#84 - The Southern 500 ~ The Granddaddy of Them All - Part 5 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 1979 Southern 500 gave one driver some sweet vindication, but left another one cursing himself for being so foolish. The brutally hot weather took its toll that day, particularly on older drivers, and both Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had to call for relief drivers. In an odd game of musical chairs, Neil Bonnett and Donnie Allison both wound up driving both Richard's and Bobby's cars. Petty was credited with ninth and Bobby Allison tenth in the final rundown. Darrell Waltrip seemed to have matters well in hand that day and it appeared he would finally have the Southern 500 win that had eluded him. But Darrell suffered from a bit of "brain fade" and lost concentration while passing a lapped car, tagged the wall while leading, and spun himself out. The spin only dropped him to second, right behind David Pearson, but within a few laps of the restart Darrell did it again, putting himself into the wall and spinning out yet again. The second incident dropped him from contention. David Pearson inherited the lead. Pearson had been released from the Wood Brothers team after a pit road miscue at the spring race in Darlington that year, saw him take off down pit road with no lug nuts on the left side of his car. That day he was driving the Rod Osterlund Chevy, in place of rookie Dale Earnhardt who had been injured at Pocono that July. There must have been a certain grim satisfaction for Pearson, having the Wood Brothers watch him take the win when their driver, Neil Bonnett, wound up 32nd after a crash. In second place, albeit two laps down, was Bill Elliott in his family's Ford, serving final notice he was for real, in one of the strongest runs by an independent in years. Terry Labonte was credited with third place.
The ending of the 1980 Southern 500 was one of the strangest ever, and a miscue by NASCAR in being slow to throw the caution flag bought back memories of the 1963 event. Pre-race favorites Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Cale Yarborough were all sidelined by mechanical failures that day. Perennial favorite David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Benny Parsons were putting on a good show for the fans as the laps wound down and it seemed like it would be a three car shoot-out for the checkers. With two laps to go, Frank Warren lost an engine in the first turn. NASCAR hesitated before throwing the caution flag and the three leaders streaked into that turn wide open, running in close quarters. Pearson hit the oil and slid up the hill into the wall. Dale and Benny hit the oil as well and went spinning. Terry Labonte was in fourth place and far enough back to see the trouble developing and weave his way through the wreck and the oil. Pearson's car was crippled but still moving. Both he and Labonte knew it was a race back to the flagstand where the white and yellow flags would fly simultaneously. Pearson gave it his best shot, diving low off turn four trying to block Labonte's pass. Terry ducked down even lower, got alongside David and crossed the line inches ahead of Pearson. After completing the one lap under caution, Terry Labonte had the first win of his Winston Cup career, and David Pearson had added yet another second place to his Southern 500 resume.
The Wood Brothers had fallen on hard times in comparison to their salad days with David Pearson during the seventies. The team, and driver Neil Bonnett, had not won a race in over a year going into the 1981 Southern 500. A good deal of the problem was the new Ford body style introduced that year with the advent of the downsized cars. Aerodynamically, the Ford was at a distinct disadvantage to the fleet Buick Regals that were dominating the circuit that year. To be honest, the Fords were at an aerodynamic disadvantage to most chicken coops as well, looking like the box a pretty car might have come packed in. Still, Bonnett's dogged persistence and the Wood Brothers' decades of experience at Darlington saw the 21 team dominate the race that day. Late in the going it looked like they might see defeat snatched from the jaws (no pun intended) of victory when a late race caution allowed the hard driving and determined Darrell Waltrip to restart directly on Neil's rear bumper. It was a fierce battle and Darrell desperately wanted his first Southern 500 win, but Bonnett was no slouch either and had a fire in his belly fueled by the season of frustration. Bonnett held on to beat DW by a car length. In doing so he became the third driver to visit the Southern 500 victory lane in a Wood Brothers owned car, adding his name to the list with Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, pretty good company indeed.
