DARLINGTON, S.C. – A moonshot.
How else could Harold Brasington III describe the crazy idea his grandfather, Harold Brasington Sr., had in the 1930s when he dreamed of a stock-car version of the Indianapolis 500?
If only that was the craziest part.
How about including a card game? A fish pond?
Put that together, and there’s the genesis for what is now known as Darlington Raceway, host for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 – NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway race at 69 years old.
Whether the track layout was 1.25 miles (400 laps for 500 miles from 1950-52), 1.375 (364 laps for 500.5 miles from 1953-1969) or at its current length since 1970 of 1.366 (367 laps for 501.3 miles), it proved time and time again it was “Too Tough To Tame.”
But before the track could be known by such a nickname, it needed a home, and Harold Sr. wanted that to be his hometown of Darlington.
But it also needed money.
And on top of that, a shape (more on that, later).
Harold Sr. kept working and hustling and – most importantly – kept dreaming until his dream came true.
But it didn’t come easily.
Heck, nothing came easily.
According to Harold III, his grandfather traveled the Midwest during the early 1930s, driving in 40- to 50-lap events.
"There wasn't any stock-car racing yet," Harold III said. "These were just guys racing in these kinds of mongrel sanctioning bodies, and they were kind of just amateur versions of what people thought as real racing.
“There wasn’t any stock-car racing yet. ... These guys were weekend warriors racing their D-I-Y cars for a small purse that may or may not be headed out of town with the shady promotors that often took off with the money before while the race was still under way,” he added.
And what was thought as real racing back then? The open-wheel cars that run in races such as the Indianapolis 500, of course.
Harold Sr. referred to those open-wheel racers as "Big cars."
Harold Sr. got to see those big cars for himself – at the 1933 Indy 500 in front of an estimated attendance of 100,000.
"When I was up there at Indianapolis and saw that crowd of people, I figured if they could draw 200,000 people to watch Indy cars there, we could get lots of people to watch a different kind of race in the South," Harold Sr. told a group of writers in the early 1990s.
After World War II and more hustle to start a family sand-and-gravel business, Harold Sr. once again turned his eyes to bringing a 500-mile asphalt race to Darlington.
For stock cars? Yes, stock cars.
"Car companies were making great claims about production vehicles with V-8s and their power and endurance," Harold III said. "But not many people thought a stock-production car could run a 500-mile race at those limits, pushing it.
"So there's the moonshot," he added. "Nobody thought it could be done. They didn't think a production car could last for 500 miles. But (Harold Sr.) was like, 'Oh, yeah, it could be done. We just need to pave a large track for stock cars and we'll show them.'"
Now, to find space for a track.
Deal the cards
Flash forward to the late 1940s, and Harold Sr. was trying to raise money any way he can to build his track.
He already had his eyes on the former DuBose Plantation, a 600-acre tract of land that Sherman Ramsey bought during the Great Depression.
It was also known as "The Farm," on S.C. 151-34.
On the West end of "The Farm" were tenant farmers. As for the rest of the property? That was for bird hunting.
And, of course, fishing.
But by golly, Harold Sr. wanted to build a track there – somewhere. So, after Ramsey told him during a September 1948 card game what occupies his plantation on the West end, Harold Sr. offered to build a track there on the East end.
Focused mostly on the card game, Ramsey simply said he could.
While on a business trip the following week, that consent escaped Ramsey's mind. But after he returned, he noticed construction going on for the track.
"I think that's an interesting point of just how informal and winging it they went about this thing," Harold III said. "Those guys, they did business on a handshake a lot of times and worried about the details later. That was good sometimes, and it could also be a problem."
It was the latter – for a little bit.
“I think it’s an interesting point of just how informal some of these hand-shake transactions were in the beginning. No one had built a super-elevated asphalt oval before, so they were winging it a lot of the time.”
Tempers subsided, and Ramsey agreed to lease the land to Harold Sr. for 99 years, form the Darlington Raceway Corporation and Ramsey become chairman.
In May of 1950, Harold Sr. obtained a deed from Ramsey for the land in exchange for stock – which Harold III has a copy of and is on file at the court house in Darlington.
“This is not to say that the above statement is not also true – unusual transactions and creative use of legal instruments seems to be the rule with racetracks,” Harold III said. “The original stock issue remained an issue for years.”
Sure, the track could be built there – but on one condition.
Don't mess with Ramsey's fish pond. And a perfect oval track would have indeed messed with it.
"All that stuff about the fish pond? It's true," Harold III said. "There are aerial photographs that show when the track is getting laid out and the pond's right there and a little house is there with it."
But Harold Sr. did not want to make Darlington Raceway any smaller.
So, engineer Paul Psillos had an idea: Make one radius on one end smaller and the track could still be its first length of 1.25 miles. In other words, build the first and second turns (later the third and fourth to accommodate 1997 expansion) somewhat tighter than the third and fourth (now the first and second).
Therefore, the two straightaways in 1950 would be 1,566 feet long and 85 feet wide. As for the turns, they were banked 14 degrees and then 90 feet wide (the biggest portion of the turns were safety aprons).
And to this day, Ramsey's pond still exists – behind the Pearson Tower seats on the track's west end.
Gentlemen, open your track
By the end of September 1949, the track began to materialize.
And a date was set for the first race: Labor Day 1950.
Still facing financial hurdles, however, Harold Sr. kept hustling to raise funds. But somehow, some way, he made his dream come true.
It was time for the first Southern 500 – or just for 1950, make that the "Southern Five-Hundred" (it was shortened to Southern 500 from 1951 through today).
Time took on a different meaning, however, when time trials (qualifying) lasted for 15 days, starting Aug. 19 and ending Sept. 2, 1950.
On Labor Day, the "Southern Five-Hundred" began at 11 a.m., like the Indy 500 used to start when it ran on Memorial Day.
And while Harold Sr. expected a crowd, he did not expect anything like the mass of humanity that converged at Darlington.
According to estimates, a total of 25,000 fans were there.
"We don't know how many people were there, because once we sold all the reserved-seat tickets and we didn't have any room for more people in the infield, fans just tore the fences down and came on in, anyway," Harold Sr. said to reporters in the early 1990s.
As strange as it might seem now, women wore their church clothes to that first race.
Now as for the race, some other circumstances also played out as crazy as the scenario for building Darlington Raceway, as Californian Johnny Mantz took a doll offered by starter/flagman Alvin Hawkins and put it in shotgun for a good-luck charm. After that, Mantz passed Cotton Owens and never looked back to take the checkered flag and a first-place prize of $10,510.
A legendary track
Harold Sr. received the NASCAR Hall of Fame's Landmark Award in 2016. And, he's still eligible to be voted into the Hall of Fame itself.
After next Sunday, 70 Southern 500s will have come and gone – from Labor Day to Labor Day Weekend, to even November, May and April before returning to its rightful place on Labor Day Weekend since 2015.
As a tribute to Darlington's history, NASCAR has made the Bojangles' Southern 500 Weekend the sport's official throwback weekend at “The Track Too Tough To Tame.”
The track also is known as the “Lady in Black.”
And yes, it's even known as that crazy, egg-shaped oval.
"It's a great story and has a lot of silliness and drama and just amazing feats of people being willing to attempt something that just didn't seem plausible," Harold III said.