Former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins covered his first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1958 for the Asheville Times. He returned for the 1962 race for the Durham Herald. Starting in 1964 he covered every Southern 500 in some capacity for the Observer each Labor Day weekend through 1996. As NASCAR returns the storied race to Darlington on Sept. 6 after an absence of 10 years, Higgins recounts in a five-part series his most memorable Southern 500s.
On Sept. 5, 1965, the eve of the Southern 500, NASCAR star Ned Jarrett spoke to a Methodist Youth Fellowship group at a church near Darlington.
As the articulate Jarrett prepared to depart, the impressed kids followed him to his car. “They said very sincerely that they were going to pray for me to be safe and do well in the race,” said Jarrett, the sanctioning body’s 1961 premier series champion.
Hickory native Jarrett started his Bondy Long-owned Ford 10th in a 44-car field led by pole winner Junior Johnson.
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He stayed in contention, leading twice, as the grueling 364-lap event rolled on during a blistering day of 100 degrees at the egg-shaped track, then measuring 1.375-miles. But with 100 laps to go Jarrett trailed frontrunners Fred Lorenzen and Darel Dieringer by some distance, and his car was overheating. The temperature had exacted a heavy toll as car after car fell out, mainly because of blown tires, engine failures and wrecks. One accident proved fatal for driver Buren Skeen, who never regained conciousness and died nine days later in a hospital. Cale Yarborough spectacularly sailed over the first turn railing because of a tangle with Sam McQuagg. Yarborough, whose “flight” was captured in an amazing Observer photograph, was unhurt and calmly asked emergency workers for a soft drink as they reached him.
Incredibly, on the 319th lap, the engines of both Lorenzen and Dieringer failed almost simultaneously. Dieringer managed to lead six more laps, then fell far off the pace and wound up third even though his car didn’t make it to the finish.
Jarrett suddenly found himself 14 laps, or almost 20 miles, ahead of the second-place car, a Plymouth driven by NASCAR pioneer Buck Baker.
“But my car was faltering, too,” Jarrett has recalled. “I was saying a prayer every lap that I could finish. I backed off to about 117 miles per hour to try and save the engine, which was at 220 degrees. I was afraid officials might black-flag me for going too slow.”
As Jarrett took the checkered flag, with only 14 other drivers running at the finish, he remembered those Youth Fellowship kids from the night before.
“I’ve always believed in the power of prayer,” said Jarrett, who went on to win the ’65 championship. “But not to the measure of 14 laps.”
The NASCAR Hall of Famer, who retired in 1966 with 50 victories, continues to hold the record for the largest margin of victory in his sport’s 66-year history.
1965 Southern 500: Top 5 finishers
1. Ned Jarrett
2. Buck Baker
3. Darel Dieringer
4. Roy Mayne
5. Buddy Arrington