WAID’S WORLD: Drivers Still Covet Victory In The Southern 500
There is a first time for everything and so it was for me in 1972 when I covered my first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
When it came to being a motorsports writer I was as green as they come. I covered my first race in 1971 when I was at the Martinsville Bulletin. Of course that race was at Martinsville Speedway and was won by the late Bobby Isaac.
I hardly knew what I was doing. Let me give you an idea. During the race when a leader pitted under green and surrendered the lead to another driver, I would ask the guy next to me, “How did that driver get the lead?”
With the help of other writers who tolerated my questions, I reckon I made do.
By the time the 1972 Southern 500 rolled around on Labor Day I had been covering the majority of the races on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. My knowledge of the sport had increased significantly.
But I did not know everything. I had heard of what a special race the Southern 500 was – steeped in tradition and held on NASCAR’S oldest superspeedway.
However, when I got to the speedway I thought, “This is nothing more than a run-down track. Nothing special about this place.”
The speedway appeared as if had been designed by cross-eyed engineers. It was misshapen with one set of turns wide and the other narrow.
The garage area was little more than a set of tin roofs. There was also a metal slab over most of the frontstretch seats, offering a bit of shade. To me, that was the “VIP section.”
Drivers were offered a small locker room that didn’t offer much in the way of amenities. The bathroom was a two-seater with doors.
Those doors were home to a hefty amount of graffiti, nearly of which had been scribbled by competitors.
Some of the stuff was hilarious. So much so that on my next trip to the track I was determined to do a story that featured much of it. Couldn’t use some scribblings, as you might imagine.
I’ll never forget what happened. While I was in the toilets writing down some of the stuff, Bud Moore came in and saw me.
He let loose with a hearty laugh. “I knew it!” he said. “Most of the stuff these guys write comes right out of the crapper!”
Never wrote the story. Couldn’t use about 95 percent of what I saw.
Back to the Southern 500. As I patrolled the garage area I heard several drivers comment on the racing surface. It was bumpy, rough and extremely hard on tires. That, and the speedway’s configuration, was going to make it difficult to race.
“Lucky if we go 10 laps on a set of tires,” one driver said, noting that Darlington had not been repaved since 1950, the year of its birth.
I had to have someone speak for the record. So I approached Buddy Baker, who was never shy about speaking his mind.
“I am hearing a lot of complaints about this track,” I said to him.
Baker thought for a moment and said, “Heck, we complain about all of them sooner or later.”
So much for an expose. I figured I would just cover the race and let it speak for itself.
It spoke volumes. Two days before the race the speedway’s infield and surrounding areas were swollen with campers. They made their own city, complete with vehicles of all types, homemade viewing stands and, yes, Confederate flags.
The sleepy old speedway was teeming with life. It became abundantly clear that the Southern 500 was going to serve as a Labor Day holiday for thousands. Believe me, they knew how to celebrate.
On race day the grandstands were packed. It appeared to me the race was a virtual sellout.
It was an electric atmosphere, one I could have never anticipated.
The race itself was dramatic. Sure enough, the rough surface put tire wear at a premium. More than one driver found himself into the wall after one of his tires shredded in a plume of smoke.
Passing was at a premium. There were only a couple of places that it could be done. One of them was the entrance to turn one, right below the press box.
One car would shoot inside another and then close ahead of him by inches at the entrance to the turn. Any miscalculation meant a crash into the wall. Yes, it happened.
Bobby Allison, in his first and only season with Junior Johnson, and David Pearson, who was starting a remarkable string of seasons with the Wood Brothers, outran all the competition and engaged in a one-on-one duel which saw them swap the lead 13 times over the last 300 laps.
Allison took the lead with six laps to go and held off Pearson by a couple of car lengths to win for the fifth time in seven races.
When Allison came to the press box he was red-faced and soaking with sweat. I wasn’t sure he would be able to stand up.
But he did and spoke about how he was mentally fatigued because he concentrated so hard on not making a mistake in the closing laps.
Then he spoke about how meaningful it was to win at Darlington. It was NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway that had remained virtually unchanged. It was tricky, difficultand hard on cars and drivers. It was steeped in tradition.
And there wasn’t a single NASCAR driver who did not want to with the Southern 500. Allison said that when a driver does win, he’s made a name for himself. If he doesn’t win again it doesn’t matter. His career is made.
After witnessing all I had in 1972, I understood what he meant.
Darlington has changed dramatically over the years but the status of the Southern 500 has not. It remains at the pinnacle of NASCAR, one of the most anticipated events of the season.
And drivers still covet a victory for all the reasons Allison said years ago.
Just ask them.
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