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Higgins' Scuffs: 'Old Darlington' ... those were the days!

By Tom Higgins
ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Tom Higgins
-
Tom Higgins.

Buddy Baker appeared to have a car very capable of winning the 1972 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Then, on an especially steamy Labor Day in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, rival driver Dick Brooks got thirsty.

Brooks looked away from the track ahead for a moment to locate a long tube that was attached to a water jug behind his seat. He was distracted just long enough to lose control going into the first turn at the 1.366-mile speedway, NASCAR’s most demanding since it opened in 1950. His Mercury spun directly in front of the onrushing Baker’s Dodge.

There was a hard crash, and both drivers were sidelined. Baker’s very real chance at a second Southern 500 victory sat dashed in a destroyed car. Big Buddy was distraught.

“The first turn?! What a damn place to decide to take a drink!” he roared. “I like Dick Brooks. He is fun. But what a lack of judgment. He couldn’t have waited until he reached the back straightaway?”

After calming down, and receiving an apology from a disconsolate Brooks, Baker had an observation as he watched Bobby Allison head toward edging David Pearson for the checkered flag:

“What a story this could have been…Me winning in my last start driving for Petty Enterprises. I really wanted to leave by giving them a victory. But it wasn’t to be. That’s Darlington.”

Baker, seeking to run more races than the limited schedule afforded him in the 1971-72 seasons by Petty Enterprises, shortly signed to drive for the K&K team, replacing former series champion Bobby Isaac.

The water-sipping wreck is among the very many quirky incidents that have occurred at Darlington Raceway, where the Bojangles Southern 500 is scheduled Saturday night. I witnessed a lot of this wackiness—not all of it on the track--while covering races there from 1958-96, the last 34 of these years for The Charlotte Observer.

I’m going to relate a few tales from long, putting them in chronological order the best that my aging memory will allow…

Alcohol airlift

In the late 1950s the famous driver Curtis Turner had a wild party in progress at a Darlington motel on a Sunday before the Labor Day race. Turner was known as a constant reveler, and the day-before-the-Southern 500 provided the circuit’s best opportunity for debauchery since the track was closed because of a South Carolina “Blue Law” that forbade racing on the Sabbath.

Not surprisingly, Turner and party quickly ran out of alcoholic beverages. And no spirits were to be had because S.C. law also banned the sale of booze on the Sabbath. Plus, the powerful track president, Bob Colvin, had threatened severe consequences for anyone in the area who surreptitiously provided alcohol to the competitors. Colvin wanted the drivers sober and clear-headed for the 500. In the past some of them weren’t.

As Turner moaned about the shortage of spirits, a guy on the fringe of the party said, “I’ve got lots of likker at home.”

“Well go get it!” said Turner.

“I live in Easley, about 200 miles away,” replied the guy.

“No problem. We’ll take my plane,” responded Turner.

Arriving over Easley, Turner asked, “Where’s the airport?”

“There ain’t one.”

“Then where do you live?”

The guy pointed out his home.

Turner proceeded to land his two-engine Aero Commander on the street, which happened to also front the First Baptist Church. As the parishoners watched in stunned disbelief, the guy ran into the house, fetched a big supply of bourbon, gin and vodka and put it in the plane.

Turner then roared down the street to take off.

In what Sports Illustrated called one of the most incredible quotes in aviation history,

Turner said: “The Aero Commander has a high tail. I had to raise the wheels a bit earlier than normal to fly low enough to get under some power lines.”

Not surprisingly, Federal Aviation authorities soon took Turner’s pilot’s license. But he got to continue that party!

Junior Johnson counts his chicken houses

Junior Johnson, fast becoming a legend, was flagged the winner of the 1962 Southern 500, beating journeyman driver Larry Frank.

Junior, normally laid back and conservative, was unusually animated during the winner’s interview. He deeply wanted to win at Darlington, where he had raced for years. What was he going to do with the earnings from his purse, approximately $21,000?

“I’m going to build some more chicken houses,” said Junior, a poultry provider for Holly Farms back home in Wilkes County, N.C.

I wrote my column about Johnson for the Durham Morning Herald and drove through the night back home.

The next morning I fetched the paper to see a streamer headline, “Larry Frank Wins Southern 500.”

“No, no, no!” I screamed. “It was Junior Johnson.”

The headline was correct.

A check of scoring cards showed Frank was the victor, with Johnson the runnerup by five seconds. NASCAR made the announcement around midnight.

