The Darlington Shocker
In late August of 1952, or perhaps early September of that year, my grandfather and Uncle Bobby took me to my first stock car race. Heck, I was just going on six years old and dates didn't mean much to me then. All I know is Uncle Bobby asked his sister (my Mother) about taking me to the race and she was all too happy to get me out of the house as she was having to deal with my then 3 year old brother and was five month pregnant with the baby who would become my youngest brother.
We went into the grandstands that night although Uncle Bobby preferred the infield. I would learn later that the reason for the grandstands was because they were worried about whether or not I could take the noise and they could exit the grandstand at any time while such was not the case for the infield. They needn't have worried because from the first time I saw a race car I was thrilled. When they fired up the engine, which I'm sure was a flat head Ford engine, the excitement was spine-tingling. You know, I can still feel that as I sit here writing this. When the races were over we walked into the pits and I got to look into some of the race cars and I was hooked forever more on the sport.
Although I really don't remember this, Uncle Bobby used to tell me that on the way home I was asked if I wanted to come back. Obviously the answer was a resounding YES! So, being the huge race fan he was, Uncle Bobby would take me along to half-mile dirt tracks like the Columbia Speedway where I saw that first race to places like Savannah, Greenville, Newberry, Spartanburg, and frankly, anywhere there was a race track. All the tracks were dirt, or probably more correctly stated, that good old red clay that is so prevalent in the Carolinas.
On Labor Day, we would sit on the front porch of the old home place and listen to The Southern 500 at a place called Darlington, SC. At that young age all I knew about geography was that if there was a dirt track around, I had been there but I had never been to Darlington. As we would listen to the Southern 500 every year I would hear them talk about the speed and I knew a little about speed because Uncle Bobby had a 1932 Plymouth hotrod that we whipped around a quarter mile track he laid out in Grandpa's corn field. I could hardly reach the pedals, but Bobby would have me driving it helter-skelter around that track.
Sometime in early 1957 the word came down that they were going to run convertibles in a 300 mile race at Darlington on a Saturday in May. Bobby had talked about going but his job duties for that period were going to prevent him being free on Saturday. But he agreed we would listen on the radio just as we did the Southern 500.
That Saturday dawned misty and rainy in Columbia, just 70 miles from Darlington and we soon learned the race was postponed until Sunday. Little did we know that it was against the law in South Carolina to hold sporting events, or do anything other than go to church on Sunday. Without such knowledge we boarded his 1954 Chevy Bel Air before the sun came up on Sunday and headed East (although it was on U.S. Highway 1 North). The sun was breaking through the clouds in front of us as we turned East on Highway 34 in Camden. Funny that I don't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can remember looking through the windshield of that Bel Air and smiling because I was going to a race and it was at a big track AND, the track was paved.
When we got to Darlington and fought the line of traffic to enter the track, I'm not really sure what I was anticipating, but when we got into the infield I knew I could never have anticipated this! After more than four years of three and four races a week on the short dirt tracks, the size of Darlington was beyond my ability to absorb in that first 30 minutes. Bobby parked right up against the fence in turn three, actually more in the middle of three and four where we could fit between fans already parked there. I got out of the car and just stared at the black asphalt banking in front of me. I began to imagine what it was going to be like to see them race into that turn. Even with my imagination in high gear, I could not foresee what was going to happen later that morning.
Bobby and I walked around to the front pit area and look through the fence at the immaculate convertibles in the pits. We had seen convertible races on the short tracks and although the cars were always beautiful to me, to see the waxed and polished beauties through that fence was an unexpected surge to the heart. We walked on around the track infield and back to our spot in the turn.
We had packed an ice chest with sandwiches and soft drinks. I swear I believe those were Bologna sandwiches although I wouldn't testify under oath to that. We also had a bag of potato chips, just the regular old kind that sort of crumbled everywhere when you took them out of the bag. We ate, we talked, and soon we were talking to folks around us, some of whom had these parking spaces for the Southern 500 every year (first come, first served in those days). One old codger, and I believe his name was Max, had been to every Southern 500 that had been run to date which meant he has seen 8 races on this track. He told me story after story, maybe with a little embellishment here and there, but since we had listened to all of them on the radio (although I doubt I had been invited to listen in 50 and 51) most of what he said had been filed away in my memory banks.
Soon we were hearing the marching bands playing over of the front straight and we knew the start was not long in coming. As sure as the wind blows, a voice richly intoned "Gentlemen, Start your engines.” We couldn't see the cars, but we heard 27 racing engines roar to life across the infield of cars and pickup trucks. No motor homes then. I pressed up against the fence where I could see most of the back straight as I awaited my first view of race cars on an asphalt track.
