They call Darlington Raceway "The Lady in Black" and "the track that's too tough to tame." The 1.366-mile South Carolina course is tight and tricky; races are won at Darlington on driver ability, and lost on driver error. Half the problem is people wrecking all around you. "There's nothing easy about it," says veteran driver Darrell Waltrip. "Nothing forgiving about it." It's generally agreed that anyone who wins at Darlington deserves it.
Especially anyone who wins a million dollars there.
Congratulations, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. Bill Elliott, the golly-gee redhead from Dawsonville, Ga., who boasts a blistering NASCAR season so far—10 for 20—won Sunday's Southern 500 at Darlington and $1,053,725. The $53,725 is the first-place prize money. In addition, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. had posted a million-dollar bounty for anyone who could bag three of the big four NASCAR races: the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., the World 600 at Charlotte, N.C. and the Southern 500. Elliott won the first two, flubbed the third and came to Darlington as burdened as if the million were in silver and on his back. He went home lightened, at least in one sense.
What's more, it was one of the most action-packed races in...oh, never mind. How many of these thrillers can NASCAR have?
The crush on Elliott had gotten so bad that other teams were complaining. Those garaged next to him at Darlington couldn't get any work done for the gawkers and reporters. Track officials solved the dilemma by putting Elliott in solitary confinement: To the left of his Thunderbird were nine empty bays, and to the right, six. And poised by the fenders were two armed South Carolina highway patrolmen, as if the million dollars were already in the T-Bird's trunk.
Another name for Darlington is The Granddaddy. Sunday marked the 35th anniversary of modern-day stock-car racing, for it was on Labor Day, 1950 that the first Southern 500 was held at Darlington. Before that, stock-car racing was in the bushes. When the new track was built in John Ramsey's peanut field, he insisted that his minnow pond not be wiped out. That's why Turns 1 and 2 have a shorter radius than 3 and 4, even though the minnow pond is long since gone. "People think this is an oval, but it ain't," says Bill Kiser, The Lady's p.r. man. "It's like a damn aig. Come to think of it, ain't nothing symmetrical around here."
From the pole position—and where else?—Elliott surged away at the start, a big No. 9 painted backward (What, my crew nervous?) on his roof. It was a darkly humid day, as if the sky were holding back still-distant Hurricane Elena, and dozens of big Rebel flags in the infield fluttered toward Turn 1. A sellout crowd of 70,000 came to see the boy win his ballyhooed million. Their cars and campers jammed the infield, and the quarter-mile-long grandstand was standing room only. Its tin roof glistened dully in the filtered sun as Elliott's T-Bird sped off Turn 2, squat and steady, the car's suspension loaded for the shot down the back straight. Just 367 laps to go.
Dale Earnhardt is known as Ironhead, both for his stubbornness and for the way he bashes to the front. He won the NASCAR Grand National championship in 1980, with stylish and aggressive driving, and he has won a few races and wrecked a lot of cars since. "When he punches it in the middle of a corner, whoever's on the outside of him better back off because he's gonna use up all the track," boasts one of his crewmen. Earnhardt charged from seventh to second and caught Elliott on the 15th lap, his bright yellow-and-blue Monte Carlo skating through the turns.
They call a scrape on a stock car a Darlington Stripe because of the way the walls leave their mark. The four-hour race would have 14 yellow flags because of wrecks or jetsam. The first crash—a brutal one but with no injuries—came on the 21st lap when Phil Parsons, a fender rubbing his right front tire after he had glanced off David Pearson, had a blowout and hit the wall at Turn 4, taking Rusty Wallace with him.
A lap after the green flag reappeared, Cale Yarborough, who lives down the road in Timmonsville, S.C. and loves the Lady in Black, zoomed his Thunderbird to second behind Earnhardt. After three more yellows, Harry Gant, last year's Southern 500 winner, charged into the lead in his dark green Monte Carlo, driving so hard he was smoking his tires in the turns. Earnhardt repassed him, his tires smoking even more. Elliott watched the wild men from fifth.
After a yellow because of the debris that fell off Ron Bouchard's bashed Buick, everybody charged on the green. Earnhardt, who had fallen back because of a pit stop, bumped Elliott in Turn 1, got him sideways and passed into second, with Gant in first. As Gant weaved down the front straight, Earnhardt dove below him to take the lead—and was immediately repassed by Gant.
And they were only halfway through the race.
Earnhardt was soon leading Elliott, Gant and Yarborough, in that order, teasing them by hanging it out sideways, his door in their windshields. Then Gant slowed with a smoking engine, and after another yellow, Yarborough briefly ran off with the lead. So Earnhardt executed the "impossible" again: He rubbed the wall in Turn 2, headed down the back straight cockeyed enough for Elliott to pass, then repassed Elliott on the inside of Turn 3 for second place.
Five laps later, tires still smoking, Earnhardt finally did it, losing control in Turn 2. His right rear whacked the wall. The Chevy turned around and slid backward in a cloud of blue smoke, its left side gnashing the wall. The car rotated again, then headed nose-first across the track as Elliott skimmed by at about 140. "I don't know how close it was because my eyes were shut," Bill said later.
Elliott's ringside thrills weren't over. Six laps later, coming off Turn 4 on Yarborough's rear bumper, he was blinded by a plume of white smoke from Cale's car. Apparently thinking it was a million-dollar puff, Elliott's crew hugged each other at the sight. But too soon. It was only a blown power-steering connection, and after Yarborough's crew cut off the belt, their man was back in the hunt. Meanwhile, Earnhardt's crew was banging on the Monte Carlo's black grille, which was pinched like a fighter's swollen eye. After all that, at the next green, the order was still Bill, Dale and Cale.
The final 40 laps must have been frustrating for Earnhardt and exhausting for Yarborough, because with conked-out power steering, driving his T-Bird was "like trying to steer a freight train." If anyone could manhandle a train, Cale could. But push it past Awesome Bill? Yarborough knew then and there. "No way I could beat him," he said later.
Tim Richmond's hood blew off on the back straight, floating down like a red kite. Then Gant's engine blew, for another yellow. Earnhardt stopped each time for more work on his grille, since his car was overheating. But the final yellow was his own. His hot engine blew, and Iron-head got his last Darlington Stripe on the Turn 3 wall. "No way Elliott could have beat us today," was about all he said. "But that's old Darlington."
Now the real suspense began. With five laps to go, Yarborough was five car lengths back. The fans were on their feet waving things and screaming for the driver they voted Most Popular last year. Million Dollar Bill. Yarborough stayed put in second. At the end of a day that saw 20 lead changes among nine drivers, Elliott bagged his bread.
He was the only fast guy not driving a crippled car at the finish. "We didn't outrun 'em today, we outsurvived 'em," he said. There's not much difference at Darlington.