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Tom Higgins | Falling for 'The Lady in Black'

Second in a five-part series on NASCAR races that remain special in my memory, events that I would like to cover all over again. There never seems to be a Time Machine when you need one. The stories will run in chronological order.

It was the start of a hot, steamy, often-sweaty, torrid love affair. The date was Sept. 1, 1958.

That’s the day I met “The Lady In Black,” a temptress also known as Darlington Raceway.

As a just-turned-21 rookie sports reporter for the Asheville Times in North Carolina, I had been assigned to cover the Southern 500.

I was apprehensive abut the assignment initially. I’d previously covered some smaller NASCAR events for the newspaper, races at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway and McCormick Field. But nothing as big as a 500-miler at Darlington, stock car racing’s first (and at that time, only) superspeedway.

The Times' late sports editor, Al Geremonte, was having none of it. “You’re going to the Southern 500,” he said. “Here is a press credential and three complimentary tickets.”

“Have a good time,” he said with obvious finality.

I phoned two boyhood buddies in mountainous little Burnsville who were avid racing fans and asked them to go along. Dee Smith and Billy Ray Edge were delighted, and volunteered to tell me all about Darlington while en route. An older friend, Frank Lewis of Burnsville, a timber man, offered to drive us to South Carolina in exchange for the other ticket.

We departed at dusk on Sunday, Aug. 31, 1958 in Frank’s shiny new car – a pink-and-white Edsel – and began toasting our trip with sips from a Mason jar of moonshine that Dee had brought along.

Hardly surprising, then, that we got lost a couple of times before arriving in Charlotte and having burgers at a White Castle around midnight.

We approached Darlington as the sun rose, its rays promising to fulfill weather forecasts for a scorcher. Suddenly, looming above the flat landscape of cotton fields and peanut patches, was the distinctive, covered frontstretch grandstand of the raceway. And beside it near the first turn was the press box.

We found the press parking area and decided to try and nap a bit before heading inside. Hah! Sleep wasn’t possible.

Our adrenaline was pumping and high school bands were marching in, followed by a truck filled with Shriners dressed as clowns. A convertible came rolling along bearing the grand marshal, Clint Walker, star of the popular TV western “Cheyenne Bodie.”

And fans were gathering to gawk at Frank’s sporty-looking Edsel. They left either with compliments or derogatory comments.

Frank and Billy Ray chose to take the seats in the stands. Dee and I headed to pit road.

Just behind the pit area across from the start/finish line was a three-story structure called “The Pagoda.” Dee and I went to the top for a panoramic view of the jam-packed infield and the egg-shaped track, which at that time measured 1.375-miles.

Three important-looking men were at the top level engaged in pleasant conversation. We determined them to be NASCAR founder/president Big Bill France, Sen. Strom Thurmond and some Army general.

I headed to the press box. Dee lingered atop The Pagoda, staying until the VIPs discovered that he wasn’t the son of anyone in their party and unceremoniously ran him off.

I found the press box to be little more than a large chicken coop on rickety stilts. In fact, rusting chicken wire that stretched across the front was the facility’s only concession to safety. The box was situated mere feet behind and above the steel guardrail.

It looked VERY dangerous, but I headed in reluctantly.

At the top of the steps a Boy Scout handed me a pair of goggles. “What are these for?” I asked. “You’ll see,” he replied.

Finally, a 48-car field took the green flag. Eddie Pagan, driving a Ford, started from the pole after qualifying at 116.592 mph. He was followed by Fireball Roberts in a 1957 Chevrolet, then Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner in twin gray-colored Fords.

Fireball had been fastest in time trials at 118.648 mph, but under rules of that period Pagan held the No. 1 spot.

Smoke and dust billowed as the drivers accelerated at the flag stand. The roar of the unmuffled engines exceeded anything I’d ever heard. I couldn’t believe men would drive cars that fast! Or would want to!

Within five laps I realized – but only barely saw through reddening and watering eyes – what the goggles were for. Asphalt dust and tiny particles of rubber were blowing into the press box.

I turned to look at the reporters behind me. They resembled minstrels from shows of the Al Jolson era – in blackface with big, white eyes.

Despite the noise and choking dust, my heart pounded. I’d never seen anything like it. And I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Violent crashes began to unfold, most of them nearby. The track temperature – over 150 degrees – was blowing out the tires. Don Kimberling hit the rail hard and his car caught fire. Marvin Porter, Larry Frank and Jesse James Taylor wrecked.

Three of the most spectacular accidents in the track’s history, dating to 1950, followed in rapid succession.

