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May 11, 2023

A doubleheader, math and a standing start: Remembering Darlington’s experimental oddity from 1963

Tiny Lund in a Ford leads the Pontiac of Joe Weatherly and the Chevrolet of Junior Johnson just after the start of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway in 1963
NASCAR Research & Archives Center
Getty Images

Sixty years ago, Darlington Raceway president Bob Colvin wanted to add a spark to his track’s springtime event. The race previously had distinguished itself from the longer, more prestigious Southern 500 as an event for the short-lived NASCAR Convertible Series. Even though that division folded after the 1959 season, Darlington still awarded full Grand National (now Cup Series) points for ragtops in that race for three more years.

That 300-mile race, held 60 years ago today at the South Carolina oval, wound up as one of stock-car racing’s most intriguing oddities in an era when the sport was still trying to find itself and larger speedways were beginning to bloom. The event was divided into two races, an overall winner was declared from a formula that averaged out the two results, and the field for the back half of the doubleheader went green from — gasp — a standing start.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly won the first 110-lapper and finished second in the next segment to take the overall win, but the spark that Colvin sought to kindle never fully ignited. Having math as the path to Victory Lane created more confusion than excitement, and the race structure was relegated to a one-off footnote in the track’s grand history.

Sixty years later, the NASCAR Cup Series reconvenes at rugged Darlington Raceway for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM). The national series tripleheader will be the setting of NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend, which will continue the celebration of the sport’s rich history in its 75th anniversary season.

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For all the remembrances planned, the Southern 500 memories will be the likely headliners, but so will the classic Ricky Craven-Kurt Busch spring-race showdown from 20 years back; they’ll be the grand marshals for Sunday’s 400. Weatherly’s 1963 triumph won’t make the highlight-reel list, but it’s worth exploring the quirks that have kept it a NASCAR curiosity all these years later.

First, the format. The first 110-lap portion used a traditional rolling start. The winner of the first leg received an extra payout and the first 10 finishers in each race also pocketed a monetary bonus — a nod toward the awarding of stage points in modern-day NASCAR events.

Between each race was a 30-minute break, which allowed time for mechanics to make repairs or adjustments for Race 2. That second race lined up according to the opener’s finishing order, but the field set sail from a standstill after a 10-second countdown to the flag. The cars would be gridded in staggered, alternating rows of two and three — done so to provide more evasive paths for trailing drivers in case of a stalled car near the front.

“I consider this standing start downright silly,” Hall of Famer Bud Moore, who owned Weatherly’s No. 8 Pontiac, told The Charlotte Observer. “But the fans will enjoy it, because there should be a lot of banging of race cars. I just hope the car which starts in front of Joe doesn’t stall. Better yet, I hope nobody starts in front of Joe.”

The points system to determine the overall winner was more convoluted, with potential flaws lurking within the rules. Each driver’s finish in each race earned points, and the result in the second race was weighted slightly more. Weatherly was bullish on how each dash would create the incentive to race harder, but at the same time, the format had its shortcomings. An overall winner could be crowned on consistency, without winning either segment or even leading a lap, and the first car to the checkered flag wouldn’t necessarily be the victor. Weatherly was intent to make the calculations a moot point with a heavy right foot.

“This race seemed to be planned for the chargers,” Weatherly told the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Sentinel two days before the race. “A driver knows he’s going only 110 laps in each race, so he’s going out there and push his car for all it’s worth. The guy who intends to stroke had better stay out of the way. I think I’m really going to like this race.”

NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly kneels alongside his No. 8 Pontiac
NASCAR Research & Archives Center | Getty Images

Still, Weatherly was lightly regarded among the favorites, given the strength of Fords and Chevrolets at the start of the 1963 season. Ford had won the year’s first two big-track events with Tiny Lund in the Daytona 500, and then with Fred Lorenzen in the Atlanta 500. Lorenzen and fellow Ford driver Fireball Roberts were first and second in the race’s unofficial odds established by Jim Hunter, then a staff writer at The State in Columbia, South Carolina, who would become Darlington Raceway’s president 30 years later. Weatherly — the defending series champ — was the ninth choice in Hunter’s odds, going off as a 10-1 shot.

Lorenzen emerged with the pole position after three days of time trials, but his day was done shortly after the rolling start to the opener. On Lap 2, the Illinois campaigner lost control of his No. 28 Holman-Moody Ford and crunched the wall on the main straight. “I hit a slick place and just lost it,” he told reporters later.

Rex White was caught up in the incident, but managed to steer his No. 4 Chevy away from Lorenzen’s car to escape a more severe blow. “Rex did a fine job of driving avoiding me,” Lorenzen said. “He was heading straight for me but somehow got by me. His driving probably saved my life.”

With those two favorites sidelined, that left the top spot to Junior Johnson, who led 80 of the 110 laps in Race 1. When the transmission on his No. 3 Chevrolet gave out on the final lap of the first event, Weatherly capitalized for the win and extra prize money.

Of the 31 cars that started, 25 remained to make a go of it in Race 2. Richard Petty had found trouble in the opener, finishing sixth after running over debris and popping a tire on his No. 42 Plymouth. But he made the best of the standing start, charging ahead when Weatherly double-clutched and fought through vapor lock at his launch.

Newspaper accounts reported that the crowd roared its approval of the unusual starting procedure as the field clambered into Turn 1, but the rest of the second race had a less favorable reception. Petty was dominant in winning Race 2, but Weatherly finished as the runner-up, eight seconds behind and with little need to press Petty further for the overall win.

Weatherly’s finishes of first and second that Saturday afternoon equaled a winning point total of 197.8. He made just one pit stop in each race, and his final stop was a speedy 12 seconds for fuel only. Roberts survived a first-race tangle with Bobby Johns to place third in each event, netting him 191.7 points — good for second overall.

As for Petty, the lengthy pit stop to change his flat tire in the first half likely cost him the overall win, and his finishes (sixth, first) calculated to 189.9 points, third-best. The day’s effort, though, gave him the lead in the Grand National standings and some extra spending cash — $1,500 for winning the second race.

“I’ll say this,” Petty told the Greensboro (N.C.) Record, “I probably wouldn’t have won as much money as I did if there hadn’t been two races.”

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Other opinions were split on how successful the experimental format had been. Weatherly — who crowed post-race about how Moore’s tuning expertise had put Ford’s favorites in their place — had a different appreciation for the race procedures, especially since they made him $11,100 richer.

“I don’t care what kind of races they have,” Weatherly said, “just as long as they draw bigger crowds so the purses will get bigger.”

By the time anticipation started building for the Southern 500, Darlington’s Labor Day classic later that year, newspapers reported that track officials had quietly opted to scuttle the format for future 300-milers. Later accounts suggested that the move came at NASCAR’s urging. Either way, the race structure was mothballed, leaving the 1963 event earmarked for obscurity in the history books.

A modern-day look at the results sheet helps explain why. Petty was the first driver to the checkered flag, but just made the last spot on the overall podium after the formula was run. The “laps completed” column also reads like a jumble, failing to follow the numerical listing of the finishing order. David Pearson, for instance, crashed out after 180 laps and was credited with 12th place; G.C. Spencer completed 210 laps — 30 more than Pearson — but finished behind his Dodge teammate in 13th.

The radical procedures didn’t stand the test of time, but the head-scratching has endured. Ford driver Jimmy Pardue spoke for many when a fan asked post-race what he thought of the format.

“I guess it’s all right,” he said. “I’d just like to know where I finished.”

Checking the math, Pardue was ninth.