Darlington ~ Back Then, It Was Something Special
Think about how often a conversation like this took place back in the summer of 1950 in the pits of a dusty cornfield dirt track somewhere in the South:
Jimbo: “Any of you guys thought about going to that race in South Carolina, at that Darlington place?”
Butch: “I bet my car’d run with ‘em, but the bossman says he’ll fire my ass if I skip work to go racin’ again.”
Blackie: “Hell, Butch, when you’re runnin’ here, you can’t make that thing go as fast as Tiny’s dog. You put it out on the track at Darlington, and they’ll laugh you all the way to Macon.”
Butch: “I can’t run this thing as fast here ‘cuz I got a good engine, but I just spin my wheels on this damn dirt. I’d whup ‘em at Darlington.”
Tiny: “If he can whup ‘em, maybe I oughtta enter my dog.”
I couldn’t find a good photo to represent my guys in the conversation above, but a few years later, this is how they might have seen themselves.
Those boys could find quarter-, third- or even half-mile dirt tracks to race on just about anywhere, and there were even bigger tracks around Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta and some other places, but this new track at Darlington was different. It was PAVED, just like India-friggin-napolis. If you won at Darlington, they’d know who you were, like Bill Holland, Johnny Parsons or that Joie Chitwood, who also ran the thrill show.
Yes, Darlington was something special, and it still is.
The track is unique, somewhat antiquated, and hardly on a par with the likes of Charlotte, Daytona, Texas or even Kansas. Now they do this “throw-back” deal where teams paint their cars like they would have looked “back when.” People turn out to see something special.
With all due respect to nice states, cities, track staffs and nearby burger joints, what’s special about Kansas, or Fontana/Auto Club or even Las Vegas? (Yeah, two have casinos, and one has L.A., but that’s not the point; we’re talking about the tracks and the races held there.)
NASCAR used to be that way… special. In the pre-Winston Cup days, even the little half-mile dirt track running a 200-lapper was special, because nothing else like that happened anywhere nearby all year. It gave Butch a chance to show his stuff against those guys people had heard of, and it gave Tri-County Motors a chance to put a new convertible in the parade lap with one of the drivers sitting on the back, along with the sales manager’s daughter in a bathing suit.
The Southern 500 still has a parade, although it may no longer have George “Goober” Lindsey.
The bigger tracks were really special, because there were only a handful of them, and their races stood out on the schedule. You planned a year ahead to attend.
Here’s King Richard taking the checkered flag in 1967. He was five laps ahead of runner-up David Pearson.
That was then; this is now: same group of cars showing up every week for a cookie-cutter routine (does qualifying mean anything anymore, really?), possibly on a cookie-cutter track, and the rules micro-manage everything up to the color you can paint your lugnuts. So what am I going to do this weekend: go to the beer and wine festival, see that new rock or country group in concert, drive the kids to a theme park, take in a ballgame, or go to the race? Which is more special?
You know all this, so why bother with more griping. Let’s just look at what we could have had.
Action from the first Southern 500. Despite the hand-written caption, the car in the pits appears to be Turner’s teammate Pee Wee Martin. The #52 is Hershel McGriff, who finished ninth, and the #77 is fifth-finishing Chuck Mahoney.
Darlington, 1950. More than 80 cars in the pits, many driven by guys (or girls) who would never attempt another Grand National event (most would never become regulars in Bill France’s traveling circus).
There was 24-year-old Bill Bennett from Rehobeth Beach, Del. He’d made the field at Langhorne the year before and took a shot at Darlington. He didn’t qualify. Neither did 25-year-old Dorothy Shull from West Columbia, S.C. There are stories about how much trouble she had keeping the car pointed the right way, and while the fact that she was female probably made her problems all the more popular among good-ol’-boys looking to reinforce the notion that women probably weren’t meant to drive at all. In fact her inexperience did show, and she failed to make the show.
(An aside: lots of these drivers only tried a couple of the big races each year, Darlington, Daytona, Langhorne mostly. That pattern continued until the early days of Winston Cup - and the much bigger payoffs for top finishes in the point standings. We talk about the point standings taking away from the focus on winning, but it also assures tracks a good field of cars. In April of 1961, Paul Sawyer ran his last 200-lap event at the Richmond Fairgrounds, on the old dirt track, and only 12 cars showed up. The next year he upped the distance and purse for both of his races, and when he paved the track just a few years later, one major reason again was to try to attract a good field for each event.)