Editors had no way of reaching me, as cell phones seemed an impossible dream at that time. A disclaimer was inserted atop my column about Junior’s treasured triumph.

Two days afterward the late Bloys Britt of The Associated Press typed a line that I forever wish that I had written: “Junior counted his chicken houses before they got built.”

Grand Marshall memories

From the late 1950s through the mid-60s Darlington Raceway made it a practice of having TV stars as Grand Marshals, mainly western heroes.

Clint Walker (Cheyenne Bodie) was there one Labor Day. Ditto James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke). Also, Cameron Mitchell (Uncle Buck on High Chapparal with mega-star Barbara Stanwyck). Mitchell became taken with Darlington, married a local belle who had been widowed, and for a while was on the Raceway’s board of directors.

Most memorably for me were the co-Grand Marshals, Milburn Stone and Ken Curtis. They played “Doc” and bumbling deputy “Festus,” respectfully, on Gunsmoke and were immensely popular.

I scored an invitation for a brother-in-law at the time, the late Roger Lowe of Cramerton, N.C., to accompany me to the Grand Marshals’ dinner at Darlington Country Club.

Roger already was loaded when we arrived for the cocktail hour. Spotting Stone at the bar, he rushed to pump his hand and gush, “Doc, Doc! I’ve always wanted to meet you and drink as much as you do at the Long Branch Saloon on TV.”

I was embarrassed beyond belief.

Stone eyed him warily, then with a smile uttered this beauty of a line:

“Apparently you have.”

Press box needed a catchfence

In 1966 I was covering the garage area and pits for The Observer during the Southern 500 while new motorsports beat writer Bob Moore reported from the press box, an open facility that hung over the first turn.

Members of the media had feared the place for years, and on the 185th of the race’s 364 laps it appeared the worst had happened. A Dodge driven by Earl Balmer of the K&K team suddenly swept atop the guard rail and seemed headed straight into the press box, which had only chicken wire for protection. I was horrified.

Balmer’s car, taking down railing, threw some small parts into the box, along with gasoline from a ruptured fuel tank. Thank God no one was smoking at the time, or the facility possibly would have erupted into flame.

The crashing car angled back toward the track just after passing the press box, hurling bigger parts over the rail.

In his great series of books, “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing,” author Greg Fielden quotes a shaken Balmer: “I thought sure as hell I was going into the press box. All I think was, ‘Oh, those poor people up there!’”

I wrote, “Sports writers dived for cover like soldiers seeking the sanctuary of a fox hole.”

An outraged Bob Hoffman, a journalist from High Point, immediately started drawing up a petition. It read, in part: “We hereby notify Darlington Raceway that we will not endanger our lives in the future by covering Darlington events from the present location.”

By the next race, the Rebel 400 in May of 1967 a new, enclosed press box had been built, situated much higher above the track.

For years that petition has been displayed prominently at Darlington. And the press facility was given a nickname that endured: “Balmer’s Box.”

Running from the law

Finally, during the mid-70s one of stock car racing’s most colorful duos was the Vandiver Brothers, driver Jim and crew chief Tommy.

Prior to the two joining the big-time NASCAR tour, promoter Humpy Wheeler said of their local short track racing, “They either finish first or upside down.” Jim was running well in the top 15 late in a Southern 500 when Tommy flashed him an unusual message that was chalked on a “pit board.” These were used to communicate from crew to driver in those days because radios weren’t reliable then. The message in big letters read: “LAW!” Two tough-looking Darlington County sheriff’s deputies stood waiting seriously behind the wall in the Vandiver’s pit area. Each time Jim came around, Tommy held the pit board high over his head. The crew chief wouldn’t say what was going on. Finally the checkered flag flew. During the “cool down” lap Jim braked to a stop on the apron of the fourth turn. He hurriedly climbed from the cockpit and scooted up the banking, disappearing over the rail and mixing with departing fans. The deputies, puzzled, waited and waited for Jim to come around. But he was long gone. Red-faced, they left to hoots from the crew only when Jim’s car was brought back to the garage on the hook of a wrecker. Finally, Tommy explained: “They had a warrant for Jim in a domestic dispute with his estranged wife, who lives in South Carolina.” He grinned. “Jim is crossing the North Carolina line by now.” Oh, for the characters and color that abounded in NASCAR years ago. Nowhere did this manifest itself more than at Darlington Raceway. Back then, we could truly say of the place, “That’s racin.’”

More racing news, blogs, photos and more at www.ThatsRacin.com.
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