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This Week in Racing History: Darlington, we were there from the very beginning
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Raymond Parks changes tires on the Red Byron's Cadillac at Darlington Raceway. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

Darlington Raceway, a unique egg-shaped mile and a half asphalt track, just north of Florence, South Carolina. As we have discussed previously, Dawsonville unsurprisingly has many ties and connections with this track too; ranging from the very first race held there in 1950, to a $1 million victory in 1985, right up to this past weekend where two Dawsonville drivers competed. 

Darlington Raceway has always been a fan favorite due to its history and uniqueness. It's a driver's track and is very unforgiving. Even more so since 2015, when the tracks got their traditional Labor Day weekend date back after a 12-year hiatus, and ever since most cars run a 'Throwback' paint scheme at the track to honor the past.  

To fully appreciate what we have in today's NASCAR, you have to look at where it came from. In 1950, the NASCAR Grand National division (now Cup Series) was immensely popular. It took off like a rocket and had full crowds anywhere the tour went. At that time, NASCAR rarely raced on any track longer than a mile in length. The outlier would be the Daytona Beach course, which until 1958, was two miles on the beach and two miles on A1A. Even Atlanta's own, Lakewood Speedway, which was a big track for its time, was only a mile in length. Nevertheless, Darlington's founder, Harold Brasington, attended an Indy 500 years earlier and a lightbulb went off. 

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Drivers start at the First Southern 500. Dawsonville native Gober Sosebee drives car 51. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

Brasington witnessed thousands of fans that attended the two-mile track and immediately thought 'Why can't we have one of these down south?'. And so he built it. Darlington Raceway was constructed, start to finish, in just a little over a year. It had never been done before. It was the first paved racetrack in the South and the first of its size for NASCAR. Project leaders hoped for about 10 to 12,000 fans and instead got bombarded with over 25,000. It was a big deal! 

Dawsonville's Raymond Parks was a successful businessman and race-team owner. It was Raymond's team that would win the very first NASCAR sanctioned race in 1948, as well as the first Modified Division title in 48' and the first Strictly Stock (Cup Series) title in 1949. The team, comprised of Parks, a Georgia Racing Hall of Famer, driver Red Byron and chief mechanic Red Vogt, were a hot ticket anywhere they went. Parks had already learned how expensive racing was if you wanted to win. And the first Darlington race would prove no different. 

Another Dawsonville native, Gober Sosebee, would join at the chance to compete for a $10k first prize. Another first in stock car racing. Upon sending in his entry form, Sosebee purchased a brand new 1950 Oldsmobile 88 from Mitchell Motors in downtown Atlanta. When Sosebee and crew got to Darlington a week before the event for qualifying (remember they drove the cars to the track back then), Gober noticed his brand new racecar had just rolled over to 1,300 miles. Like many racers of the early days were, Gober was superstitious about certain things. No one ever raced #13, ate peanuts in the pits, had a green racecar, etc. Needless to say, Gober was not going to drive on track while his odometer read 1,300. The day before his qualifying session, he spent the afternoon driving around the infield until he reached 1,400 miles. 

Just before the historic race was set to start, there were talks of a large pot of money being built up on who was going to lead the first lap, Gober Sosebee or Curtis Turner; both hard-nosed and successful drivers. It has been said that future Hall of Famer and one of the most known racing announcers across Georgia, Jimmy Mosteller, went up to Sosebee before the race and said to him "If you don't lead this first lap, there'll be a lot of us with no money to get back home". Needless to say, the "Wild Injun" did just that and rocketed to the lead in his Rocket 88 and led the first four laps in NASCAR Superspeedway Racing. 

The morning of the race, track officials would put sand on the racing surface as they thought it would provide grip. What happened was the hot Labor Day sun would bake the sand into the new asphalt and soon turned the surface into sandpaper. Tires wore faster than they should have, which is why Sosebee gave up the lead. He could tell after just 5 laps, his tires weren't as good as they were on the first. Virginia's Curtis Turner led until lap 26. 

While Sosebee lost the lead to preserve his tires, the Parks entry of Red Byron was going through tires like they were going out of style. Very quickly, the Parks team went through all the spare tires they brought. Parks offered the tires off of his personal Cadillac and soon went into the infield cash in hand to buy tires off of spectator cars. While it's not known how many sets they went through, it is known that Byron ran a tire down to the wheel 24 times. 

All in all, it took over 6 hours to run the first 500-mile race and it was not won by the fastest car. The winner, Johnny Mantz, a former open-wheel racer, won the race driving an economical six-cylinder Plymouth, a car that qualified 9 mph slower than the pole-sitter. Mantz had an ace up his sleeve so to speak. While he was literally the slowest car on track, he never once came into the pits, other than for fuel. While the faster, more powerful cars spent valuable time in the pits changing tires dozens of times over...the little Plymouth was quietly running truck tires. A harder compound that was much more durable than that of regular passenger car tires. 

A Dawsonville driver or team would not return home as a winner. In fact, it would be until 1985 before a Dawsonville driver would take victory at the track known as "Too Tough to Tame".   

The Parks' Novelty Cadillac driven by Red Byron would finish 3rd in the first Southern 500, 10 laps behind. While the $2,000 payday was great for the time, it still stung because of what won the race. On paper, a Plymouth should not have beaten a Cadillac. It was a true blue version of 'The Tortoise and the Hare'. 

Sosebee, on the other hand, was written into the history books as leading the first-ever laps on a paved NASCAR Superspeedway. He would finish 17th and only pocket $290. You can still see that very tire on display in the Dawsonville Pool Room.

Dawsonville and NASCAR's first Super Speedway have a lot to share, more than what can be written about in one week. One thing, in particular, happened this past Sunday, when the #34 driven by Daytona 500 winner, Michael McDowell drove not only a tribute paint scheme to Bill Elliott's 1985 car but our very own, Georgia Racing Hall of Fame logo was featured on the cars C-Pillar. 

It was the first time our humble GRHOF was featured on a NASCAR Cup Car, and hopefully won't be the last.

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