Darlington, S.C. — Dirt track ace Cotton Owens didn't know what to expect in the first Southern 500.
But he wasn't alone that Labor Day weekend a half-century ago, when NASCAR's first superspeedway event was run on Harold Brasington's misshaped monster called Darlington Raceway.
- Former dirt track ace Cotton Owens
The Lady in Black, as the track became known because of its asphalt surface, is now a relic in a multibillion-dollar sport where gleaming layouts with luxury boxes are the order of business.
The drivers crisscross the country in private jets and reach eager fans through Web sites and personal appearances. On the track, every inch of tread and metal is aerodynamically tested, and cars are streamlined to produce astonishing speeds.
But who could see that back in 1950, when a series sprouting from contests among moonshiners first went big time at Darlington?
Qualifying took 15 days, and on raceday about 25,000 spectators sat in the infield or on concrete bleachers. Sponsors included Vitalis, Colgate Dental Cream and Morton Salt.
Curtis Turner, the fastest of 75 drivers chasing a then-record purse of $25,000, put his Oldsmobile on the pole 81.7 mph. Now, at speeds above 170, a field of 43 will compete Sunday for a booty of $2.6 million.
They'll drive Fords, Chevrolets and Pontiacs, comprising a field far different than the inaugural Southern 500, won by Johnny Mantz in a Plymouth owned by NASCAR's Bill France Sr.
Oldsmobile led the 1950 field with 29 entries. Lincoln was next with 10. There were three Studebakers, three Hudsons, two Cadillacs, a Nash and a Kaiser.
"This was a monstrous race track compared to what we had been running before," Owens said.
Mantz, known as "Madman," led the final 351 laps to win for the only time in his career.
While others like Owens were taking 10 or 15 minutes in the pits to change worn tires, Mantz glided through Darlington's tricky corners without a stop.
Moore said the other racers couldn't match the superiority of Mantz's tires.
"We didn't know where to get them," Moore said.
Sticker tires or scuffs didn't figure into the race that day. Whatever was on the car would have to be used. But Moore, who seven years earlier hit the beach on D-Day, knew what to do when he needed new rubber for one of his racers.
"We went and jacked up a family car in the infield, took his tires off, and ran them in the race," he said.
After the race, Moore said a friend wanted to know how he was going to get home. Moore picked out four worn tires with some air left and mounted them on the car.
There were no seatbelts. Owens remembered some drivers strapping themselves in with rope. They tied their doors closed with a dog collar.
Mantz finished ahead of Fireball Roberts, Red Byron, Bell Rexford and Chuck Mahoney. His winning speed was 76.26 mph.
"All we had ever run was dirt," Moore said. "To come run a paved mile and a quarter track, it was something else."
And it still is for today's drivers, who battle the reconfigured 1.366-mile oval.
Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett has won two TranSouth 400s here.
"But we haven't won the big one." he said.
Darrell Waltrip, retiring after this season with 84 career victories, hasn't won since the 1992 Southern 500. He's so glad he made it.
"I would have felt like a part of me was missing," he said.