COLUMBIA, SC — As a pilot, Joe Weatherly was an amazing race car driver.
When the reigning Grand National champion (NASCAR) arrived in Darlington for the 1963 Rebel 300, his nickname Clown Prince of Racing had been well-earned.
He flew to races in his own plane, but never learned to read the instruments. He used gas station maps for navigation. Once, he left his Virginia home for a race in Dayton, Ohio. All was well until the Empire State Building appeared out his window.
On a good day, his rental car wouldnt be a total loss upon return. On a typical day, the car might have found the bottom of a hotels pool.
He often was as lubricated as his race cars engine, a party animal with a knack for talking his way out of arrests.
By 1963, the cars were too big and going too fast. Technology was outstripping instinct and common sense and pouring wild-eyed gearheads into the drivers seat was akin to tossing a lit match into a barrel of gasoline.
In 50 years, technology has continued its march, but hard lessons have made it clear that faster is no longer better. It takes a village to take the checkered flag.
Drivers are brand names cloaked in fire suits, strapped into harnesses, encased in roll cages on tracks lined with safety walls.
On May 11, 1963, all that stood between Weatherly and death at Darlington was a lap belt and a set of clothes dunked in flame-retardant chemicals.
THE DAY BEFORE, Fred Lorenzen had floored his Ford through turns three and four at Darlington and streaked to the pole position with a speed just north of 131 mph. That was a whopping 50 mph faster than the first lap turned 14 years prior.
As qualifying continued, the times continued to drop jaws and raise concern.
Never before in the history of this steel-bending race plant has such a field of cars been assembled, wrote The States Jim Hunter. And never before have the cars run so swiftly.
Ford had flirted with the Lady in Black, and she had been wooed. No manufacturer dominated Darlington in 1963 the way Ford did. In contrast, Weatherlys dingy Bud Moore Pontiac hadnt made much of a fuss in qualifying for the third row.
But while speed might have caught her eye, there was a reason the Lady also was known as the track too tough to tame, and Fords swift arrogance led to a quick exit. Lorenzens chariot was torn to shreds in the sixth lap.
Meanwhile, Weatherly persevered. In the twin 150-lap races, he finished first and second to win overall on points. Fireball Roberts was second, followed by Richard Petty.
In his post-race comments, Weatherly gleefully rubbed his victory in Fords face and chief rival Roberts by extension.
Man, this is a Ford race track, he said. And all those guys like Fireball and Lorenzen had factory backing. We did it on our own. (Bud Moore) had the car set up and ready when we got here. All I had to do was drive.
Weatherlys only lament the victory came at the 300-mile Rebel, instead of during Labor Days Southern 500.
Roberts would get his revenge by taking that checkered flag.
WEATHERLY MADE IT sound simple, but later he waxed on about how driving at Darlington isnt so easy a proposition.
This track tries its (darndest) to beat you. You cant just outrun the other drivers and cars to win, Weatherly said. You actually have to beat the track, to. You have to drive this track all the way. I wont let you take it easy for a second.
Ill tell you, Pops, when you win here, youve done something, he continued. This track takes more out of a driver than all the rest put together.
Weatherly would never get a chance to defend his title. His adamant stance against the race circuits latest innovation the shoulder harness would cost him his life less than a year later when his car careened out of control at Riverside, Calif., and slammed into a steel wall.
I believe theres a greater chance of snapping your neck with a shoulder harness, Weatherly told the media prior to the race. Id rather take my chances slapping around in there. I move around so much, Id rather have the freedom of just the seat belt.
By not wearing the harness and driving with the window rolled down, his head slammed into the wall at nearly 100 mph.
A few months later at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Roberts would lose his life when his gas tank was ruptured and caught fire in an accident so horrifying Ned Jarrett would later refer to it as a reason he stopped racing.
Both of Darlingtons 1963 champions were dead by the time it came to defend their titles. Their loss would start the racing circuit on its first true journey toward driver safety.
Soon came the innovations. A netting to secure the drivers side window. A rubber bladder to encase the gas tank to prevent rupture. Mandatory shoulder harnessing. Restrictor plates on the larger tracks to limit speed.
ALL OF THESE safety measures have caused some long-time fans to feel as if the sport has become too mundane and sanitized. To an extent, they might be right.
As the sport gained popularity and expanded to bigger and better markets, those tracks with true tradition and unique challenges fell by the wayside.
But awkward, egg-shaped Darlington endures. And 50 years to the day after one of the sports most iconic personalities won for the last time, the second-oldest track on the modern circuit behind Martinsville will continue to enthrall.
It ranks more important than the other tracks that have fallen to the wayside, Kurt Busch said Thursday. Darlington is a challenge in so many ways, its unbelievable. Its going to be a phenomenal ride and what type of track could produce this challenge?
There is no other track, Busch concluded. Darlington shows its strength, and the Lady in Black will always shine through.