is the stuff legends are made of.
Not every race goes to the swift, and in stark contrast to Roberts' win in 1958, the winner of the 1959 running of the Southern 500 used a conservative strategy to see to it he was still around at the end. The popularity of NASCAR stock car racing was growing by leaps and bounds at that point, and corporate America took one of the first forays into the sport. Joe Weatherly drove a '59 T-Bird sponsored by Coca-Cola. Also on hand that weekend was a Hollywood film crew shooting scenes for an almost forgotten "racing" movie called Thunder In the Carolinas. Rory Calhoun starred as the morally challenged driver who never met a woman he didn't make a play for. His crew chief was played by none other than Alan Hale, who would go on to become famous as the Skipper of a boat that went out on an ill-fated three hour tour. There was drama aplenty on the track as well. Richard Petty started his first Southern 500, but his Dad must not have had too much confidence in the 22-year old lad's abilities to run a 500 mile race. (Though Richard did all right in a number of them, particularly at Daytona, later in his career, as I recall.) Richard did lead seven laps but when Marvin Panch became available as a substitute driver after his Ford lost a camshaft, Papa Petty ordered his son to the pits to be replaced. Joe Weatherly lost an engine early in the going in his Coca-Cola Ford, and was given the nod to replace another young driver, Bob Burdick. Panch took the Petty Enterprises Plymouth to the front to engage in a hot battle with Jim Reed in a '57 Chevy and seemed to have his number, but the blistering pace he set broke a wheel on Panch's car, spoiling his chances. Defending race champion Fireball Roberts drove so hard that he was wearing the tires right off his car, and the frequent pit stops for new rubber spoiled his day. Reed's conservative strategy allowed him to take the win by two laps over Weatherly in the Burdick Thunderbird.
The 1960 running of the Southern 500 was marred by confusion and tragedy. The racing community got a graphic and chilling lesson that the drivers were not the only ones who faced danger on race day. In those days there was no pit wall to separate the track from the pits and what some might think was an inevitable tragedy finally took place. On lap 25, Elmo Langley spun out in his Thunderbird and went backwards into the pits. With two tons of car moving at around 120 miles per hour when it hit the wall that separated the garage area from pit road, the results were predictable. Concrete shrapnel flew in all directions and a pit crew member was badly hurt. While they had all seen their comrade hurt, it was the job of other pit crew members to be poised right behind that same wall ready to leap over and service their driver if he needed to stop. They maintained their posts. There was a second similar accident that day, but the results were even more devastating. Bobby Johns got in a tangle on the track and spun into the pits. He slammed the wall and flipped. Concrete debris flew in every direction and two pit crew members and a track official were killed by the shrapnel. Three others lay gravely hurt. Of course, the race resumed and those same unsung heroes were back at their posts, waiting behind the wall for their drivers to need them. Buck Baker, Richard Petty and Fireball Roberts put on a great show battling for the lead, and a late race caution bunched them together for a final show down. The results were somewhat anti-climatic in that Roberts blew an engine with eleven laps to go, just as he prepared to make his bid for the lead, and with three laps to run, Petty lost a tire and had to limp to the pits. Baker seemed comfortably in command of the race when he too lost a tire heading into the back-straight and went spinning. Baker recovered and had a two lap advantage on Rex White running in second, but a pit stop to replace the blown tire very likely would have cost him the race. Instead, Baker drove as fast as he dared along the bottom edge of the track, trying to complete a lap and a half before White could complete three and a half laps. In all the confusion the track officials lost sight of where Baker was running in the order and mistakenly gave the checkered flag to White. Baker immediately filed a protest and the score cards were re-checked. Hours later, NASCAR announced they had indeed made a mistake and awarded the win to Baker. As a consolation prize to Rex White, the second place finish he was finally credited with was enough to almost guarantee he would be that year's Grand National champion.
The high speeds, the heat and the tough Darlington track could take its toll on any driver, no matter how tough, and it did so to Fireball Roberts in the 1961 Southern 500. Roberts seemed on track to win, particularly as other big name drivers suffered mechanical failure that brutally hot afternoon, but the g-forces in the corner got so intense he wound up with bad muscle cramps in his neck. Fireball tried to tough it out, but finally had to signal for a relief driver. Once again the call went out to Marvin Panch. The driver exchange, quick as it was, allowed Nelson Stacy to get back into contention and with seven laps to go he passed Panch to take the lead. He held on to win by 2.64 seconds. For Stacy, who always seemed to be in the shadows of the primary Holman-Moody driver as the secondary driver, it was one of the sweetest wins of his career.
