Sixteen years and one world war later, Brasington finally sold his idea to a group of Darlington-area businessmen gathered for their weekly poker game. The initial cash investment was just $60,000, although actual construction costs far exceeded that. Barney Wallace, who succeeded the late Bob Colvin as Darlington's president in 1967 and who is one of the original group of investors, says, "Harold said we would get our investment back after the first race, so I took all of my savings out of a building and loan association. I had a tough time getting the money, though. The bank thought I was crazy."
The 70 acres of land were donated, in return for shares in the racetrack corporation, by a farmer named Sherman Ramsey, who left for an Arizona vacation in 1949. When he returned the following spring, there was Harold, fighting an earth mover as he attempted to grade what would become the most devilish turns in stock-car racing.
The track did not turn out in a perfect oval, but rather pear-shaped, with the Three-Four Turn of significantly larger radius than the One-Two Turn. Well, nobody had ever built a large speedway in the South before (nor would anyone else try for another nine years), and the only models Brasington had to go by were the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the red-clay bullrings on which the infant sport—NASCAR was just two years old—then conducted most of its business.
As Barney Wallace said, with peccable logic, "We built the track the way we did because that's the way it came out." It came out weird.
The track has gone through three evolutionary stages in its 22 years. It was first built to 1� miles, that distance chosen because there wasn't enough acreage to make it an "even" mile and a half, and at both ends it was banked just 16 degrees (compared with nine degrees for Indianapolis, built in 1911, and 31 degrees for the 2�-mile Daytona track, built in 1959). In 1953 the One-Two Turn was pushed out a bit and its banking increased to 26 degrees. This increased the length of the track to 1? miles and was the configuration that lasted the longest. In 1969 the Three-Four Turn was redesigned, with rather strange results, and also rebanked to 26 degrees.
Certain lesser changes were brought about by necessity. In 1960 a driver named Johnny Allen sailed out of the track and slammed into a scoring stand just beyond the guardrail in the fourth turn. The stand was half in the shade and half in the sun. Fortunately, the day was rather chilly and all of the scorers were huddled in the sunny side of the stand. Allen landed in the shady area and was the only person injured. The next year the scoring stand was moved to the inside of the turn.
Until 1966 the Darlington press box provided the nation's motor-sports writers with a unique opportunity to prove their collective machismo. The box was situated rather precariously on thin stilts just outside the first-turn guardrail. The closest reporters were no more than 20 feet from the top of those rubbery metal strips. It was the only press box in the country that filled up from the back row first. What with the dust and dirt and granular rubber, it was often difficult to tell driver from reporter at the end of 500 miles. The difference was occasionally made painfully clear by the press box' permanent residents, a swarm of hornets, who couldn't catch the drivers.
In 1966 Earl Balmer changed things forever. While running down the main straight, his car was tapped from behind; Balmer lost control and climbed the guardrail. It is generally agreed that he came within a teeter of falling outside the track and collapsing the press-box supports. After that, it was the only press box in the country that didn't fill up at all. The guardrail in the One-Two Turn was replaced with more unforgiving concrete, and, two years later, Balmer's Box, as the place is now known, was enclosed, moved back and given stronger underpinnings. The hornets were evicted, too.
Darlington and the Southern 500 provoke a variety of responses from the drivers. For some, like Buddy Baker, who was born just down the road in Florence and whose father, Buck, won the race three times and thus ensured his immortality, driving in it is almost a mystical experience. "When I walk into this place I feel I'm here to race," he said. "That happens at other tracks, too, of course, but here the tradition really gets to you."
Corny? Perhaps, but Buddy finally won a Southern in 1970 after 10 years of trying, and let him continue.