Early on that grim and overcast Thursday morning, Freddie Lorenzen nudged the wall a second time, his Mercury Cyclone leaving a streak of red and white paint on the harsh concrete barrier in the No. 2 Turn. But there was no apparent damage and shortly before 10:30 he was back on the track again, scrubbing in a new set of tires and checking the Mercury's final chassis adjustments before the afternoon qualifying session, the first that would determine starting positions for Darlington's 22nd annual Southern 500 four days later. There was a smile on his golden face; his car was running smoothly and he was confident that he would qualify well. Perhaps, even, in the pole position. In the pits, car owner Glen Wood carefully noted the speeds, and after half a dozen laps he waved Lorenzen in.
Either Lorenzen did not see the signal or he ignored it. The next time Lorenzen came through the fourth turn, still with no intention of pitting, the Mercury started to broadside toward the outer retaining wall. Mechanic Richie Barsz heard the signs of trouble long before the crash. "I could hear his engine go whuuup, whuuup, whuup as he worked the throttle," Barsz said. "He was working it right up until the time he hit." Had Lorenzen skidded on a spot of oil in the turn? Was he trying a new line through the corner? It is difficult to say for sure, and Lorenzen does not remember now. Still, the test of a race driver is his reaction in a crisis, and on this count Lorenzen passed.
He hit the cement wall a tremendous blow. Both right-side wheels and then the left front wheel briefly climbed the wall before the wounded car slammed back on the track and set out on an angled, straight-line journey of 150 yards to its destruction against the inside pit wall. Surprisingly, the first impact neither knocked out Lorenzen nor did it kill his engine. In those agonizing seconds before the big crash, he kept the throttle to the floor and cranked the steering wheel hard right in an effort to spin the car away from the wall. It was what any driver would have done, but Lorenzen did not know, could not know, that his steering had been shattered by the initial impact and that he was totally out of control.
The car hit the pit wall at almost 170 mph. It was a near head-on crash, and the impact blasted a 16-foot hole in the thick concrete barrier and sent a grenade blast of cement shrapnel—plus the car's left-front-wheel assembly—sailing through the pits. Here is where Lorenzen, and a lot of other people in the pits, got lucky. The Mercury took off like a plane, clipped a pair of aluminum light posts, then sheared a wooden telephone pole in half roughly six feet off the ground. The car did a barrel roll and finally landed inside its own burst of smoke and steam, right side up in the middle of the track, pointed back toward the fourth turn. Had the poles not been there, Lorenzen and car would have sailed into a group of Goodyear tire busters who were working not 50 feet away.
The first to reach Lorenzen were three drivers and two Goodyear employees. They quickly put out an oil fire, then removed Lorenzen from his broken machine and waited for the ambulance. The driver was unconscious and the blood glistened on the left side of his face and neck.
By early afternoon word came from the hospital that Lorenzen would be all right—a severely dislocated left ankle, a probable concussion, several lacerations and one deep gash on the left side of his neck that would forever mar his cleft-chin profile. But considering the fact that he should have been dead, the report was good, and in the quiet garage area one could almost feel the flow of relief.
It had been a bad accident, one of the worst in the history of a track whose races are remembered by the accidents they spawn. It certainly ended the comeback and very nearly the career of the driver who was once the Golden Boy of the Southern speedways, a nervous, intense combination of lead foot and cool thinker whose domination of Grand National racing in the early-and mid-1960s was awesome. Lorenzen had retired in 1967 after winning 21 major races, though never the Southern 500, a record that lasted until 1970. He retired because of an ulcer nurtured by his intensity.
At the time of his big crash, just before last year's Southern 500, Lorenzen's comeback was more than a year old. It had been anything but successful: little things kept going wrong with his STP-sponsored Plymouth, and good racing luck, that intangible combination of skill and self-made opportunity so much a part of his earlier success, now seemed to have deserted him. He had not won a single race, and when the opportunity came to drive the Glen Wood Mercury, far and away the best-prepared car on the Grand National circuit, Lorenzen made the switch eagerly.
On that first day of practice, Lorenzen had told a friend, bluntly, "I've got the best crew, the best car and no excuses. This race will tell whether I've still got it." Indeed, his exuberance was a surprise to those who remembered him from his ulcer days. Even when he slapped the wall the first time, a gentle tap in Turn Two, he shrugged his shoulders and said briskly, "You can't run here until you hit the wall one time at least. Now we're ready to go."
Walter D. (Red) Tyler wakes at six o'clock Sunday morning. He will not sleep again until well past midnight on Monday, being sustained during those 42 hours by equal parts of pills and Southern cooking. "Give me four soft-scrambled eggs, some country ham and a quart of milk and I'll be all right," he says. Tyler is a friendly man of ruddy, freckled complexion who runs a plywood business in Florence, just 12 miles southeast of Darlington. He also is a vice-president of the Darlington raceway and for the last 15 years he has been more or less responsible for keeping a semblance of order in the Darlington infield the night before the race. He and John Hatchell.