Even the phlegmatic Bobby Allison once called the track a "witch" after an unusual accident that was caused by apparently nothing at all. "At other tracks I might feel like running a short-track race on the way home," he said, "but when this race is over, I don't feel like doing anything." And Buddy Baker added, "You got to be a genius just to drive into the pits."
Thus, the Southern 500 is the most demanding race, physically and mentally, of the Grand National season. Richard Petty, the most successful driver in stock-car history, is not often given to long conversations, but, moments before Lorenzen's crash (a near-duplicate of a wild ride Petty himself had taken 16 months earlier at the same track), he was positively Shakespearean on the subject.
"At most tracks the two turns are pretty much the same," he says, "but here in the One-Two Turn you're loose and in the Three-Four Turn you're pushing. If you set up for one you can't get through the other. Everything you do to your car is a compromise. You don't come close to using all your engine.
"I'll tell you, a lot more races are lost on this track than are ever won. On most tracks, you've got a margin for error; here you're on the edge all the time. You're so close, you slide just a little and you watch the rest of the race from the pits.
"You can't relax. Oh, maybe you can after a little while, but you can drive 50 laps perfect and the next time around you'll be flat sideways, and that wall will come out and grab you and you'd swear somebody spit on the track. It's a tough one to figure out. In 1950 they ran 75 mph here; now we're averaging 140, and there just ain't a lot of room. If a cat finishes this race without running over nothin', he can sleep good that night. He doesn't have to win to feel good, and that might not be true at other tracks.
"It's like a road course. It's more fun to drive alone than in traffic. You don't race the other drivers, you run against the track."
Urged on by the buoyant, robust cheers of the crowd, now standing, the 44 cars pass the starter's flag in a swirl of dust and thunder. A clean start is a Darlington rarity. Once, in 1964, Darel Dieringer spun in the first turn of the first lap, sending about half the field every which way, then spun again in the third turn of the same lap, a record. "Gawdamn," said Dieringer, who does not like to be reminded. "Everybody thought I was drunk."
Today, however, there is none of that, and, after the early scrambling, the pattern of the race becomes clear. Allison leads a freight-train pack of bright colors that includes, in order, Hamilton, Charlie Glotzbach, Baker, Isaac and Petty. By the fourth lap, Allison, who has started on the pole, is lapping the back markers. By the seventh he has built a commanding lead over the freight train, driving easily while the rest of the field strains.
The first 150 miles or so of a 500-mile stock car race are normally employed by drivers in sorting out the equipment. An obvious mechanical flaw shows up quickly, and most always a car that survives the first third of a race is good for the rest of the day. Also, with a full field running, there is obviously more traffic for the leaders to negotiate, and thus the possibility of a multicar crash is greater. But Maurice Petty is right. The memory of Lorenzen's accident has put an extra layer of caution on the drivers' minds.
Allison continues to drive as though he is on the track alone. Behind him, Baker also is driving magnificently, though more desperately. At the end of 60 laps or 83 miles, he begins his challenge. He is fifth, with Isaac, Glotzbach and Hamilton just ahead of him and Petty right behind. Baker tries to get under Hamilton on the front straight and lead him into the first turn. He doesn't quite make it, and both cars, side by side now in the reluctantly narrowed groove, rhythmically fishtail through the turn. On the back straight, however, Baker's superior horsepower allows him to edge in front. Glotzbach is next. Baker begins to work on him in the second turn of one lap, but for the next four Glotzbach's white Chevrolet is able to fend off Baker's white Dodge. Then on the 68th lap Baker slingshots past Glotzbach on the main straight with unseemly ease, and, two laps later when Isaac makes an unscheduled pit stop because of a cut tire, Baker is second.