Darlington ~ The Links to the Past Set It Apart in a Good Way
The last time I went to the Southern 500 was before anyone in this year’s Darlington Monster/Cup field was born, but I still hold a fond place in my mind for the historic track. And I wonder . . .
Do the churches and civic clubs still hold breakfasts in town for the race fans? I had a tasty start to race day in one of those feeds back when.
Does Greyhound still stop in Darlington? That’s how I got to my first Southern 500 52 years ago.
The ‘Hound I took to Darlington half a century ago probably looked a little like this – no, it wasn’t horse-drawn.
Do locals still make extra cash driving through the parking lot selling ice (and maybe some carefully hidden alcoholic beverages)?
Is it still as different from the rest of the Grand National/Monster/Cup circuit as it was when I was a young race fan taking in all that atmosphere?
I suspect that, in at least some ways, Darlington will always be different. I just wish some of the differences on the track were still in place:
n The cars looked like cars then, because they WERE, all seven different makes in competition.
Check out the stock windows and bumper (no headlight decals!) on this Wood Brothers car, circa my Darlington era.
n There were no stages, “lucky dogs,” wave-arounds or other gimmicks.
n There were only a handful of multi-car teams; a significant number of cars were driven by their owners. Some were sponsored by their own businesses: Champion Trucking, Negre Wrecker Service, Spencer Antiques, Frasson Cement.
n There were NO provisional starting positions or charters.
n The tires were much harder, and cars slid all over the place, including into the guard rail, where they earned “Darlington Stripes.”
If the rear quarter panel of your car didn’t look like this after a Darlington race, you hadn’t been driving hard enough.
I’ll get nasty remarks for saying this, but one change I welcome is that Johnny Reb no longer sits on the hood of the winning car as it makes its way to Victory Lane. There are other ways to celebrate “Southern” in the Southern 500.
The races I saw were exciting. They didn’t have 20 cars on the lead lap at the end, but they had plenty of lead changes and plenty of passing, because the cars weren’t all so close to equal. Also, because it was Darlington, you knew cars were going to wreck or blow up (break), so there was suspense even when the lead wasn’t being contested.
Here’s Darel Dieringer in the Wood Brothers Mercury holding off Richard Petty for the 1966 Southern 500 win.
You also knew drivers’ stories, which made it interesting even when they weren’t running up front. H. B. Bailey and Coo Coo Marlin were the ultimate part-timers, and Benny Parsons had been a cab driver in Detroit.
We even had Marty Robbins in the field in 1972, and he posted a 9th-place finish.
When I saw my first Southern 500 in 1966 (the Greyhound trip), Earl Balmer nearly took out the press-box when his K&K Insurance Dodge came within a hair of clearing the first turn guard rail right where that rickety structure stood.
Balmer came this close to taking out the press-box, which was replaced after the 1966 accident.
Because we were day-trippers and arrived fairly early on race-day morning, we saw scenes in the parking lot that Miss Woody didn’t explain to us in the fourth grade.
After one race, buddy Dave Fulton and I were offered a ride from the parking lot to town by a guy who then kept changing course every time he saw a police officer directing traffic ahead. We were glad that he let us out.
I have no idea if the parking lot has been cleaned up a little or if shifty guys still offer young pedestrians rides, but I know Darlington is still special, and a lot of that is because it’s still got its connections to the “good ol’ days.” I think if our sport had more such connections circuit-wide, it might not be in such dire straits these days.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
When I was describing drivers from the long-ago past who had life stories we all knew, I was surprised to be reminded that Roy Mayne hadn’t driven in a Southern 500 I attended, which was kind of a surprise, since he raced out of South Carolina.
Mayne would be the perfect “back story” for today, because he was an active-duty Air Force sergeant who raced for a hobby. As much as we honor our military service members, today, wouldn’t having one drive at NASCAR’s highest level be awesome?
Roy drove in 138 Grand National/Winston Cup events during a 12-year career and had his best finish at Darlington in 1965, when he came home fourth, 19 laps behind winner Ned Jarrett. He was driving the ’65 Chevy discussed and pictured below.
Roy Mayne in his part-time uniform.
Roy Mayne at speed. This car was the subject of considerable publicity a few years ago when it was found and restored. Below is how it looks today.