If the ending of the 1960 Southern 500 was a bit confusing, the finish of the 1962 event was a real disaster for NASCAR. Perhaps it seemed fitting that what was actually the 13th running of the Southern 500 was officially billed as the "12th Renewal of the Southern 500." The reason was, Joe Weatherly was so superstitious he refused to enter any event dubbed the "13th" anything. Considering the mass confusion after the race, that was only a minor detail. Larry Frank was certain that he had won the race but didn't get the checkered flag as he completed the 364th lap. When he wasn't flagged the winner Frank kept right on driving, despite the fact he was badly dehydrated and close to passing out. On the extra lap he broke a wheel and slid down onto the apron of the track, but gamely limped his way back around to the start finish line. Meanwhile, Junior Johnson was flagged the winner and motioned to victory lane. Frank crossed the start finish line and stumbled out his car to the attention of the crew. He was rushed to the motel he was staying at to be put in the shade and given fluids to treat his dehydration. Meanwhile, protests were flying and every position in the top six, including the win was seriously in question. Almost everyone but NASCAR (and presumably Junior) thought Larry Frank had won. It took until Midnight for NASCAR to announce that indeed Frank had won, and Johnson finished second. By that point, an exhausted Frank was asleep in his bed. The embarrassing scoring mishap had been unraveled by Morris Metcalfe. After a similar scoring mix-up took place two races later, Metcalfe was hired by NASCAR to be official scorekeeper. He is acknowledged as the master of the old mechanical scoring system, and his word was the final one for years to come.
The 1963 running of the Southern 500 was one of those great rarities at Darlington, a caution free event. While the outcome was never in question, there was a bit of controversy in the pits and another embarrassing lapse on the part of NASCAR officials. Jim Paschal was entered in the second Petty Plymouth as a teammate to Richard. Lee Petty called the shots in the pits. Lee seemed to think that Paschal had the faster car, so he called both drivers into the pits during the race and had them swap cars. A while later the engine in the car Richard was driving blew up and Lee ordered Paschal back into the pits to hand over the running car to his Richard. Two days later, Jim Paschal quit Petty Enterprises as a result. Early in the race, Billy Wade tagged the wall, but there was a breakdown in communication and the flagman never received the word from NASCAR's spotters there was a wreck on the track. Thus no caution flag was thrown and Ned Jarrett, unaware of the incident ahead of him, slammed into Wade's car. There was bad blood between the two drivers for the rest of Wade's all too brief life. Other than that, the race went as expected. As usual Junior Johnson, a student of Curtis Turner's old "Flat out till she blows" driving school streaked into the lead. Also as usual, he blew an engine. That left it to the two superspeedway superstars of the day. Fireball Roberts and Fred Lorenzen to settle it amongst themselves. Lorenzen powered his white Ford around Roberts on lap 314, but with 33 laps to go Roberts regained the lead and went on to beat Lorenzen by 17 seconds. The caution free event allowed Roberts to set a blistering pace unheard of in the day, 129.784 MPH. Tragically it was the last Southern 500 Roberts would ever compete in, before losing his life to injuries he sustained in a crash at Charlotte in May of 1964.
The Fords had pretty much had their way on the high profile big tracks in the 1963 season, but the Mopar camp had a new weapon in its arsenal for 1964, the 426 Hemi. The speeds those cars attained, coupled with the outdated tire and brake technology, took a dreadful toll in driver's lives, and the Southern 500 of 1964 was a wreckfest, though thankfully nobody was killed. There was a close call on lap 149 when Junior Johnson spun out and Bud Moore slammed into the back of Junior's Ford hard enough to push the rear bumper into the area where the back seat would be in a street car. Miraculously, there was no fire. Richard Petty in his big blue Hemi Plymouth seemed the driver to beat, but a spark plug wire fell onto the roasting hot headers and burnt through. Petty lost two laps in the pits, and in his frantic charge to get back up front, got into a wreck with David Pearson that cost him another two laps to get repairs. Meanwhile, the cagey old veteran Buck Baker, driving a Hemi Dodge and who knew a thing or two about how quickly Darlington could bite, drove a heads up race, saved his car, and stayed out of trouble to take the win by two laps over the second place finisher, Jim Paschal. Paschal had made his peace with the Petty team and was driving for them again that year. Still he must have felt somewhat vindicated to finish second, one place ahead of Richard Petty, who recovered from his twin misfortunes to finish third.
The awe-inspiring factory Hemis would not be back in 1965. Chrysler was sitting on the sidelines that year, staging a boycott after NASCAR banned the Hemi engine. The stated reason was that the cars had simply gotten too fast and it was a matter of safety. In light of that intention the 1965 Southern 500 served up a bitter irony.
More next time.
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