Former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins recounts in the second of a five-part series his most memorable Southern 500s as the race returns to Labor Day weekend after a 10-year absence.
It appeared the Southern 500 on Sept. 1, 1980, was rolling to perhaps the most exciting finish in the race’s 30-year history.
Three of NASCAR’s major stars – David Pearson, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt – ran nose-to-tail in that order as they began the 366th of 367 laps at the 1.336-mile track in Darlington, S.C.
Most every fan among a crowd estimated at 75,000 was standing, anticipating a heart-pounding climax. They saw one, but not in the manner they expected.
Going through the first turn, leader Pearson drove through oil spewed onto the asphalt from the blown engine of a lapped car running just ahead. His car slid up the banking and scraped along the outside barrier, crumpling the right side sheet metal of his Chevrolet fielded by Hoss Ellington. Parsons and Earnhardt hit the oil slick, too, and looped to the apron in the second turn.
The wickedness of “The Lady In Black,” as the track has long been nicknamed because it’s so treacherous, had struck again.
Surprisingly, officials didn’t immediately display a yellow flag. The caution was delayed for several seconds. At that time, drivers could race back to the line under yellow before slowing down. It became obvious that whoever got back to the flagstand first would be the winner under a final lap of yellow, as there was no overtime in effect in that era.
From two seconds behind in fourth place little-known Terry Labonte saw the trouble ahead and somehow avoided the mess created by the surprising melee. Labonte sped past the slowed cars of Parsons and Earnhardt into second place. Pearson, meanwhile, continued at drastically reduced speed, a tire rub spouting smoke from his right front. Could he limp back to the line as the tire went down before an onrushing Labonte overtook him?
Coming down the homestretch Labonte drew his Chevy fielded by Billy Hagan onto the rear bumper of Pearson, who dived low in an attempt to block.
“I didn’t know that Pearson’s car was messed up until I saw the smoke as I went into Turn 3,” said Labonte, unaware because there was no radio contact between drivers and pit crews in those days. “I saw I had a chance and went for it.”
As the two reached the line, Labonte managed to maneuver even lower than Pearson and edged a foot ahead. He had only to complete the final lap under caution and victory was his.
Labonte led only one time – for those final two laps.
Pearson limped to second place, followed by Harry Gant and Parsons. Earnhardt finished seventh, a lap down.
Said Pearson: “I broke loose in the oil and that ruined what would have been a wonderful day. I’m not sure I could have held off Benny and Dale, but it sure looked like it. I tried my best to beat Labonte back, but my tire was just too bad.”
It was the first triumph in 59 starts for Labonte, then a 23-year-old Texan.
The enormity of what happened stunned the crowd – and even more so perhaps Labonte. He appeared dazed upon reaching the press box for the victor’s interview.
“It didn’t seem I had a chance,” he said, shaking his head. “I was just hoping to hold onto fourth place.”
In epilogue, Labonte’s 890-race career in the series continued through 2014, producing 21 more victories and premier series championships in 1984 and ’96. Among those wins was the 2003 Southern 500, an amazing 23 years after he first scored at Darlington. Now 58, he awaits a January induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
And Sunday he will serve as grand marshal of the race he won so memorably 35 years ago.
1980 Southern 500: Top 5 finishers
1. Terry Labonte
2. David Pearson
3. Harry Gant
4. Benny Parsons
5. Neil Bonnett