Ingram's Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Date without destiny There was a time when the Southern 500 was the real Southern 500, not the replica on display this weekend at Darlington. It's great that the grand ol' superspeedway in South...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Date without destiny
There was a time when the Southern 500 was the real Southern 500, not the replica on display this weekend at Darlington. It's great that the grand ol' superspeedway in South Carolina continues to host the world's best stock car drivers in front of full grandstands. But one of the best yardsticks for measuring the talent of drivers is now gone.
To win a 500-mile race in Darlington in the first week in September meant you had beaten the toughest track against that day's competition -- and all those stock car drivers who went before.
The date and time were crucial to making the original Southern 500 so difficult to win as well as the egg-shaped track's legendary history. On a typically blistering late summer day in the Piedmont of South Carolina, the track's asphalt became a slippery surface with a groove so narrow and elusive that if you missed it by more than half a tire's width it was time to kiss concrete.
Nobody knew the track better than Cale Yarborough, who grew up in nearby Timmonsville. As a kid, Yarborough snuck into the races by scrambling over, under or through the fence. He later started his first NASCAR Grand National event there at age 17 -- one year below the legal limit.
As time went on, Yarborough's eagerness to drive on the 1.367-mile circuit began to diminish, even though he eventually won five Southern 500's. "It was a place I really dreaded running on," he recalled during a conversation I had with Cale for a book on NASCAR history. "I'd rather win there than anywhere else. It was such a demanding track and knowing that one mistake there would put you out. You've got to run 500 miles there and not make a single error."
On a Labor Day weekend, one never knew as the miles unfolded if the leading driver was hooked up beyond reproach or just suffering from the rhapsody of driving a little too deep into the corners en route to eventually making a mistake and kissing concrete.
Judging one's pace and line was never an easy task. As the cars became more purpose-built for racing, changing cross-weight in the chassis and tire pressures on pit stops occasioned by the inevitable late cautions -- which bunched the leaders for a fresh attack -- was a major challenge. The process helped separate the complete drivers from those who would be king.
The Darlington rhapsody resulted from drivers imagining they were en route to a date with destiny, about to catch up with Fireball and Buck, Curtis and Herb, LeeRoy and Cale, Buddy, Bobby, Richard and David. Lordy, when you outlasted everybody on a glistening day in Darlington, where sometimes you raced into a burning sunset after a rain delay, that was a piece of work!
Nowadays there are some well paid people who know better who are telling us that it's the same thing in the spring. Shame on them. As if racing at Darlington in the cool of the night somehow matches up with winning on the track where the slippery groove was so black with tire rubber they called the track the Lady in Black.
Gone is the yardstick that Tim Richmond, Neil Bonnett, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon had to measure up to. All the truly great ones eventually rose to the occasion. Mark Martin may not have a championship, for instance, but he does have a Southern 500 trophy.
Good ol' Darlington, in fact, could start or finish a lot of arguments. In the Petty vs. Pearson debate, one could point to the latter's four Southern 500 victories compared to only one career victory by Petty (during his all-conquering 1967 season) to confirm which was the better driver.
In the debate over the relative youth and talent of Kyle Busch, I'd be more convinced about his talent if his Southern 500 victory last year in April had instead been posted during the late summer at age 23. As it stands now, Jeff Gordon in my mind is the youngest winner of the real Southern 500, which he captured at age 24 in 1995 -- when they didn't have the cushy SAFER barriers that helped save Busch's sheet metal last year.
If Busch wins a second straight this coming weekend -- now that he's just turned 24 -- it will be impressive. But it's not the same yardstick as winning after 500 miles on a day when the air is thick with humidity, a constantly changing track is slick and greasy, the heat almost unbearable.
Although it's strictly a personal point of view, there might have been more than just realignment at stake when the Labor Day weekend date was moved from Darlington to the California Speedway in 2004.
From the beginning, Darlington was a bit of a thorn in NASCAR founder "Big Bill" France's side. In the 1950's, when there were stock car promoters competing in every state on the Eastern seaboard, France had tried to convince Harold Brasington to build the South's first paved superspeedway by expanding the France-owned track near Hillsborough, N.C. Instead, Brasington chose to throw his hand in with the folks in Darlington.
The first Southern 500 in 1950 had to be co-sanctioned by NASCAR, because a local group had beaten France to the punch. Wary of a plan by rival promoter Sam Nunis in Atlanta to run the first 500-mile stock car race on the dirt mile at Lakewood, "Big Bill" pulled out all the stops to get a piece of the sanction at Darlington to bring enough drivers to thwart Nunis.
That struggle may have laid the groundwork for what came later. First, of course, France built his own superspeedway in Daytona, which opened nine years after Darlington's first race.
After almost a half century, moving the September date from Darlington to a track owned by the France family's International Speedway Corporation in California perhaps was the last word on the scramble over which track is the one where drivers most want to win. Currently, it's all about the Daytona 500. Winning at Darlington, which used to be on the same par as Daytona for many drivers, is no longer even a close second.
Darlington's 500-mile race was once part of the Grand Slam, which included the longest race at the four original superspeedways in the Southeast. Later, Darlington's Labor Day race was the last leg in what was known as stock car racing's Triple Crown of events, which started with the Daytona 500, then Charlotte's 600-mile race. When the Winston Million came along, Darlington's Southern 500 was the grand finale.
All of these yardsticks of history were lost with the switch to running a lone 500-mile race in the spring at Darlington, previously the slot for a 400-mile event.
Interestingly, the Labor Day weekend date has now returned to the Southeast, because running a race at this time was a flop in California. One of the reasons given for the problems at the Auto Club Speedway: the weather was too hot for Californians at that time of year!
This year, the Atlanta Motor Speedway will host a Saturday night race on the Labor Day weekend for the first time. It will mark the return of a major Labor Day stock car race to the Atlanta area for the first time since the 1940's, in other words for the first time since Darlington's inaugural Southern 500 cranked up.
It's not going to be the same as Darlington in the late summer, but it's likely to be a date that will help sustain bigger crowds in Atlanta. So here's a toast to a new tradition, albeit one made with a glass that's half full.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.