News & Media

Retro Racing: Jarrett recalls win at 'toughest track on the circuit'

May 07, 2011, Mark Aumann,

In addition to Darlington, driver made a habit of scoring dominating wins in 1965

Ned Jarrett won 50 races and two championships as a driver before going on to additional fame as a television commentator. But the man who will be inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame next month considers his victory in the 1965 Southern 500 to be one of the greatest thrills in his career.

However, Cale Yarborough's day at the races was thrilling in a completely different way, as in "thrill ride."

Hall bound

Ned Jarrett will join Bobby Allison, Lee Petty, David Pearson and Bud Moore as the second class to be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Survival was the operative word in 1965, as pole-sitter Junior Johnson broke a distributor on the first lap and only 16 of the original 44 starters were running at the finish. A brutally hot September afternoon, coupled with severe tire wear and a slick race track, made 500 miles at Darlington Raceway that day a true test of both driver and machine.

"It was one of those rare, almost freakish, situations where everybody in the field had trouble, including me," Jarrett said recently. "Many cars overheated. That could always be a problem at Darlington, where the track grinds the rubber off and the cars pick it up and throw it up into the grilles of the ones behind them. That was definitely the case back in those days, because we were running treaded-type tires, not slicks like they have today."

Yarborough had been dicing with Georgian Sam McQuagg for much of the first third of the race and tried to make a move for the lead coming down the front straight on Lap 118.

"He and I were both young race drivers and we were eager to get at it," Yarborough said in a television interview years later. "I had tried several laps to pass Sam and would get up almost by him and he would turn into Turn 1 and I'd back out and let him go.

"One particular time, I got completely up by him going down the frontstretch and I said, 'Well, I got him.' So we both went off in the corner and I didn't have him."

The two Fords banged into each other and locked front fenders, sliding up the track. As the right side of McQuagg's car hit the metal guardrail, Yarborough's car was launched into the air and out of the track.

"We tangled just a little bit and my car got completely airborne, over his car and completely over the guardrail," Yarborough said. "It didn't even touch the guardrail. And it's about 25 or 30 feet down that embankment on the other side.

"So here I was going through that corner back then about 150 miles an hour, airborne. Now, you've got time to think. It was quiet and all I could see were those hundreds of cars parked down there in that parking lot. It happened pretty quick."

Yarborough said at that moment, he wasn't actually sure what was happening. But he knew it wasn't good.

"The car turned sideways and I saw grass," Yarborough said. "I knew there wasn't any grass on that race track, so I knew that I was in trouble. But that thing sailed out over that guardrail and down the other side and hit nose first. And it went end over end over end. It ended up against a chain link fence. Luckily, I came out of it all right."

McQuagg spun back down the track and clipped the rear end of LeeRoy Yarbrough's car, putting all three contenders out of the race. From the cockpit of his car, Jarrett witnessed the entire incident.

"I was right behind them when that happened and I saw Cale go over the rail and land down in the parking lot there," Jarrett said. "I was just praying that he was OK, first of all. Those cars, even as safe as we thought they were, were nothing compared to the cars of today."

Not only did Yarborough walk away, he returned to the pits and waved to the crowd. Video of his crash lived on for years in the opening montage for ABC's Wild World of Sports.

With so much attritition, the second half of the race turned into a three-car battle between Darel Dieringer, Fred Lorenzen and Jarrett. While Dieringer and Lorenzen swapped the lead back and forth, third-place Jarrett was struggling with an overheating engine.

But things were about to change in Jarrett's favor. Lorenzen was also overheating and blew his engine 44 laps from the finish. And Dieringer's rear gears were being taxed, causing his car to send out white smoke in the corners.

"Dieringer had a problem in Bud Moore's Mercury, a rear gearing problem," Jarrett said. "And ironically, it was a gear that Bud Moore had borrowed from me."

Jarrett said because he was running for the championship, his team chose the higher of the three gear ratios available at the time.

"As the track was getting slick just as it always does, we felt the higher gear would work for us, so we chose to go with the high gear," Jarrett said. "Bud got word of that, and said, 'You're not going to use that new 4.00 gear?' And I said, 'No, we're not going to use it.' 'Well, loan it to me.' So I did.

"And by golly, it burned up and put him out of the race. It was a brand-new gear when we started, but it was just one of those things."

With Lorenzen and Dieringer retired, Jarrett found himself with a 14-lap lead over second-place Buck Baker. But Jarrett knew that could evaporate at any moment, just like the coolant in his radiator.

"I was the last of those three standing but I was overheating, too, and I nursed it to the end," Jarrett said.

And when Jarrett saw the finish line, what was going through his mind?

"It was relief, honestly," Jarrett said. "I was praying every lap, for the last 50 or so laps, that the thing would last. When I saw that checkered flag, it was a big relief that we did make it to the end and had accomplished that goal. It was a pretty special day."

Jarrett made a habit of scoring dominating wins in 1965. He won by 22 laps at Spartanburg earlier that season, giving him both the greatest margin of victory by laps and distance in NASCAR history. He won the season finale at Moyock, N.C., to clinch the 1965 championship and record his 50th victory, then retired as an active driver. But more than 45 years after his win there, Darlington remains etched in his mind.

"I felt then, and still feel that way today, that it's the toughest track on the circuit for the driver and the equipment," Jarrett said. "There are so many variables about the race track that puts strain on so many different parts on the car, including the engine and the gearing. And the overheating possibilies are always there, still.

"It was a challenge, and that's why I wanted to win that race so badly. One of the goals I set for myself was to win the Southern 500. In those days, it was the biggest and the one that everybody wanted to win."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.