A wreck on the 136th lap involved Pagan, a Californian who would later be widely known for building race cars with Dick Hutcherson.

A tire on Pagan’s Ford failed. The car swerved slightly, then suddenly was atop the first-turn guardrail going backward, spewing flames and tearing away the support posts. Then it disappeared over the embankment.

The race was yellow-flagged while a maintenance crew tried with little success to replace the railing and posts. Pagan suffered a broken nose and refused to climb into an ambulance unless he could ride in the front seat.

On Lap 160, the car of another Californian, Eddie Gray, spectacularly got atop the railing at almost the same spot. Again, the posts were splintered. Gray, too, went out of the track. Although pinned in the car, he was unhurt.

On Lap 210, Jack Smith’s Pontiac blew a tire as he sped right in front of the press box. It sounded as if a cannon had been fired.

Smith’s car sailed through and over the railing that was left and went out of sight. Smith’s car almost knocked down a scaffold that some fans had erected, scaring those atop the structure.

Smith wasn’t injured, but “Cracker Jack” walked by the press box on his way back to the garage and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more ashen man.

By now a stretch of railing measuring perhaps 200 feet was gone and no effort was being made to replace it. NASCAR official Pat Purcell strongly advised the drivers to “go low and slow” through the first turn.

Most complied except Roberts and Junior Johnson, who engaged in a stirring duel. Johnson, driving a Ford, had the crowd standing and roaring approval as he rammed cars in front of him as he tried to keep up with Roberts. Junior was sending the message, “Out of the way! I’m coming through!”

The gentleman seated next to me, sports editor Wilton Garrison of The Charlotte Observer, turned and said, “That’s why Junior has been nicknamed ‘The Wilkes County Wild Man.’ ”

Johnson’s full-bore charge eventually led to an engine problem and he fell back to finish 11th. And Roberts, driving with the consistency and smoothness that marked his storied career, began to pull away.

Ignoring Purcell’s “low and slow” order, the fabulous Fireball maintained his line high through the first turn, or west banking.

He steadily built the advantage to five laps over second-place Buck Baker. The immensely popular Roberts had run all eight previous Southern 500s without winning, but brought the white No. 22 Chevrolet to the checkered flag from there. He had averaged 102.585 mph, a record for the 500.

The Floridian beamed from beneath the grime covering his face in Victory Lane, having finally conquered NASCAR’s toughest track.

“There was one piece of that shattered steel railing sticking out and I was only missing it by about six inches,” he said. “I feared hitting it and running up it like on a ramp into the air.

“The heat was terrific, brutal. It caused the asphalt to bleed and made the track very slick and tricky. ... I just got up on top of the track and stayed there. It was smoother up high. There was just one little hole I had to dodge.”

Conditions were so tough that only 27 of the 48 starters were running at the finish.

I was stunned by what I had seen over the 4 hours, 52 minutes and 44 seconds the race had taken. It seemed surreal.

I looked at my notes, which filled a legal pad.

“How am I going to write all this!? There isn’t enough space in the paper!”

I phoned Al Geremonte. “Just write kid,” he said. “I’m a good copy editor. I’ll cut it down and make it readable for you.”

Thankfully, he did.

However, I wish I’d thought of a Wilton Garrison line I read later in the Observer: “It was wreck and roll in the Southern 500 on Monday.”

Also, the Observer’s Larry Harding had written, “Several drivers miraculously escaped death.”

Should I have included such a strong observation?

At any rate, as dusk fell, my friends and I returned to the Edsel and headed home, marveling at what we had witnessed.

They congratulated me on having picked Fireball Roberts to win in a column several days earlier. “The boys back at Monk’s service station in Burnsville will be proud,” said Billy Ray. “How come you did that?”

I had to be honest.

“Well, I like the ‘57 Chevrolet,” I told them. “I think it’s the prettiest car ever built.”

They laughed and we decided that more toasts from Dee’s jar of 'shine were in order.

As we drove through the night, I vowed that I would cover as many Southern 500s at Darlington as I could. I next returned in 1962, watching Larry Frank win a 500 in which Johnson was initially flagged the winner. Then, after joining Garrison on the Observer staff, I made every Labor Day weekend race at Darlington from 1964-1996.

I was and remain angry in the extreme about discontinuation of the Southern 500 during the Labor Day period after the 2004 race.

The reason for this bitterness is simple.

I’ve been hopelessly in love with The Lady In Black since Sept. 1, 1958. What a thrill it would be to again see her, and the rousing race she produced, as they were that day.

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