Fireball Roberts’ first Southern 500 victory the way to start career

Former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, in the fifth 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.

The morning was electric with excitement and color.

Blaring high school bands marched by. Clowns from a Shrine Temple followed atop a double-decker bus, their antics led by a make-believe preacher flailing his arms and pointing out supposed sinners. The grand marshal – actor James Arness himself, Marshall Matt Dillon of television’s mega-hit Gunsmoke – waved from a convertible.

“This is spectacle,” I thought.

It was Sept. 1, 1958, and as a just-turned 21 cub reporter for the Asheville Times, I was at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for the first time, covering the Southern 500.

I was apprehensive about the assignment. I’d previously covered some smaller NASCAR events, but nothing as big as a 500-miler at Darlington, at that time stock car racing’s only superspeedway.

My media credential came in the mail, along with two complimentary grandstand tickets and a pass to the pits. I invited three boyhood friends to go along, and one offered to drive his new pink and white Edsel.

We approached Darlington as the sun rose, promising to fulfill forecasts for a scorcher. Suddenly, looming beyond cotton fields and peanut patches, was the raceway.

One pal volunteered to take the pit pass and headed inside the track. He later told amusingly of ascending a pagoda near the start/finish line and finding himself with three important-looking men. He determined them to be NASCAR founder/President Bill France, Sen. Strom Thurmond and an Army general. He stayed there most of the race until the VIPs discovered he wasn’t either’s son and ran him off.

The first turn press box spooked me, looking like a chicken coop on rickety stilts. In fact, rusting chicken wire stretching across the front was its only concession to safety. Worse, the box was mere feet behind and above the steel guardrail.

I headed up reluctantly.

At the top of the steps a Boy Scout handed me goggles. “What are these for?” I asked. “You’ll see,” he replied.

Finally, the race began, Ford driver Eddie Pagan leading a 48-car field after qualifying at 116.952 mph. Alongside Pagan was Fireball Roberts in a sleek 1957 Chevrolet.

Smoke and dust billowed as the drivers accelerated. The roar of unmuffled engines was deafening. I quickly realized the goggles’ purpose. Asphalt dust and tiny particles of rubber were blowing into the press box – and my eyes.

My heart pounded. Never had I seen such action – thrilling, violent and frightening all at the same time. And I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Grinding crashes began unfolding, most of them nearby. The track temperature of higher than 150 degrees was blowing out tires. Three spectacular accidents came in relatively rapid succession as the cars of Pagan, Eddie Gray and Jack Smith went out of the track, tearing away the first turn railing and its support posts.

Miraculously, only Pagan was hurt, sustaining a broken nose.

The multiple wrecks tore away a stretch of railing measuring perhaps 200 feet, and efforts to replace it proved futile. NASCAR official Pat Purcell advised that drivers should “go low and slow” through the first turn.

Most complied, but not Roberts and Junior Johnson, who locked in a stirring duel. But Johnson’s Ford developed a problem and he fell back. Roberts, driving with the consistency and smoothness that marked his storied career, steadily pulled away.

He built his dominating advantage to five laps over second-place Buck Baker and led laps 169-364. An immensely popular Roberts had run all eight previous Southern 500s without winning, but this time he took the white No. 22 Chevy to the checkered flag, averaging 102.585 mph, a record for the 500.

The Floridian beamed from beneath grime covering his face, finally having conquered NASCAR’s toughest track.

“There was one piece of shattered steel railing sticking out and I was only missing it by about 6 inches,” he said. “That was worrisome and the heat was brutal. It caused the asphalt to bleed and made the track very slick. I just got up on the topside and stayed there. It was smoother up high.”

I was unsure how to write such a story. I guess it turned out readable, for my paper printed it.

Later I wished I’d thought of a line written by Wilton Garrison for The Charlotte Observer: “It was wreck and roll in the Southern 500 on Monday.”

I vowed to cover as many Southern 500s at Darlington as I could, and I did, staffing 37 more during the next four decades.

I’ve dearly missed the race during the 10 years it has been gone from Labor Day weekend. How gratifying to see it rightfully return home.

1958 Southern 500

The top five finishers:

1. Fireball Roberts, Chevrolet, 364 laps, $13,220

2. Buck Baker, Chevrolet, 359 laps, $5,750

3. Shorty Rollins, Ford, 359 laps, $3,815

4. Speedy Thompson, Chevrolet, 358 laps, $1,995

5. Marvin Panch, Ford, 357 laps, $1,525

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