Barbecue smoke again fills the air as the day's first meals are prepared, and from ice chests and hip flasks comes the stuff of the long weekend's second, third, maybe fourth hangover. The scene is not unlike that of the campground of a defeated army, defeated but regrouping for one final attack. Now, too, the grandstand begins to fill, slowly, a patchwork quilt of people brought together in anticipation of a yearly celebration. They are generally more affluent than their infield counterparts, drawn in large measure from the white-collar managerial class of the New South, those folks who could give up, say, $60 for four tickets, four good tickets, to take along the wife and two kids.
The tension builds in bits and chunks and therefore seems never fully realized. In the pits there is simply not much to do. Whatever can be done has already been done, and the drivers and their mechanics mostly sit and wait, their nervousness held in partial check by chewing gum and easy conversation. Omar's Imps, a ragtag band of clowns, perform near the fourth turn where the cars are now lined up in 22 rows of two. The beauty queens parade. Rev. Bill Frazier, "The Drivers' Preacher," holds a service in the scoring stand and draws an overflow house. The sun is hot and the day is almost totally clear, and the field hospital, quiet the night before, will do a good business during the long afternoon.
Cale Yarborough from nearby Timmonsville, who won the race in 1968 but who now campaigns on the USAC championship car circuit, flies in but tells a friend, "I'm gonna get me a case of beer and visit Freddie in the hospital."
Indeed, what effect will Lorenzen's crash, already a fading memory but something no one can totally forget, have on the race? There are two opinions. Darel Dieringer, a former winner now retired, says, "If a driver thinks about Lorenzen today he's got no business being here." But Maurice Petty, Richard's brother and Buddy Baker's crew chief, says, "It'll be a quiet race. When something like that happens, it makes the drivers real smart."
Finally, it is time. All of the celebrity introductions have been made and now the drivers are introduced and head for their cars. The track secretary announces happily that the stands are filled down to the first row and that the infield is packed. Senator Strom Thurmond, resplendent in his straw hat and powder-blue sport coat, makes his annual appearance. Other, lesser politicians quickly have their say, and at 11:55 Track President Barney Wallace says those stirring, familiar words, "Gentlemen, start your engines." In the fourth turn the 44 cars grumble and moan, then snap eagerly to life. Precisely at noon, after the warmup laps and pace laps, the green flag drops.
Drops on what? What exactly is it that draws 75,000 people to a small, otherwise unremarkable South Carolina town each Labor Day, 75,000 people who suffer and sweat and get covered with dirt and rubber dust when they know that one of the country's nicer ocean playgrounds, for example, is but 70 miles to the east at Myrtle Beach?
Certainly it is not the town of Darlington. Although a pleasant enough place, faintly distinguished by once-beautiful postbellum wooden mansions (well, at least large houses), no one would confuse it with Monte Carlo, or even Daytona Beach. Darlington is basically another quiet Southern county seat (pop. 6,990) where the mayor, Frank Wells, also is the town jeweler and where Joe Turner, the town barber, gives a demonstration of Southern hospitality by taking four visitors from Virginia into his home on race weekend, as he has every year since 1950. The Darlington food is nothing to brag about, unless one likes Southern home cooking an awful lot, and the social life is almost nonexistent, centered as it is in the bars of the Hojo-Holi-Rama-Sher Inns that freckle the Interstate landscape of the area.
Nor is the Southern 500 the longest, the richest, the fastest or the most important stock-car race of the year. None of that. The secret of the Southern 500 lies neither in its trappings nor in its pageantry. The secret lies in the very nature of the racetrack itself, as Freddie Lorenzen, lying sedated in a hospital bed in Florence, already knows. The explanation begins with Harold Brasington.
Harold Brasington is a Darlingtonian of middle description. He would be lean except that much of him has settled about the stomach; he would be old except that the six days of each week he spends atop the heavy equipment he owns have not allowed him to grow old. He is in his early 60s and his enthusiastic chatter, not unlike the town gossip's, is peppered with private asides. It is said of Brasington that he might well enjoy the power in NASCAR that Bill France now holds except for a proclivity to conduct his finances literally from a cigar box. Brasington loves Darlington, especially, of course, the Southern 500. "You look around and some people are preaching and some are shooting craps," he said. "People can let their hair down and get the good times rolling." Brasington should know; he built the place.
The seed for what eventually became the Darlington International Raceway was planted in Brasington's mind in 1933. A racing fan and part-time driver, he attended the Indianapolis 500 that year and, as he said, "It hit me that if that many people liked racing cars, then the people down here would surely come out to see their own cars run."