On this day in 2003, race car driver Ricky Craven wins the Darlington 500, crossing the finish line .002 seconds ahead of Kurt Busch for the closest recorded finish in National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) history. In May 2009, more than 5,000 racing fans voted Craven’s victory the most memorable moment in the history of South Carolina’s challenging Darlington Raceway, nicknamed “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”
The Darlington Raceway opened with the first-ever Southern 500, a 500-lap race, on Labor Day weekend 1950. At the time, NASCAR was in its infancy, having been officially incorporated in February 1948. The 1.366-mile, egg-shaped track at Darlington was the brainchild of South Carolinian Harold Brasington, who was inspired to build the raceway after attending the 1948 Indianapolis 500 race. Darlington was developed on land Brasington purchased from a farmer; one corner of the track is narrow and more steeply banked than other sections because at the time of the track’s construction the farmer didn’t want it to interfere with his fish pond. (Today, cars racing around this tight corner of the track often slam into the wall, resulting in a scrape called the “Darlington stripe.”) At the inaugural Southern 500, some 25,000 fans were on hand to see driver Johnny Mantz win the race with an average speed of 76 mph, out of a starting field of 75 cars. Some of the competitors reportedly ran out of tires and resorted to purchasing them from people in the infield in order to complete the race.
The Southern 500 went on to become one of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events, along with the Daytona 500 at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, the Winston 500 at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway and the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. In 1985, driver Bill Elliott collected the first-ever Winston Million, a $1 million bonus prize given to the driver who won three out of the four crown-jewel races in one year, with his victories at the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 and the Southern 500. (In 2009, NASCAR fans voted Elliott’s triumph, which earned him the nickname “Million Dollar Bill,” as the second most memorable event in the Darlington Raceway’s history.) The only other driver to take home the Winston Million is Jeff Gordon, who collected the prize following his 1997 wins at Daytona, Talladega and Charlotte.