Former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, in the third of a five-part series, recounts his most memorable Southern 500s leading up to Sunday’s return of the race to Labor Day weekend after a 10-year absence.
Junior Johnson didn’t hesitate when asked what he planned to do with the winner’s share from the Southern 500 on Sept. 3, 1962, at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
“I’m going to build some more chicken houses,” said the popular Johnson, a folk hero and former moonshiner-turned poultry producer who drove race cars very fast.
But even as Johnson spoke of raising more fowl on his Wilkes County farm, some rivals were hollering “foul!” of another kind.
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Lee Petty first officially protested NASCAR’s scoring, which had the possibility of human error in those days long before computerized tracking of the cars became possible. Then Ratus Walters, owner of driver Larry Frank’s Ford, howled to officials as well.
Unknown to media and most fans, NASCAR began a tedious recheck of scoring cards.
I finished writing and headed home to Durham, where I worked for the Morning Herald. Johnson’s plans to increase his flock of hens and roosters figured prominently in my column, which also revealed this:
The race was billed as the 500’s “12th Renewal” rather than 13th annual because superstitious star driver Joe Weatherly threatened not to run if the number 13 figured in any way.
I fetched the newspaper the next morning and saw a streamer headline that seemed to scream: “Larry Frank Wins Southern 500.”
“No!” I shouted. “Junior Johnson won!”
Then I saw an editor’s note above my column. At midnight NASCAR had revised scoring among the first six positions and made Frank the winner.
There was, of course, no cellphone communication in those days and editors had no way of advising me about what happened as I drove through the night up U.S. 1.
Frank’s Ford had lurched across the finish line and skidded down the track, sparks flying from a broken wheel, before coming to a stop in a cloud of dust in a grassy area off the first turn.
He appeared to have barely made it to the checkered flag in fourth place. The scoreboard showed Johnson, Marvin Panch and David Pearson ahead of him.
Frank, suffering from dehydration and blisters about the eyes because of a searing 140-degree track temperature, crawled from the cockpit and began storming back toward the garage. He gestured angrily as teammates rushed to meet him.
A tough, muscled ex-Marine, Frank reportedly said to Walters, “Junior wasn’t even on the same lap with me!”
He added later, “I walked past Victory Lane and Junior was there and I was pretty bitter about it.”
NASCAR revealed that Frank actually was on his “cool down” lap when the wheel broke. He had led the final 66 of 364 laps and completed the race a circuit earlier.
It was to prove Frank’s only triumph in a career of 103 starts.
Johnson was listed as the runner-up, five seconds behind in a Ray Fox-fielded Pontiac.
“If I had known the scoreboard wasn’t right and I was really in second place, I easily could have caught and passed Frank,” Johnson said the day after the race. “My car was way faster than his.”
What of Junior’s plans for his purse?
In one of the classic lines in NASCAR history, The Associated Press’ late Bloys Britt wrote:
“Junior counted his chicken houses before they could be built.”
1962 Southern 500: Top 5 finishers
1. Larry Frank
2. Junior Johnson
3. Marvin Panch
4. David Peason
5. Richard Petty