The 1955 Southern 500, the sixth running of the event, was a NASCAR Grand National Series event that was held on September 5, 1955, at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina. This race officially spanned 500 miles or 800 kilometres on a paved oval track. An unofficial 30-minute highlight film of this race would appear on the collector's set of Stock Cars of 50s & 60s – Stock Car Memories: Darlington-Southern 500; which was released in 2008.
Television coverage of the 1955 Southern 500 was impossible due to the then-niche demographics of the burgeoning motorsport. However, the local radio station WJMX made it possible for housebound fans (i.e., young boys and housewives) to hear their favorite drivers from the first green flag to the checkered flag. School children who lived in the area could either watch the race live or listen on the local radio because the race took place on Labor Day. Coverage of the race would be spotty outside the Darlington area due to the broadcasting limitations of AM radio. No school was held that day because it was a legal U.S. statutory holiday. Confederate flags were still legal to utilize in all parts of the state back then; they were shown with pride alongside the Stars and Stripes.
While the cost of gasoline would be under 25 cents a gallon (6.25 cents a litre) back in 1955, transportation to and from the race would be gruelling because the Interstate Highway System had not begun construction until the spring of 1956. This public works project would be activated by the passing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and would help play a role in modernizing the infrastructure of the Southern United States.
Darlington Raceway, nicknamed by many NASCAR fans and drivers as "The Lady in Black" or "The Track Too Tough to Tame" and advertised as a "NASCAR Tradition", is a race track built for NASCAR racing located near Darlington, South Carolina. It is of a unique, somewhat egg-shaped design, an oval with the ends of very different configurations, a condition which supposedly arose from the proximity of one end of the track to a minnow pond the owner refused to relocate. This situation makes it very challenging for the crews to set up their cars' handling in a way that will be effective at both ends.
The track is a four-turn 1.366 miles (2.198 km) oval. The track's first two turns are banked at twenty-five degrees, while the final two turns are banked two degrees lower at twenty-three degrees. The front stretch (the location of the finish line) and the back stretch is banked at six degrees. Darlington Raceway can seat up to 60,000 people.
This event commenced during the daytime hours and finished sometime before dusk because lighting was not available at Darlington Raceway during that era. This luxury would not appear until after the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season. The lights that people would see at the current Darlington Speedway races would be first used at the 2000 Mall.com 400 race (which became the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 from 2001 to 2004 and is currently under the schedule as the Showtime Southern 500). Nearly all the drivers who raced in this event owned their vehicles under their own name instead of relegating control of their vehicle to a multi-car team. The Motor Racing Network would not be established until 1970; they would make national coverage of the later NASCAR races starting in the sport's "modern era." Its rival, the Performance Racing Network, would eventually be founded at a later date by Speedway Motorsports.
Smoking was unrestricted during this race as spectators, crew chiefs, and even drivers were often smoking cigarettes when they were not expected to perform a duty on the track. It would not be until the 1970s when the American Medical Association started to discourage people from smoking due to its newly discovered link with lung cancer. During the start of the post-Winston sponsorship era, smoking cessation programs began to emerge in NASCAR teams and officials (most notably in Hendrick Motorsports when Jeff Gordon starting sponsoring Nicorette). This mentality would also extend to the flammability of the 100% petroleum-based gasoline that all the stock cars had to use from the original 1949 season to the beginning of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. By the end of the 20th century, it became against the rules of NASCAR to smoke cigarettes near the gas pump because ashes from the cigarette could cause the gasoline to turn to fire.
Being the thirty-fifth race of the 1955 season, there would be only ten races after the conclusion of the 1955 Southern 500 in the entire season. This race was the major race of any NASCAR season that came prior to the very first running of the Daytona 500. Once the Daytona 500 was established in 1959, the Southern 500 quickly became another NASCAR event.
Before the race, each part was individually inspected to make sure that every part is stock (i.e., can be bought at regular automobile shops as opposed to sneaking in "police parts" or parts intended entirely for racing). Sometimes, entire vehicles had to be dismantled in order to find parts that look dissimilar to everyday passenger vehicles. Only roll bars were added for extra safety during the 500 miles of racing. Every car that passed the inspection and was "certified stock" was given a certification ticket on the dash. Having a certification permitted the driver to participate in the event with the full blessing of NASCAR. Intermittent periods of rain hampered qualifying and made the track wet. Eventually, the stopped and the rest of the qualifying session proceeded normally with Fireball Roberts earning the coveted pole position for the race. Six drivers failed to qualify for this race, including Harvey Eakin and Leland Sewell.
On the night preceding the race, a beauty pageant was conducted with Fonty Flock as one of the judges; this tradition would be repeated at the 1956 Southern 500 and at all subsequent Southern 500 races. Out of the numerous contestants that signed up from the Darlington area, Miss Martha Williams (from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina) won the honors of becoming Miss Southern 500 and accepted the ceremonious position that she held during the race.
A marching band was also used as a part of the pre-race festivities. It was unknown whether NASCAR had a pre-race invocation service or not during the 1950s as the highlight film never showed a detailed coverage of the pre-race ceremonies like today's live coverage on television. The singing of The Star-Spangled Banner (which had been the official anthem of the nation since 1931) would be performed but not filmed in the highlight video. NASCAR would become one of the first major league sports where the American national anthem was used since its inception. Even back in those days, it was customary to hear "Gentlemen start your engines" to fire up the racers into a rolling start. Qualifying would take up the whole month just like it does at today's Indianapolis 500 races; regulations made in the "modern era" of the sport (1972–2003) modified the rules so that qualifying would eventually be contracted to one day.
