#82 - The Southern 500 ~ The Granddaddy of Them All - Part 3 of 6
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
The 1965 Chrysler boycott had all the factory Mopar teams on the sidelines, but there was still a full slate of factory Ford drivers on hand to battle for a win in front of the fans who were on hand. Because of the boycott, only 50,000 folks were on hand to see the race, down from 65,000 in 1964, and a lot of people feel that number was greatly exaggerated to help NASCAR save face. As it turned out the 1965 Southern 500 was a battle of mechanical survival, and sadly, a young driver lost his own battle for personal survival. On the second lap of the race, rookie Buren Skeen lost control, and his car was drilled broadside by Reb Wickershaw. The violence of the wreck shoved the driver's seat of the car all the way into the right side of the car's roll cage and it took rescue workers 20 minutes to remove Skeen. He died nine days later of brain injuries. Wickershaw was badly shaken and despondent but otherwise uninjured. Cale Yarborough was lucky to escape injury when he tangled with Sam McQuagg and flew up and over the guard rail, and rolled six times into the parking lot where he hit a utility pole. More than half the field, including all the Ford factory backed drivers, save one, were eliminated by mechanical failure. Ned Jarrett was riding along in a comfortable third place position, babying his car, which was beginning to overheat. He saw no chance of catching the two leaders, Fred Lorenzen and Darel Dieringer, but as it turned out he didn't have to. Lorenzen and Dieringer put on a spirited battle until on lap 319, Lorenzen lost an engine. That very same lap, Dieringer's car began trailing an ominous cloud of smoke and he slowed dramatically, trying to nurse the car to the finish. Jarrett took the lead with 39 laps to go, but still had to worry about his own car's high water temperature and drive at a slow pace hoping it lasted to the finish. Ned Jarrett won that race by a 14-lap margin, a major stepping stone to his 1965 championship. In victory lane, he attributed the win to the power of prayer. Besides saying his own prayers in the car, Ned had addressed a Christian Youth group before the event and they had all promised to pray he would be kept safe and allowed to win the race. With a 14-lap gap over the second place finisher, there was no arguing the point. Ironically the second place finisher, Buddy Baker, who was relief driving for his Dad Buck, was aboard a full size Plymouth fitted with a Hemi engine. In an attempt to end the stalemate NASCAR had announced the Hemi engine would be allowed on the Superspeedways but only in a full size car. Chrysler had said the weight of the car would make it un-competitive and that the engine wouldn't fit anyway, but the Bakers proved the factory wrong with their one-off special they built themselves in their shop.
Darel Dieringer must have felt Darlington owed him one after the heartbreaking loss at the 1965 Southern 500. He returned to the Labor Day classic of 1966 loaded with grit and determination not to mention 427 cubic inches of Bud Moore Ford under the hood. Moore's team did not have factory backing and thus they were considered independents and longshots for the win. Richard Petty in his powerful Hemi Plymouth Belvedere was considered an odds on favorite and did in fact dominate the race, though he couldn't shake that pesky Dieringer fellow. The race was not without incident for the King. He tangled with the lapped car of Earl Balmer and Balmer took off for the fence. Balmer's Dodge rode up onto the guard rail and for one terrifying moment it appeared certain it was going to fly right into the press box. Even Balmer admitted he had no control of the car and thought he was going to wipe out the assembled scribes. While he splintered eight fence posts, the last of them knocked the Dodge back onto the track. The media was showered with debris and gasoline from Balmer's ruptured fuel tank, but no one was badly injured. In a wise move, the reporters decided to abandon the rickety structure during the ensuing caution flag and issued an ultimatum to the track owner they would not return to the next Darlington event until a new and safer press box was built. Petty later admitted fault in the incident and apologized to the press, in a statement they were lucky to be around to hear. The King recovered from the incident and seemed to have the field covered. He passed Dieringer and was pulling away when a cut tire began losing air. Petty slowed dramatically and Dieringer roared past him en route to the victory while Richard held on for second.
Petty was in the midst of a hot streak the likes of which we will never see again, on the way to his 27-win season when the Grand National tour arrived at Darlington for the 1967 running of the Southern 500. In addition to feeling that Darlington owed him one after the heartbreaker of '66, Petty Enterprises was out to break an 18-year losing streak at the Southern 500. Neither Lee nor Richard had ever won the event. Poor Sam McQuagg, who had survived that fierce wreck with Cale Yarborough at the 1965 race, was involved in another spectacular crash in the 1967 running of the Labor Day race. He tangled with Dick Hutcherson, rolled end over end into the pit wall (added after the 1960 race had claimed 3 lives) and barrel rolled eight more times. Miraculously, he was treated for only minor injuries. In another scary reminder of the 1960 event, two members of Bobby Allison's crew were treated for minor injuries after being hit by flying chunks of concrete during the wreck. Two words sum up the story of the 1967 Southern 500; "Richard", "Petty". He led 343 of 364 laps. That the King won the race in a season he flat out dominated the Grand National circuit is not surprising. The surprise is that as dominant a driver as he continued to be for many years afterwards, it was the only Southern 500 Richard ever won. The Southern 500 was to Richard Petty what the Daytona 500 is to Dale Earnhardt.
