SLOAN COLUMN: Revisiting the 1965 Southern 500
The Southern 500 is taking place under the lights at Darlington Raceway on Sunday and “The Lady in Black” is ready to show NASCAR drivers and fans that she’s still one tough old broad.
Over the years the track touted as “Too Tough To Tame” has provided more than its fair share of excitement and heart-pounding thrills. Among the more notable are:
• Johnny Mantz winning NASCAR’s first-ever race in Darlington in 1950.
• In 2003, Ricky Craven won the closest race in NASCAR Cup Series history by beating Kurt Busch by two one-thousandths of a second.
• Carl Edwards making his way to Victory Lane in the 2015 Southern 500, coming from two laps down to take the checkered flag in a race that had a then record 18 cautions.
• “Million Dollar” Bill Elliott earning his nickname in 1985 by winning the Southern 500, the third of NASCAR’s “crown jewels” (the others were Daytona and Talladega) by beating Cale Yarborough to the finish line by a mere six-tenths of a second.
There have been many more white-knucklers on Darlington’s famed black asphalt, but for my money the most exciting race ever at Darlington took place in the fall of 1965. The 26th running of the Southern 500 proved itself to be most memorable in a number of ways.
Even the pre-race build-up was quite memorable. North Carolina’s Junior Johnson took the pole position. After qualifying on Friday, Civil War re-enactors staged a skirmish on the frontstretch. When the fake smoke settled, dozens of Union and Confederate soldiers lie scattered all over the frontstretch. It served as an excellent preview of the melee that would ensue three days later.
Saturday’s parade through Darlington featured grand marshals Milburn Stone and Ken Curtis. Stone played Doc Adams and Curtis Festus Haggen on the TV western “Gunsmoke.”
Vicki Johnson of Hartsville was crowned the winner of the Miss Southern 500 pageant. Afterwards, Johnson was informed that her first duty as Miss Southern 50 would be to kiss the winner of Mondays big race. Curtis, one of the judges, told Johnson she was “finer than frog hair,” in his best Festus twang.
Race day finally arrived and it didn’t take long for things to get exciting. Johnson, the polesitter, busted his distributor on the very first lap and was done for the day.
On lap three, rookie driver Buren Skeen lost control of his Ford going into the third turn. Reb Wickersham's Ford plowed into Skeen's driver’s side door. Skeen sustained severe internal injuries in the crash and would die from those injuries seven days later. Wickersham, fortunately, walked away uninjured.
Once the race was back underway, the paint-swappin’ and fender-bangin’ that Darlington is known for continued. On lap 119, Sam McQuaig and Cale Yarborough, a local favorite from nearby Timmonsville found themselves battling for the lead coming down the frontstretch. As they neared Turn 3, Yarborough made his move to the inside of McQuaig. The two touched fenders, with Yarborough’s car spinning in front of McQuaig’s oncoming Ford. Yarborough’s Ford was into and over the Turn 3 guard rail. His car landed on its driver’s side at the bottom of a 40-foot slope.
Yarborough, who would walk away without a scratch, would later say he “sailed through the air like an astronaut.
” The rest of the day was a battle of attrition, with cars parading one after another to the garage following wrecks or engine problems.
Ned Jarrett, who calmly stayed in the middle of the pack for most of the race, took the lead on lap 39. With only 15 of the 44 cars that began the race still running, Jarrett cruised to an easy victory. He finished 14 laps ahead of second place finisher Buck Baker and 19 ahead of third place Darel Dieringer. His 14-lap margin of victory is still a record.
To be sure, the Lady in Black will not disappoint on Sunday when the engines are cranked and reach full throttle. Chances are this year’s Southern 500 won’t be nearly as exciting as the one that took place 56 years ago, but you never know.
It’s time to buckle up and let ’em roll!