Darlington Raceway is a 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval located about 90 miles from the sandy beaches of Myrtle Beach and rests comfortably in an area called the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. It was the first major speedway in NASCAR history after Harold Brasington finished building it in 1950, and has remained a fixture in stock car racing ever since.
It's known by some as "The Track Too Tough to Tame" while to others it's "The Lady in Black," but regardless of what you call it, drivers simply know it as the hardest race track on the circuit. A win is treasured like no other because the skill needed to keep your car off the wall and manage tire wear against the gritty asphalt surface is something not easily accomplished.
No race exemplifies Darlington's toughness better than the Southern 500 that took place on Sept. 6, 1965 in which only 15 of 44 cars finished the race, and was highlighted by Cale Yarborough flying over the guard rail and down an embankment in turn one.
The attrition that day may have been partly responsible for Ned Jarrett winning by a NASCAR-record 14 laps, but it wasn't the sole reason. Jarrett and his No. 11 Ford were competitive all day, running up front and leading two times for 23 laps during the middle stages. But when Fred Lorenzen and Darel Dieringer both encountered mechanical problems on lap 325 of the 364-lap event, Jarrett was there to capitalize and cruise to victory.
"That was certainly the highlight of my driving career," said Jarrett. "Darlington was always very tough on equipment and cars would overheat. That was one of the problems they had because the track surface was rough and it would just grind the rubber off the tires. Even as hard as the tires were back in those days it would throw the rubber up into the grille of other cars and it was just hard to keep the car cool.
"Ford brought some new aluminum radiators for us to use at Darlington that year. They had more capacity as far as water was concerned and they made the fins wider so that it would hopefully suck that rubber through," recalled Jarrett. "Unfortunately, it didn't work that way. All the other Ford cars had trouble with overheating again because of the way the rubber just matted up on the radiator. We were able to nurse our car to the end."
In fact, the last 100 miles Jarrett's car was overheating so badly that every time it would accelerate going down the straightaway, the gauge would peg at 240 degrees. That meant the engine was actually running even hotter, so Jarrett decided to try something he had never done before.
"When I got ready to decelerate going into the turn, I didn't take my foot off the gas, but just turned the ignition switch off and let the raw gasoline run in," said Jarrett. "Sure enough, it would cool off 20-25 degrees. It was fun to be able to see that idea come to fruition, and it was also good for the fans because every time I cut the switch back on the car would backfire, so it would keep them awake. When you're 12-14 laps ahead of the field it's a pretty boring race, but that helped me nurse the car to the end and make it."
The win was Jarrett's 12th of the season and clinched the season championship, which was the first for Ford Racing in NASCAR's top series.
"He was much like Fireball Roberts - just amazingly smooth and consistent lap after lap after lap. That's what enabled him to win the Southern 500 by 14 laps," said former Charlotte Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins. "It was an awful hot day in Darlington and there was a lot of attrition, but he was gonna win that race regardless of what had happened just by his consistency and smoothness."
While conducting his post-race press conference with reporters, Jarrett was asked how he accounted for such a large margin of victory. His response was one of the best Higgins ever heard.
"Well, I spoke to a Methodist Youth Fellowship Group last night. When I left, the kids followed me out and said they were gonna pray for me," said Jarrett. "Now, I've always believed in the power of prayer, but not on a scale like that."
After enjoying victory lane and collecting his check for $22,050, Jarrett packed up his family and made the short drive home to Camden.
"We lived in a small neighborhood. Camden is not a very big town, but it seemed like when we drove up to the house everybody in the town was there," remembered Dale Jarrett. "My dad was a special person to a lot of people there, and I think it was really then that I realized my dad had done a lot. It was just an incredible welcome for my dad and for our family."
Ned Jarrett was equally surprised by the welcome he received. "That was very, very special - to pull up to our home in a town that we didn't grow up in," he said. "We grew up in North Carolina, but Camden became our adopted home when I decided to go there to manage the team and drive for Bondy Long. To have so many fans come out was special. They already had a big banner made that was stretched out between the trees in the yard and to see that many fans there waiting for us is something I'll never forget."
Higgins won't forget that day either, but for another reason.
"I had taken over the racing beat at the Charlotte Observer that particular year because George Cunningham left the paper to become the first public relations director at Rockingham. He and I were sharing a room that weekend and as I was writing my advance for the race he distracted me," recalled Higgins. "We were great friends, but I lost my concentration right in the middle of listing some potential winners and I left out Ned Jarrett, who won the race by 14 laps. I caught quite a bit of grief over that, but it was good-natured grief."