While their glory days were for the most part behind them, two seasoned veterans showed the youngsters they weren't quite ready to roll over and die quite yet during the Southern 500 of 1982. Mechanical woes slowed pre-race favorites and points contenders Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in the middle stages of the race. A bit later in the event, points leader Bobby Allison lost his chance to capitalize on Terry and Darrell's misfortune when a blown tire put him into the wall and into the showers early. The race came down to relative newcomer Dale Earnhardt trying to hold off veterans Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty. Cale showed the youngster how the slingshot pass was done to take the lead, and Richard then demonstrated how to outbrake and outgut another driver low in a corner for Dale. With only 11 laps left Petty dove under Yarborough to take the lead, looking like the King of old. With seven to go Cale returned the favor and made his Buick as wide as possible to hold off the King by eight tenths of a second. Earnhardt came home third, no doubt adding the moves he had seen to his book of tricks, and Bill Elliott came home fourth. It was Cale Yarborough's record holding fifth Southern 500 victory, and hugely popular with the Darlington fans who cheered lustily for their home state native.
Perhaps Bobby Allison felt a bit slighted he hadn't been invited to join Richard and Cale in showing the newcomers how the racing game was played in 1982, because Allison was back with a vengeance at the Southern 500 in 1983. He could have entitled his particular lesson "Tougher than Barbed Wire 101". It was a brutally hot day, and cars and drivers were giving out left and right. Forty five years young, Allison didn't call for a relief driver and drove the entire distance, blowing past Bill Elliott on lap 341 and stretching out almost a ten second gap by the time he took the checkered. Elliott, some 17 years Allison's junior had to be treated for heat prostration after the race in the infield care center, along with several other drivers, while Bobby celebrated with a cold Miller in victory lane. It was Allison's fourth Southern 500 victory, each of them with a different team and a different make of car. The win was also a giant step towards his 1983 Winston Cup championship.
Tradition was altered in 1984 when the Southern 500 was run on the Sunday prior to Labor Day, rather than on that Monday. In another break from tradition, the Southern 500 was not a very competitive event. Harry Gant drove the race of his life and flat out dominated the event as if everyone else was driving pedal cars. Many early favorites either crashed or blew up trying to match Gant's torrid pace. Cale Yarborough was trying gamely to make a race of it when he blew his engine. The resulting oil-down caused a wreck that eliminated Bill Elliott, Lake Speed, and Joe Ruttman. Second place, or perhaps better, “Best in Class", went to rising star, Tim Richmond.
A little luster was added to the 1985 running of the Southern 500 when it was designated one of the four crown jewel races that would make up the new Winston Million challenge. Any driver claiming three of those four events (The Daytona 500 (the most prestigious lucrative race) the Winston 500 at Talladega (the fastest race) the World 600 (the longest race) or the Southern 500 (the oldest race)) would get a cool million dollars courtesy of Winston. Bill Elliott had dominated the Daytona 500 and staged an incredible come back in the Winston 500, but the pressure and media spotlight had caused his team to fall flat on their faces at the World 600. The Southern 500 was his last chance to claim the gargantuan payday. To keep the media and the curious at bay, armed South Carolina state troopers were assigned to guard the Elliott team's garage area so they could get some work done. Unfortunately, once the race started, a police escort around the track for Bill was out of the question. Elliott started on the pole but gave up the lead to Dale Earnhardt on lap 14. Throughout much of the race Bill seemed to be struggling and Earnhardt, Harry Gant and perennial Southern 500 contender Cale Yarborough had the cars to beat. Gant was the first of the front runners to fall by the wayside, losing a cylinder and dropping off the pace. On lap 318, Earnhardt got loose and put his car into the wall. Elliott just barely missed the spinning Chevy as it came across the track. Elliott went into the lead at that point, but Cale Yarborough ran him down and passed Bill on lap 322. Less than a lap later a thick cloud of smoke billowed out from under Cale's Ford. Elliott, inches off Cale's rear bumper had to be recalling a similar situation where he had gotten caught in Cale's oil the previous year and crashed. He made a million dollar move diving low through the smoke, flying blind, and found himself back in the lead. But Cale wasn't quite done yet. As ominous as that smoke looked, it was a power steering hose, not an engine that had blown. The team disabled the power steering system, and the diminutive but bulldog-tough 46-year old driver returned to combat. Yarborough gave Bill a run for the money, but Elliott had about a million extra reasons to keep Cale behind him, and prevailed by .6 seconds at the line to win the Winston Million.
Of course, combined with Darrell Waltrip's troubles that day, the win also gave Bill a seemingly insurmountable 206 point lead in the Winston Cup championship. Well, not quite insurmountable as history teaches us, but at least Bill got to keep the Million.
*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.