"I was sick for two days after the race. In the last laps, when I knew I was going to win, it just hit me. It was a dream come true. I had watched my daddy win for the first time here in 1953 and I had stood on the main straight after the race when all the people swarmed down on him. My kid vision was to win here, and then to know it was going to happen.... It was a difficult feeling to explain. I was a proud son of a gun. And the look of my kids. Even though they're not that old, they knew I'd done something. My first Grand National win [at Charlotte in 1967] was nothing like it."
Other opinions range from the unprintable to the whimsical. Perhaps the most famous remark about the track came from Bobby Isaac. "I'd rather drive almost any other track," he said, "but I'd rather win this race than any other on the circuit."
What causes such untoward emotion? Well, the tradition, of course. Darlington is at least twice as old as the other Southern speedways, and thus its stories have had twice as long to gain stature through their frequent retelling: of how Johnny Mantz bought the Plymouth that won the inaugural race in 1950 off a dealer's lot and then beat 74 other cars; of how Fonty Flock won the 1952 race wearing Bermuda shorts; of how in the mid-1950s the late Fireball Roberts began to build his reputation as the finest stock-car driver of them all; of how Sam McQuagg lost his reputation after a vicious crash on the main straight in 1967 and never raced again. The stories are endless and, as seen through the hazy and selective filter of memory, they have gained a certain warmth and comfort that those from other places cannot yet match.
At the center of the Darlington mystique, however, is the track itself, and the reasons for it being such a demanding and interesting test are technically quite precise. Because both straights are short (1,800 feet) and the lap speeds high (the qualifying record is just under 153 mph), there is little time to relax anywhere on the circuit. R&R on a racetrack is obviously relative, but at mammoth plants such as Daytona and Talladega, drivers' minds have been known to wander on the long chutes during the closing stages of a race, even though their cars are traveling in excess of 200 mph. Drivers can enjoy the scenery or spot a girl in a tight sweater, converse with each other via hand signals or even, under a caution flag, light up a cigarette.
There is no such respite at Darlington. Even the straights are slightly banked, which means the cars must be kept in a continuous right-hand bind. It seems that a driver is always in traffic, and, during the brief six seconds when his car is traveling in a relatively straight line, he must always be aware of the Darlington Trap. Six seconds is not quite enough time for one fast car to pass another, nor is it enough time for a third, slower car to see the pass develop behind him and get out of the way. Thus all three cars are likely to arrive at the entrance to a turn at the same time—and since Darlington is the original one-groove racetrack, somebody has got to give way or the result will be disastrous for all three. It is a rather sophisticated game of chicken, and it is played on practically every lap.
The One-Two Turn is a problem because just after a driver begins to dive low into the turn he hits a series of ripples not unlike the ribs of a fallen dinosaur. Suddenly the driver feels a sensation very close to that which a downhill skier occasionally feels, of being totally out of control and at the mercy of his instincts. There is no longer solid traction, and centrifugal force begins to push the car back up the track toward that hard, unforgiving cement wall.
If he successfully negotiates this peril, plus the back straight, the racer then must worry about the Three-Four Turn. Before 1969, when the Three-Four Turn was reworked, that section of the track caused more grief than all the rest of it put together. Right from the first race, when Red Byron put the two right-side wheels of his 1950 Cadillac high against the guardrail, drivers realized that the fastest way through the turn was in a groove that carried them to within a frightening six inches of the metal strips. The slightest bobble and...WHAM! into the rail the cars would go. At first, this was not considered a good thing because it tended to mess up all those pretty paint jobs. But after some unintentional experiments a few hardy souls began to lightly slap the wall on purpose, ride it around for a bit, then fall off and line up for the run down the main straight. They found that hitting the barrier actually helped, if, of course, they didn't cut a tire or mess up their suspension along the way. Fireball Roberts once said, "If you could put roller skates on the side of your car, this turn would be perfect."
This sort of action produced strange sights: inevitably, the lead cars in every Southern 500 would, after just a few high-speed laps, show the telltale streaks on their right sides where they had struck the rail. Thus the origin of the famous Darlington Stripe. It became a ribbon of honor as well as an indicator of a fast lap.
"No one really wanted to hit the rail, but you had to drive as though it wasn't there," said Pete Hamilton. "You usually got it with the right rear first. You would hit and never get off the gas. It was so quick—just a whap. Geez, the first time for me it sounded like the car had fallen apart. I thought I had destructed. It would go blrrp because the sections of the rail overlap and it was like you'd run a stick across a picket fence."
Since the remodeling, the 10-degree steeper banking means that drivers no longer have to challenge the rail quite so openly—but now there is another problem. Drivers now drift their cars beautifully through the first part of the curve, then must abruptly snap the wheel to the left long before they exit the turn in order to get their cars pointed down the main straight. It is an unusual and unnatural sight in stock-car racing. As one driver says, "At most tracks you can make an error and all you do is slide up a few feet, correct yourself and keep going, but there's no room for that here."