Back to Darlington: I had thought that the youngest competitor, based on info from the always-essential Racing-Reference.info, was Carson Dyer of Atlanta, who was said to be only 16. Dyer started in 37th place in the 75-car field and completed 310 laps to finish 51st. Two years later he notched a seventh at Macon, Ga., a race where he had started on the second row. It would be the last of his five career GN starts (for which he won a total of $230).
However, record-keeping being what it was then, there’s some reason to doubt Dyer’s tender age. He’s shown elsewhere as finishing 14th in the 1948 NASCAR Modified Division season standings - and finishing third in a Modified race at the Greensboro Fairgrounds. If he was 16 at Darlington in 1950, he was only 14 when he was making a name for himself in Modifieds, and to me that seems a stretch. Nevertheless, there he is.
Everybody knows Johnny Mantz won the first Southern 500, and you’ve probably heard the story about the win coming because his little Plymouth didn’t eat tires all day like the Lincolns, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, but that legend may have been burnished a bit. If - as is said - he qualified slowest in the field, why did Mantz start 43rd in a field of 75 cars? And if running the Plymouth was such a revolutionarily sneaky idea, why were there eight other Plymouths in the field?
Johnny Mantz with the Hubert Westmoreland Plymouth and a couple of trophies.
Actually, Mantz probably won because car owner Hubert Westmoreland and the others involved with his entry were smart guys. They had a strategy to win, and it worked.
Here’s another interesting aside, at least to me. In all the current bruhaha about cheating, drivers and teams are made to look like witches at Salem if caught in NASCAR’s byzantine rules, but it doesn’t look like Big Bill France necessarily shared that attitude, because he was very much involved with the Mantz/Westmoreland entry. Less than 15 months earlier, when the first-ever Strictly Stock race was won by a cheater (Glenn Dunaway) who was disqualified (not just “encumbered”), who do you think was his car owner? If you guessed Hubert Westmoreland, you can pick up your confiscated illegal parts on the way out the door.
Sometimes, both politics and first-place payouts can make strange bedfellows.
Finally, a nearly awesome story. While Johnny Mantz didn’t actually start at the rear of the inaugural Southern 500 field, Jesse James Taylor did. The 20-year-old from Macon, Ga., wasn’t a start-and-park, though; he completed 329 of the 400 laps and was rewarded with a 44th place finish.
The next year he upped his game, qualifying 3rd and finishing 2nd in the 1951 Southern 500 for the best finish in his 16-race Grand National career. Oddly, he was the second straight runner-up to be 21, following Fireball Roberts in 1950.
Taylor’s accomplishments evidently extended past that race, because in 2007 he was inducted into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame.
Jesse James Taylor. BTW, Google Images links this photo to Racers Reunion posts from Dave Fulton and Tim Leeming - always good to have the REAL authorities going ahead of you.
Finally, while enjoying having the NASCAR stockers race this weekend, think about what might have been, because the Southern 500 wasn’t the only race run at the new Darlington track in 1950. Three months afterward, AAA came to town with the Indy “Big Cars” for the Darlington 200 on December 10.
The purse for this race was considerably lower, but 30 cars came to compete for 26 starting spots, and Johnny Parsons won over eight other cars on the lead lap. (Remember that Fireball Roberts was nine laps behind as the 500 runner-up.)
This SEEMS to be Walk Faulkner, winner of the 1951 AAA Indy-car race at Darlington. The race was run on July4, and five relief drivers were needed. Still, seven racers finished on the lead lap. Bill Vukovich lead early, then broke, and Faulkner dominated. Vukovich returned as a relief driver and finished 10th.
The Indy boys returned the next year for a higher purse and brought nearly 40 cars. They also forced Darlington to cancel a planned companion race for NASCAR, which might have been part of what lead Bill France to start his own Indy-style Speedway Division the next year.
The Speedway Division didn’t last, but neither did AAA (or later USAC) races at Darlington, the last one being held in 1956.
For a while it looked like we’d mark the last GN/Cup race at Darlington, too, but the grand old place has revived nicely and now seems pretty permanently on the schedule. It’s just a shame all the Butches and Jimbos of the racing world can’t show up and take on the big guys anymore. If NASCAR wants to change its fortunes for the better, it might start thinking about that again.
No question about it. My cheers at Darlington this year go to Denny Hamlin and his “throwback” car honoring the great Ray Hendrick of Richmond, my idol as a kid watching modified races at Southside Speedway and the Richmond Fairgrounds dirt.