Fireball Roberts earned the pole position for the beginning of the race driving a maximum speed of 110.682 miles per hour or 178.125 kilometres per hour. The average speed of the race (with full racing traffic), however, was 92.281 miles per hour or 148.512 kilometres per hour. Out of the 336 laps, there were eight yellow flag periods consisting of fifty-one laps. Fifty thousand people attended the live event to see sixty-nine cars race (less than half of them managed to withstand the pressures of the race). Regulations made decades after this race would finally standardize the field to forty-three racing vehicles; a far cry from the fairly unregulated days that the 1955 Southern 500 took place in.
Vehicles ranged in production year from the 1953 models that were driven by the less affluent teams to the 1955 models driven by wealthy teams like Petty Enterprises (now Richard Petty Motorsports with the merger of Gillett Everham Motorsports in 2009). All drivers were expected to race in the vehicles that they personally drove to the racetrack in by virtue of NASCAR's then-strict homologation rules against producing vehicles specifically for racing. Some of the other notable NASCAR Grand National Series drivers that participated in this racing event were Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, and Lee Petty. All of the drivers competing at this race were Caucasian American males; foreigners and minorities did not attempt to qualify for this race.
Mounts' appearance at this racing event, where he would crash into Don Duckworth's stalled vehicle, would be captured on highlight films for generations. While Bill Champion managed to avoid Duckworth by swerving past the vehicle rapidly, Arden Mounts managed to see the stalled vehicle too late and crashed into him in a very hard manner. The proper usage of seat belts on the stock car automobiles would save the lives of both Mounts and Duckworth.
Herb Thomas would end up winning the race after five hours, twenty-five minutes, and twenty-five seconds of racing. He would receive $7,480 in American dollars ($66,873.99 when adjusted for inflation) while the total winnings for the race were considered to be $28,270 ($252,744.34 in when adjusted for inflation). Thomas drove a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air during a time where NASCAR was used to test the endurance of the newest passenger automobiles. However, the eventual championship winner would be Tim Flock with 18 season wins and an annual salary of $37,780 ($337,767.28 when adjusted for inflation). Vehicle manufacturers involved in the race were Studebaker (defunct), Plymouth (defunct), Chevrolet (active), Buick (active but not racing), Dodge (active), Ford (active), Hudson (defunct), Cadillac (active but not racing), Pontiac (defunct), and Nash Motors (defunct).
More than half of the vehicles used were manufactured by Chevrolet while Nash Motors only had one vehicle in the running along with Studebaker. Sponsors for the drivers in the race included Mercury Outboards, Marion Cox Garage, Schwam Motors, Helzafire (owned by Kentucky Colonel Ernest Woods), The Racing Club, Paper Hangers, and Fish Carburetor.
Lloyd Moore would announce his permanent retirement from NASCAR after this race. He would end up having six daughters; whose names were withheld from the media.Start of race: Fireball Roberts started out with the official pole position
Lap 5: Tim Flock took over the lead from Fireball Roberts
Lap 11: Fonty Flock took over the lead from Tim Flock
Lap 12: Issues with the vehicle's rod bearing ended Ed Cole's hopes of winning the event
Lap 18: Pop McGinnis had a terminal crash
Lap 30: Fireball Roberts had a terminal crash
Lap 39: Problems with the vehicle's rod bearing forced Gordon Smith to abandon the race
Lap 41: Fuel pump problems forced Tommy Thompson out of the race
Lap 44: Bud Rackley had problem with his vehicle connection rod
Lap 50: Transmission issues forced Dick Rathmann to leave the event early
Lap 77: Slick Smith blew a gasket in his vehicle; forcing him to leave the race early
Lap 78: Steering issues forced Donald Thomas out of the race
Lap 79: Elmo Langley had oil pressure issues with his vehicle that ended his chances of winning the race
Lap 95: Tim Flock took over the lead from Fonty Flock
Lap 110: Curtis Turner took over the lead from Tim Flock
Lap 124: Tim Flock took over the lead from Curtis Turner
Lap 133: Issues with the vehicle's tie rod caused Curtis Turner to accept a woeful 58th-place finish
Lap 137: Jimmy Roland's rear end came off his vehicle; ending his race weekend prematurely
Lap 147: Don Duckworth crashed into Arden Mounts (who was four laps behind him); ending their collective day on the track
Lap 148: Bill Widenhouse took over the look from Tim Flock
Lap 150: Joe Weatherly took over the lead from Bill Widenhouse
Lap 184: Dick Beaty and Jim Thompson both had terminal crashes; forcing them out of the race
Lap 188: Transmission issues forced Gene Simpson to exit the race prematurely
Lap 190: Fonty Flock had a terminal crash
Lap 202: Dick Allwine had a terminal crash
Lap 210: The rear end of Clarence DeZalia's vehicle came off; forcing him to leave the event
Lap 225: A faulty transmission forced Doug Cox out of the race
Lap 231: Fred Johnson developed problems with his vehicle's tires
Lap 235: Vapor lock issues forced Speedy Thompson off the track for the weekend
Lap 247: Van Van Wey had a terminal crash
Lap 279: Herb Thomas took over the lead from Joe Weatherly
Lap 307: Joe Weatherly took over the lead from Herb Thomas
Lap 317: Joe Weatherly had a terminal crash; forcing him out of the race
Lap 319: Herb Thomas took over the lead from Joe Weatherly
Lap 352: Problems with Jimmy Massey's transmission forced him out of the race
Lap 353: One of Bill Widenhouse's wheels became problematic; making him the final DNF of the race
Finish: Herb Thomas was officially declared the winner of the event
† signifies that the driver is known to be deceased
* Driver failed to finish race