Remembering Tragedy At Darlington

Darlington Raceway in the fifties. The lack of a seperating wall between the pits and the track would lead to disaster and death during the 1960 Southern 500.

By Eddie Samples
Posted in Feature Stories 4/29/11

The racing world started for Jerry Elzey as a youngster in the 1950’s, when his dad, D.J. Elzey, leased his garage across from their service station on Howell Mill Road in Atlanta to Frank Strickland, a prominent local businessman.

“Frank’s family owned Hudgins Wrecking Company so they had money,” said Jerry. “But my dad was leery of renting to race people. It was an expensive hobby even at NASCAR level, and my old man wanted his rent.”

Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member Paul McDuffie, remembered as being one of the top mechanics of his day.

In 1958 D.J. got his rent from Strickland, who hired Paul McDuffie of Hawkinsville, Georgia to build cars for driver Fireball Roberts. Roberts had his best NASCAR season that year producing six wins in only eight starts. Fireball later said, “I credit all my success to my chief mechanic, Paul McDuffie. Without him, this could not have happened.” McDuffie and Roberts both would later be inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

By 1960 Fireball was driving for Smokey Yunick and Paul was still at Elzey’s garage building cars for Joe Lee Johnson.

“They also rented Buckshot (Morris’) basement across the street,” said Elzey “that’s where they built the motors and could have some privacy.” The late “Buckshot” Morris raced cars, but obtained more fame in building championship modifieds in the forties and stocks in the fifties with such drivers as Billy Carden, Fonty Flock, Lamar Woodall, Jim Paschal, Speedy Thompson and Joe Weatherly.

The 'Builders of Bad Ass Race Cars' go to work on Fireball Roberts' car during the 1958 Southern 500.

“I always remembered the back of their racers were initialed ‘BBARC,’ which meant “Builders of Bad Ass Race Cars’.” “They had the factory backing, better known as local dealer sponsorship back then,” Jerry said.

The Johnson/McDuffie team had just won the 1960 World ‘600’ at Charlotte and the future for the pair looked bright before ill fate stepped in less than three months later.

“I was about 17 years old and being D.J.’s kid I was able to hang out with these racing people,” Jerry said. “Since they rented from my dad they put up with me, and I loved the racing world. I thought that was the greatest thing that ever happened. I loved Fireball Roberts and Joe Lee and the rest of those guys, even though I’m sure I was probably more of a nuisance to them or maybe just nonexistent.

“At Darlington that day in 1960 (September 5th), they were pitting on the backstretch and Joe Lee had just made his stop and was pulling back on the track. Paul McDuffie was letting me carry the gas cans back to be filled up. So that was a big deal.”

“I also remember that was a way they all got their personal cars filled up for free,” Jerry added.

“Right next to us was Fireball Roberts pits. Someone from the Yunick crew had called me over, I’m sure to do some ‘gofer job’,” he said. “ I always remembered Smokey had his pit area encircled with a gold colored rope. You stayed out of there. After Joe Lee pulled away, I saw Paul McDuffie leaning on the chalkboard talking to someone as I was walking over to Roberts’ pits.

“The rest was a blur.”

The blur was Bobby Johns’ Pontiac spinning like a top across the pit wall after contact with Roy Tyner’s car.

“There was no separation between the track and the pits back then,” said Elzey. “I turned around and saw bodies, gas cans, tires, jacks, tools and debris flying around like a tornado had hit,”

Bradley Dennis, a mechanic for Roberts told us “all I remember was there was a drive through between our pits and McDuffie. I saw Johns’ car coming and Smokey Yunick and myself headed for the fence behind us and tried to lay down under a car. Fireball Roberts had a younger brother who stood there and never moved. Somehow everything missed him.”

Paul McDuffie, Charles Sweatland or Atlanta and NASCAR official Joe Taylor, of Charlotte, were killed in the accident.  John Blalock, Ralph Byers and R.M. Vermillion, Jr., were all hospitalized, but would survive.

Bobby Johns' car came to rest upside down after contact with Roy Tyner sent his racer flying through the pits. Paul McDuffie, Charles Sweatland and Joe Taylor were killed in the pits.

“How only just three or four people died, I don’t know,” said Jerry. “It seemed like many more. But it got so quiet. I mean you could have held a church in the place. For those moments there was a deadly silence. You could hear the hot dog wrappers blowing down the track. The most eerie feeling I have ever had,” as Elzey’s voice trailed off.

 

Later, the race continued. Buck Baker won it after driving the last half of a lap with a flat tire. Rex White protested the win but was unsuccessful. Baker was driving for Jack Smith, who decided to sit this one out.

“I felt a jinx on this track and I didn’t think I could do so well, so I let Baker drive my car,” said Smith. Jack was involved in a spectacular crash there two years earlier in 1958.

Jerry recalled the drive home from the race.

“You got to remember I was just a teenager at the time, but about 20 miles away from the track I saw a man with a helmet walking down the road,” he said.  “I pulled over and it was Joe Lee Johnson. I kept telling him to get in the car.  ‘Joe, where are you going? Get in the car.’ He never knew who I was but finally got in and I took him back to Darlington where his wife and family had been looking for him. I guess he was in shock. I know he was. I think we all were.”

We later asked Joe Lee about the incident, but he didn’t remember.

“After that I never really cared if I ever saw a race or not, said Jerry. “I mean I had an ego and all and kept going, but I didn’t care anything like I used to.”

Elzey and his dad sponsored a local car for Calvin Bagley in the sixties before he got out of the racing scene for good.

“Calvin was a good driver and rose in the ranks quickly,” he said. “He started at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and the Sugar Bowl in Covington. He and Red Green learned the sport quickly and were racing with the best of the bunch in no time.”

“I miss the good times like the pork chop sandwiches at the Sugar Bowl,” Jerry said. “You couldn’t get a hot dog, but you could get a pork chop sandwich. I also remember going to a tin shack (a make-shift bathroom) in the second turn at the Sugar infield. I had just started back towards the pits when driver Ray Rock went spinning and flattened that building.

“There were some good times, but I will never forget the feeling of that day at Darlington. It changed my fascination with racing and still does today.”

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the September 1999 edition of the Pioneer Pages magazine. In 2007, Paul McDuffie was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.

Eddie Samples is a racing historian and writer, and is the son of champion stock car racer and Georgia Racing Hall of Famer Ed Samples.


Questions, comments, suggestions? Email us!

This website is not affiliated with or endorsed by the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame or the Georgia Auto Racing Hall of Fame Association, Inc. All content is the intellectual property of the individual authors. All opinions are those of the individual authors. Please do not repost images or text without permission.

© 2009-2017 Every Other Man Productions All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright