The First 500 Mile Stock Car Race


By Cody Dinsmore

The first Southern 500 at Darlington in 1950 was one for the record books. Several Georgia Racing Hall of Famer's tried their hand at making history.

Darlington Raceway, a unique egg-shaped mile and a half asphalt track, just north of Florence SC. As we have discussed with other tracks previously, Dawsonville unsurprisingly has many ties and connections with this track too; ranging from the very first race held there in 1950, to a million dollar victory in 1985. Darlington Raceway has always been a fan favorite due to it's history and the uniqueness. It's a driver's track and is very unforgiving. Even more so since 2015, when the track got their traditional Labor Day weekend date back after a 12 year hiatus and ever since a majority of the cars run a 'Throwback' paint scheme at the track to honor the past.

To fully appreciate what we have in today's Nascar, you have to look at where it came from. In 1950, the Nascar Grand National division (now Cup Series) was immensely popular. It took off like a rocket and had full crowds anywhere the tour went. At that time, Nascar rarely raced on any track longer than a mile in length. The outlier would be the Daytona Beach course, which until 1958, was two miles on the beach, and two miles on A1A. Even Atlanta's own, Lakewood Speedway, which was a big track for it's time, was only a mile in length. Nevertheless, Darlington's founder, Harold Brasington, would attend an Indy 500 years earlier and a lightbulb went off. He witnessed the thousands of fans that attended the two mile track and immediately thought 'Why can't we have one of these down south?'. And so he did. Darlington Raceway was constructed start to finish in just a little over a year. He would partner with NASCAR President, Bill France on securing a Labor Day date, and advertisements and entry forms were sent. France, however was skeptical if his division could handle a 500 mile race. It had never been done before. It was the first paved racetrack in the South, and the first of it's size for Nascar. Brasington and France hoped for about 10-12k fans and instead got bombarded with just over 25,000. It was a big deal!

Dawsonville's Raymond Parks was a successful businessman and race team owner. It was Raymond's team that would win the very first Nascar-sanctioned race in 1948, as well as the first Modified Division title in 48' and the first Strictly Stock (Cup Series) title in 1949. The team, comprised of Georgia Racing Hall of Famer's, Parks with his driver, Red Byron and chief mechanic, Red Vogt, were a hot ticket, anywhere they went. Parks had already learned how expensive racing was, if you wanted to win. And the first Darlington race would prove no different. Parks and Byron had just competed in the first La Carrera Panamericana race just a few months prior. The duo used a brand new Cadillac in the 7 day long road race through Mexico. While they did not win, they were impressed with how a Cadillac could do as a racecar, so that's what they chose for the first Darlington race. A big car, with a big V8 and a proven name was sure to be a winner, right?

Another Dawsonville native, Gober Sosebee, would join at the chance to compete for a $10k first prize. Another first in stock car racing. Upon sending in his entry form, Sosebee would purchase a brand new 1950 Oldsmobile 88 from Mitchell Motors in downtown Atlanta. When Sosebee and crew got to Darlington a week before the event for qualifying (remember they drove the cars to the track back then), Gober noticed his brand new racecar had just rolled over to 1,300 miles. Like many racers of the early days were, Gober was very superstitious about certain things. No one ever raced #13, ate peanuts in the pits, had a green racecar, etc. Needless to say, Gober was NOT going to drive on track while his odometer read 1,300. The day before his qualifying session, he spent the afternoon driving around the infield until he reached 1,400 miles. Then it was fine to take on track. With 75 entries to be filled, Darlington and Nascar opted for a multi day qualifying. Gober was scheduled to qualify on day three and was the fastest that day. Meaning, he although he started third, he was on the front row, along with Jimmy Thompson in the middle row and Curtis Turner starting pole. Byron in Parks' Cadillac would start 7th, having been the third fastest qualifier on the first day. Confusing I know.

Just before history was set to start, there were talks of a large pot of money being built up on who was going to lead the first lap - Gober Sosebee or Curtis Turner; both hard-nosed and successful drivers. It has been said that future Hall of Famer and one of the most known racing announcers across Georgia, Jimmy Mosteller, went up to Sosebee before the race and said to him "If you don't lead this first lap, there'll be alot of us with no money to get back home". Needless to say, the "Wild Injun" done just that and rocketed to the lead in his Rocket 88 and would lead the first four laps in Superspeedway Racing in Nascar. Upon the 5th lap, Sosebee decided to back off the throttle as he knew he was driving too hard for the tires to handle it. You have to remember that this was a STOCK race. Stock cars, stock tires, etc.

The morning of the race, track officials would put sand on the racing surface as they thought it would provide grip. What happened was the hot Labor Day sun would bake the sand into the new asphalt and soon turned the surface into sandpaper. Tires wore faster than they should have, which is why Sosebee gave up the lead. He could tell after just 5 laps, his tires weren't as good as they were on the first. Virginia's Curtis Turner led until lap 26.

While Sosebee lost the lead to preserve his tires, the Parks entry of Red Byron was going through tires like they were going out of style. Very quickly, the Parks team went through all the spare tires they brought. Raymond offered the tires off of his personal Cadillac and soon went into the infield, cash in hand, to buy tires off of spectator cars. While it's not known how many sets they went through, it is known that Byron ran a tire down to the wheel 24 times. Parks, although still dressed in his Sunday best, jumped in to help change tires using an air gun, while most crews were using old school lug wrenches.

All in all, it took over 6 and a half hours to run the first 500 mile race and it was not won by the fastest car. The winner, Johnny Mantz, a former open wheel racer, won the race driving an economical six cylinder Plymouth - a car that qualified 9 mph slower than the pole sitter. Mantz had an ace up his sleeve so to speak. While he was literally the slowest car on track, he never once came into the pits, other than for fuel. While the faster, more powerful cars spent valuable time in the pits changing tires dozens of times over...the little Plymouth was quietly running truck tires. A harder compound which was much more durable than that of regular passenger car tires everyone else ran.

A Dawsonville driver or team would not return home as a winner. In fact, it would be until 1985 before a Dawsonville driver would take victory at the track known as "Too Tough to Tame".

The Parks' Novelty Cadillac driven by Red Byron would finish 3rd in the first Southern 500, 10 laps behind. While the $2,000 payday was great for the time, it still stung because of what won the race. It also stung as Byron was originally scored second, but was bumped back another spot after a protest from Fireball Roberts. The difference was worth $1500.  On paper, a Plymouth should not have beaten a Cadillac. It was a true blue version of 'The Tortoise and the Hare'. 

Sosebee on the other hand would be wrote into the history books as leading the first ever laps on a paved Superspeedway in Nascar. He would finish 17th and only pocket $290. You can see that very tire that started on the #51 Oldsmobile that day on display today in the Dawsonville Pool Room.

Hall of Famer, Raymond Parks jumped into action to help pit the car bearing his name. Notice that he was using an air wrench, in 1950!

Photo Courtesy of Peach State Speed Archives