Hope springs eternal: A history of racing at Darlington in springtime

Editor’s note: With NASCAR returning to Darlington Raceway for two Cup Series races in May, NASCAR historian Ken Martin compiled a history of racing at Darlington in the springtime.

The Southern 500 has been a NASCAR Labor Day tradition since 1950, but Cup Series racing in the springtime at Darlington dates back to 1952 when Dick Rathmann won a 100-mile event on May 10. Following that event, there was a five-year gap for spring races.

In May 1957, the NASCAR Convertible series competed at Darlington for the first time and would hold three races in 1957, 1958 & 1959. Not to detract from the Southern 500 tradition, it was called the Rebel 300. Hall of Fame drivers Fireball Roberts (2) and Curtis Turner were race winners.

With the closing of the Convertible series following the 1959 season, in 1960, the Rebel 300 continued as a Grand National (Cup Series) event, although the cars that raced were convertibles. Track president Bob Colvin wanted to keep the Southern 500 intact, allowing only convertibles from 1960-62. This was the single race on the Cup circuit for convertibles during that period.

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The hardtops raced in 1963 and held a place on the schedule in spring until 2014. In 1967 the length of the race was extended to 400 miles; in 1973, it was extended to a 500-mile event. In 1994 the spring race was shortened back to 400 miles.

In 1970 ABC Sports and NASCAR entered into an agreement that allowed the network to join five events “live in progress.” One of the first broadcasts under that arrangement came at Darlington May 9, 1970. Shortly after joining the live event, Richard Petty suffered one of the worst crashes of his career, careening into the pit wall on the front stretch. NASCAR veteran announcer Bob Montgomery reported from the infield care center, while Ned Jarrett and Jim McKay provided updates from the booth. It was a stunning moment to see the sport’s most prominent star in such an accident.

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When the fall Labor Day event was taken from Darlington following the 2005 season, racing in the spring in April or May became the only event for the next 10 years.

In 2015 the Southern 500 returned to Labor Day weekend and continues to this day.

The May 12, 2014 race won by Kevin Harvick was the last Darlington race in the spring.

SIGNIFICANT SPRING MOMENTS AT DARLINGTON

  • 2003: The finish between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch remains tied at the closest finish in Cup history.
  • 1979: An epic battle between Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, and Donnie Allison over the final five laps of the race found lead changes on every lap. The competition between “Jaws” and “The King” was seen as a changing of the guard in the sport.
  • 1970: Richard Petty’s spectacular crash captured live on ABC.
  • 1968: David Pearson wins for the first time at his home-state track. He remains the all-time win leader at Darlington with 10 wins.
  • 1987: Dale Earnhardt passes Bill Elliott in the final corner of the last lap to win, while Elliott runs out of gas.
  • 1988: Hard luck campaigner Lake Speed captures his first and only career win. He expresses raw emotion in Victory Lane.
  • 1961: This race marked the arrival of Fred Lorenzen as a superstar. Lorenzen battled Curtis Turner over the final laps in a bumper-banging duel.