Friday, September 4, 2009

Labor Day weekend in simpler times

Sunday night the Cup drivers will fire 'em up to race 500 miles on Labor Day Atlanta. Up front, it feels great to have NASCAR back in the south this weekend where it belongs. Which old school song fits best? Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back in Town? Aerosmith's Back in the Saddle? Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind?

Bottom line - NASCAR is not in southern California this weekend and that's a good thing.

But they're also not at Darlington. On Labor Day Monday.

I've only been able to attend one race at Darlington. It was the final Southern 500...well, before they chose to lift the name and artificially apply it to a Mother's Day weekend race. And to be completely honest, I didn't attend a sho-nuff Southern 500. I attended the Mountain Dew Southern 500 in November 2003 - a race won by Californian Jimmie Johnson.

Back in the day, however, life in the town of Darlington, the state of South Carolina, and the deep south overall focused on Darlington. They had a parade with grand marshals such as Goober from The Andy Griffith Show.

They had a Miss Southern 500 beauty pageant - not a fire-suited Miss Sprint.

The track had the Pure Oil Record Club to recognize the fastest qualifiers in each manufacturer. The club was later renamed the Unocal Darlington Record Club where Darlington first-time drivers had to pass a test given by the veteran drivers before being allowed to compete. As a veteran driver, A.J. Foyt still had to complete the test yet you think Joey Logano will have to do so?

The Darlington infield had enough rowdies to scare even the hardcores at Riker's Island. Yet, a bond existed amongst them with a fondness for racing, cold beer, and pretty ladies - although not necessarily in that order. This Johnny Russell song exemplifies the uniqueness of the infield community.

I contend from its beginnings until the late 1970s a Southern 500 victory may have been a more prestigious, rights-bragging, resume-padding win for a driver than the Daytona 500. Its difficult for me to even acknowledge that possibility because Richard Petty struggled to close the deal on wins at Darlington - bagging only three victories. Meanwhile, David Pearson made the track his personal bee-otch nabbing 10 victories over the years.

From day one, this blog has included links to several racing books I've enjoyed over the years. In this case, one book in particular jumps out as a "must read" for any old timer or noob looking to learn more about the history of NASCAR from the late 1960s through the early 1970s - Jerry Bledsoe's The World's Number One, Flat Out, All Time Great, Stock Car Racing Book. The book will have you laughing and also shaking your head at the fun stories captured by Bledsoe back then.

Racing at Darlington has so many great memories. Too many to blog at one time. And too many to be available on YouTube. :-) But here are a handful of some good 'uns.

1979 - Rookie Dale Earnhardt was injured in a bad accident at Pocono. As he recovered, David Pearson was hired to drive the Rod Osterland #2 Chevy. The Silver Fox had been fired by the Wood Brothers following the Rebel 500 at the same track earlier in the season after many successful seasons together. Even after being fired by the Purolator-sponsored Mercury team and hired by the unsponsored Chevy team, check out Pearson's attire in victory lane.

1980 - Terry Labonte from Texas made his Cup debut in the Southern 500 in 1978. Two years later, he pulled off an incredible move at the start/finish line to outfox the Silver Fox.

1985 - Awful Bill from Dawsonville cemented his place as a southern folk hero at Darlington in 1985. He had begun to gather a solid fan following in the early 1980s - particularly after winning his first race at Riverside in 1983. But in 1985, he drew fans like nobody's business as he won everything in sight in his Coors Ford. When he won the Southern 500 and collected the Winston Million big bucks bonus, his legacy was secured.

1965 - Cale Yarborough tries his Superman impression and leaves the yard. No HANS device. No COT. No full-face helmet. Simple aluminum seat. Limited roll bar padding. His adventure reminds me of Jimmy Horton's quote after he flew over the wall at Talladega: "You know you've had a really bad crash when the first guy to get to you is holding a beer can. "

I'll likely watch part of this weekend's race. But it simply won't be the same as watching those guys earn their Darlington stripes on that gritty, greasy, ill-shaped speedway a few hours to the northeast of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And now that Cup has returned to the south this weekend, would it be asking way too much to restore "Dixie" to the race name?


1 comment: