The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was the oldest and one of the most storied races on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s (NASCAR) Winston Cup circuit. With a seventy-five-car field, the first race was held on Labor Day 1950. The Californian Johnny Mantz won the six-and-one-half-hour event. It was the first Grand National (later Winston Cup) race contested on a paved superspeedway and NASCAR’s first five-hundred-mile race. The list of winners of this Labor Day weekend tradition reads like a who’s who of stock car racing: Curtis Turner, Glen “Fireball” Roberts, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, and South Carolina racing legends Elzie “Buck” Baker (three victories), David Pearson (three victories), and Cale Yarborough (five victories).
The Southern 500 was the ultimate test of both human and machine. The heat and humidity of South Carolina in early September regularly sent temperatures inside the cars well into the triple digits. The unique egg-shaped configuration of the track increased the challenge. Few drivers left the track without the signature “Darlington Stripe” due to contact with the wall.
While the Southern 500 was an important event on the NASCAR calendar, it was also an important happening on the social calendars of many South Carolinians. Since the first Southern 500, when the first Mrs. Strom Thurmond cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the track, the race regularly attracted a sizable contingent of South Carolina politicians.
Perhaps the most storied aspect of the Southern 500, however, was the Darlington infield. In the early days of the race, race organizers encouraged fans to camp out in the infield due to the lack of accommodations in the area. Activities in the infield soon took on legendary status, with makeshift viewing stands flying the ubiquitous Confederate battle flag, all-night partying, numerous fights, and one woman doing her impression of Lady Godiva (using a motorcycle instead of a horse).
Although activities in the infield at the Southern 500 became considerably tamer in later years, the event remained a fan favorite, and a victory in the race was one of the most coveted prizes for Winston Cup drivers. In 2004, however, financial considerations led NASCAR to move the traditional Labor Day–weekend date of the Southern 500 to November. It would be the last Southern 500. The following year NASCAR officials dropped the fall race at Darlington from the Nextel Cup schedule.
Bledsoe, Jerry. The World’s Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time Great Stock Car Racing Book. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.
Fielden, Greg. Forty Years of Stock Car Racing. 4 vols. Ormond Beach, Fla.: Galfield, 1987–1990.