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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

Darlington Raceway: “Too Tough to Tame”

The premier series playoff begins on Sunday at historic Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.

NASCAR’s 10-race, season-ending premier series playoff run kicks off Sunday with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, one of the sport’s oldest and most challenging tracks.

“The Track Too Tough to Tame,” as Darlington is known, is fast, unforgiving and treacherous, showing no mercy for even the slightest on-track errors in judgment. Make a mistake here and it will cost you dearly.

And mistakes here happen very, very quickly. Although Darlington measures just 1.366 miles in length, Aric Almirola’s track qualifying record is a jaw-dropping 184.145 mph.

Even drivers who get through a race clean usually leave with a “Darlington stripe” from where the right sides of their cars pancake the walls. It really is that tough.

Darlington Raceway has always left its mark on NASCAR drivers – and on their fenders, too. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Darlington has been a staple on the NASCAR premier series circuit since it opened in 1950. At that time it was one of only two paved ovals in NASCAR, and the only one longer than a half-mile. Darlington was the sport’s first true superspeedway. Until the first Daytona 500 in 1959, the Southern 500 was the most prestigious race on the premier series schedule and far and away the best-paying race, too.

Check out these six historic moments from Darlington:

1. First Time Out

NASCAR’s first 500-mile race took place on Labor Day, 1950 at Darlington Raceway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

When Darlington hosted the inaugural Southern 500 on September 4, 1950, it drew a huge crowd and a 75-car field for the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history. Driving a 1950 Plymouth coupe with a six-cylinder engine that got better gas mileage than the big Oldsmobile and Cadillac V-8s, Johnny Mantz won the first Darlington race by nine laps over Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts (2014). It took Mantz 6 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds to win that first race. The first Darlington race was so successful that the following year, the field swelled to a track record 82 cars.

2. Three-Time Winner

The grandstands were full when Herb Thomas (No. 92) won the 1955 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

The 1955 Southern 500 was huge for Hall of Famer Herb Thomas (2013) and for Chevrolet. Thomas lapped the entire 69-car field to win his then-record third Southern 500, a race that at the time no one else had even won twice. While Thomas was best known as the driver of the Fabulous Hudson Hornet in the early 1950s, he drove a 1955 Chevrolet to victory at Darlington. Thomas’ Chevrolet was prepared by legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick and featured a special set of hard-compound Firestones that allowed Thomas to run the full race on a single set of tires. A replica of Thomas’ 1955 Southern 500 winner is on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Great Hall as part of our exhibit, “Chevrolet: Winningest Brand in NASCAR Cup Series History.

3. Record-Setting Run

Although Buck Baker appeared to be on Ned Jarrett’s tail at the end of the Southern 500, he was actually 14 laps behind. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Although Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (2011) only won once at Darlington, he made it count in a big way. In the 1965 Southern 500, Jarrett set a NASCAR record that stands to this day and one likely to stand forever: His margin of victory was a whopping 14 laps ahead of second-place finisher, fellow Hall of Famer Buck Baker (2013). Just 15 of the 44 starters finished the race.

4. Best of the Best

South Carolina native David Pearson was one driver who tamed Darlington Raceway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Given the difficulty of racing at Darlington, it’s no surprise that the drivers who fare the best at the “Track Too Tough to Tame” tend to be NASCAR’s elite. A total of 22 different Hall of Fame drivers have won premier series races at Darlington.

David Pearson (2011) tops the list with 10 Darlington victories. Pearson is closely followed by nine-time winner Dale Earnhardt (2010). Jeff Gordon (2019) won seven Darlington races, including a record four consecutive Southern 500s from 1995-98. All told, drivers inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame won 75 of the first 116 premier series contested at Darlington.

5. Texas Terry Takes Two

Not many drivers win their first and last race at the same track, but Terry Labonte did. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Hall of Famer Terry Labonte (2016) won his first and last premier series races at Darlington. In 1980, Labonte wheeled Billy Hagan’s No. 44 Chevrolet past David Pearson (2011) on the penultimate lap of the Southern 500 to score his first premier series victory. Labonte led only the final two of 367 laps.

Flash forward 23 years and Labonte finally won again at Darlington in 2003 during the final premier series race of his career, this time behind the wheel of a Chevy owned by Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick (2017). Like his Darlington triumph in 1980, Labonte led only once, pacing the final 33 laps.

6. Fantastic Finish

One of the most dramatic finishes in NASCAR history saw Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch trade paint all the way to the checkered flag. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

The 2003 Dodge Dealers 400, the spring race at Darlington Raceway, featured what at the time was closest finish in premier series history, with Ricky Craven outdueling Kurt Busch by a mere 0.002 seconds.

During the final few laps, Craven and Busch repeatedly took turns beating and banging on each other in one of the most memorable NASCAR battles of all time.

Plan your visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets by visiting nascarhall.com/tickets.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.

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