The 1968 Southern 500 came down to a battle of pit strategy. The asphalt on the Darlington track was highly abrasive, causing tires to wear quickly and making passing extremely difficult. Early on in the event Cale Yarborough decided the soft compound Goodyears he was running were wearing out too quickly, so he ducked into the pits though he had led much of the event, to switch over to a harder compound Firestone tire. The unplanned stop left Cale nearly two laps off the pace but he was able to utilize the superior wear characteristics of the Firestones to battle his way back into contention. Donnie Allison's mechanical misfortunes allowed Yarborough to retake the lead, but David Pearson was making a spirited attempt to take over the lead. Frustrated by his inability to find a way around Yarborough, Pearson tried forcing the issue on lap 320. He attempted to dive low, but his Ford slid up the track and hit Yarborough's Mercury. Cale was able to regain control but Pearson spun out and lost a half lap. Pearson made a spirited charge to get back at Cale, but catching and passing Yarborough proved entirely different matters. Cale fought off David's many attempts to pass him and wound up leading his rival to the stripe by four car lengths. For Yarborough, who had made his first Grand National start at the Southern 500 in 1957, it was his first victory at Darlington, much to the great delight of the highly partisan crowd who had been cheering their local hero on all those years.
Threatening weather overshadowed the 1969 running of the Southern 500 and rain delayed the event several times. The drivers understood early on that either rain or darkness was going to shorten the event and that made for some wild driving. A six-car 143rd lap crash involved several front runners including Donnie and Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, and Cale Yarborough. Yarborough was eliminated, but the rest of the drivers managed to soldier on in various states of disrepair. Besides the weather, pit strategy once again weighed heavily into the outcome of the race. With no one knowing how many laps would still be run, LeeRoy Yarbrough's crew chief and owner Junior Johnson decided to throw the dice and go with a harder compound tire that wasn't as fast but wore better. David Pearson's Holman-Moody crew decided to go the opposite route and sent Pearson back out on the softer faster tires, gambling the race would be over before the tires wore out. Pearson passed LeeRoy and pulled into a comfortable lead, but as his tires began wearing out, Yarbrough was able to start reeling him in. After the white flag was displayed Yarbrough used the advantage of his grippier tires to duck under Pearson in the third turn and held him off by a car length at the checkers. For LeeRoy Yarbrough it was his sixth Superspeedway win in a year that would see him rack up a then record nine wins on the big tracks. For Pearson, who was becoming a perennial bridesmaid in the event, it was just another frustrating way to lose the race.
1970 marked the first and only invasion of the Winged Warriors, the Dodge Daytona and the Plymouth Superbird, at the Southern 500. It turned out to be a spirited battle that day with Buddy Baker and Bobby Isaac upholding the winged Dodge's honor, closely pursued by Donnie Allison and Cal Yarborough in a Ford and Mercury respectively. Yarborough was mounting a charge but with 36 laps to go tangled with lapped traffic and wrecked. Five laps later Donnie Allison was also involved in a crash and eliminated. It came down to a battle between the two Daytona drivers. In an attempt to take control of the event Isaac decided to skip a gas and go stop late in the race and gambled he could stretch his fuel mileage to the end of the race. 10 laps later he was out of gas. Baker sped on to take the checkers by a little over a lap. It was an emotional victory for Buddy who had followed in his father's footsteps and gone to victory lane at the Southern 500. They remain to date the only father-son duo to do so, and you'll recall in 1965 they actually split driving chores in the Southern 500.
The victor in the 1971 Southern 500 ran away with the event, aided somewhat by a bizarre pit road miscue on the part of his chief rival. The day was so brutally hot Richard Petty charged into the pits simply because he needed a drink of water to continue. One of his pit crew thought the plan was to add gas as well and undid the gas cap. Petty stormed back out onto the track with his gas cap open and was black flagged by NASCAR. It may not have mattered, as strong as Bobby Allison's Holman-Moody prepared Ford was that day. He led 329 of 367 laps and had a full lap lead on Petty when the race ended. It was Allison's third superspeedway win in a row, and perhaps the biggest win of his career to date. In fact, an elated Allison said in victory lane, “I would say this has been the best day I have ever had. Winning this race has to rank as one of my greatest thrills." Many winners of the Southern 500 before him, and many who have come after have echoed similar sentiments. But Bobby Allison wasn't quite through with Darlington.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.