The ground began to shake a little, or maybe it was knees, even before that first row of three abreast cars came into view. Paul Goldsmith was on the pole in a Ford, Joe Weatherly in a Ford was in the middle, and Curtis Turner in another Ford was on the outside. I had watched many a race between Joe and Curtis and knew this was going to be good.
The fence to which I was clinging tightly began to shake as the cars approached in their neat little rows of three and my heart was racing to unbelievable speeds. I looked over at Uncle Bobby and he was standing on the trunk of the Chevy so he could see more of the track. I dared not stand up there because my excitement would have relegated me to the ground in a most uncomfortable manner.
The cars passed us slowly and then the sound of the engines was reduced to a slight rumble as they entered the other end of the track. The loudspeakers were playing a rousing rendition of "Dixie" and that only added to the adrenaline rush. Again the cars came by following the convertible with the yellow flags on the back bumper. We knew the green flag would wave that time.
As the cars disappeared from view going off turn four, the flag was waved and the sound of racing engines filled with air with such a roar I was sure my Mother could hear it back in Columbia. I clung to the fence to see who was going to be leading when they came by. I was totally and completely unprepared for what would happen when the cars came by a full speed. The sound and fury was nothing like I imagined and for which I was totally unprepared. It was much more than anything I had witnessed to date in my young life. Going into that turn there were two cars almost side by side, Turner and Weatherly I believe, with this young Marvin Panch having to fall in line as he entered that turn running too low to take advantage of the "Darlington Stripe Provider".
I stood firmly against that fence, watching every car that came by and actually sometimes seeing the driver's eyes behind the goggles. The race hadn't run long, maybe 25 or 30 laps, when this huge crash happened just past where I was standing. I ran down to see what happened and saw wrecked race cars everywhere. Some of the top contenders had their vehicles reduced to twisted sheet metal destined for a junk yard somewhere. Fans didn't clamor for bent fenders and doors back then as they do today.
I was well accustomed to red flags coming out on the short tracks for big wrecks but the red flag for this one seemed to last forever. I'm sure that was because I couldn't wait to see those guys race again. When the race did resume, it was that number 22 Ford with Fireball behind the wheel that took over and he REALLY took over. Fireball won that race by two laps over Tim Flock but to me, it was all about seeing the greatest spectacle I had ever seen in my life happen right before my eyes. I was sure nothing would ever be as exciting as was that race. In years to come, I would be at Charlotte, Daytona or Talladega and know the tracks were bigger, banked higher and were faster, but it was that first visit to Darlington that instilled a love for that place which has never been replaced by another track.
On the way home Uncle Bobby finally asked me if I was okay because I had been silent almost from the time we got in the car. As the saying went in those days "if Timmy is quiet, you had better take his temperature and make sure he's ok". I don't recall my exact words, after all it's been over 60 years now but I do remember telling Bobby that racing was the only sport I would ever care about and that those drivers are far braver than any other sports figure on the planet. I had met and talked with all those guys at the short tracks and I knew they put their lives on the line even on the half miles, but what I had witnessed that Sunday afternoon had infused my imagination with what could be my future. Of course I wanted to drive a race car! Of course I wanted to run Darlington and win Darlington. Of course I wanted to be a big NASCAR star. Well, as it turned out, I did drive a race car for a few years but came nothing even close to being a NASCAR Star. I did run Darlington once, in 1972, in my Plymouth Fury. My only competition was the Darlington County Sheriff's deputy who took a dim view of my attempt to break the STOCK car record at the track. Guess you could say I did win that one because I didn't get arrested.
Darlington comes up this week. Far removed from that Sunday afternoon in 1957, but it's still Darlington. Over the years following that first race for me, I was at every race Darlington ran except the two in 1965 (Mopar boycott) and the 1967 Southern 500 when the U.S. Navy needed my services in the Caribbean. I attended my last one there in 2000 or maybe 2001 because it wasn't the same for me without my friends and family, who were always with me. So much was missing. This year, one of my friends from my teenage years called and said he and our other friend and I should get together and go to Darlington. I remember saying "sure, I'm in". Then I forgot about it. One day a couple months ago my phone rang and I was informed we had tickets fourteen rows up just past the start-finish line.
When I enter Darlington Raceway Sunday it will be a far different experience than any race I've ever attended there. They race at night now. The first turn is now the fourth turn. There are no real infield crowds like the old days. But it's Darlington and once the engines come to life I will find myself in a time warp going back to that Sunday afternoon in 1957. Uncle Bobby won't be there, and I won't be eating Bologna sandwiches, but my ears will be ringing when I leave there and I'm sure the days of my youth will, in some respect, take over as we head west down I-20 for home.
Thanks for reading (if you made it this far).