DAWSONVILLE - From the first race on Labor Day of 1950, the Georgia Gang has played a big role in the happenings in the famed Southern 500, held annually at the Darlington Raceway in Darlington, SC.
Look, for example, at the first running of the event. Seventeen of the starters were from the Peach State, including Red Byron, Tim Flock, Weldon Adams, Gober Sosebee, Bob Flock, Fonty Flock, Jack Smith, Hub McBride, Slick Smith, Billy Carden, Harold Kite, Jesse James Taylor, Carson Dyer, Charles Tidwell, Tex Keene, Jack Carr and Roscoe Thompson. Of these 17, seven have gone on to be inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.
Byron turned in the best finish of the Georgia Gang, placing third in his Raymond Parks owned 1950 Cadillac after his crew, including Mr. Parks, changed dozens of tires during the 500 mile grind.
Speaking of which, one of the tires that took the opening laps on Gober Sosebee's car remains on display at Gordon Pirkle's Dawsonville Pool Room.
The next year, Hall of Famer Frank "Rebel" Mundy would put his 1951 Studebaker on the pole. Unfortunately, his car would only hold together for the first 12 laps before sidelined with oil pressure issues. Fellow Georgian Jesse James Taylor would place second in his '51 Hudson, one lap down to winner Herb Thomas.
The Georgia Gang's first big moment at Darlington would come in 1952, as fan favorite Fonty Flock topped all comers, piloting his Frank Christian owned Olds to the victory. Fonty was a famous joker, and won the race while dressed coolly in a keen pair of Bermuda shorts.
From there, it was a bit of dry spell for racers from the Peach State. Fonty sat on the pole in 1953, but finished second to Buck Baker. In 1955, NASCAR Hall of Famer Tim Flock, Fonty's brother, missed in one of his best chances to win at Darlington. Piloting his Carl Kiekhaefer owned Chrysler from the sixth starting spot, Tim would finish third, trailing winner Herb Thomas and second place Jim Reed.
In 1958, the Georgia Gang returned to victory lane again in the Southern 500, but this time it was with a cool Florida driver behind the wheel.
After starting from the outside pole, Fireball Roberts, of Daytona Beach, Florida, drove a 1957 Chevy built by Hawkinsville, GA's Paul McDuffie to the victory, leading 196 laps and besting second place Buck Baker by a five lap margin.
It was the first of two Southern 500 victories for a man who would become one of the biggest stars in American automobile racing, and this year was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
It looked like another Georgia Gang member would pick up a Southern 500 trophy in 1960, when Rex White was flagged the winner after leader Buck Baker lost a tire, sending him spinning. While Baker struggled around to finish, White was shown the checkered flag.
A recheck of scoring showed that Baker had actually finished ahead of White, giving him the win.
It was still a Georgia victory of sorts, as Baker was driving a Pontiac for Roswell's Jack Smith in the event.
From there, it was the start of a long dry spell for the Georgia Gang at Darlington. There were, however, a couple of memorable occurrences that featured Columbus, GA's Sam McQuagg.
The first came during the 1965 running of the Labor Day classic. McQuagg, who was then a rookie piloting the Betty Lilly owned #24 Ford, found himself leading around the 118th lap when a young driver from nearby Timmonsville, SC named Cale Yarborough decided he wanted to lead.
The two cars tangled going into the first turn, sending Yarborough's car airborne and over the guardrail, while McQuagg's car spun to the inside with heavy damage. Yarborough's car rolled over several times before coming to rest in the parking lot. Neither driver was injured. The incident was caught by the film cameras of ABC's Wide World of Sports, and would be used for several years during the famous sport show's opening credits.
Two years later, McQuagg would again make the Southern 500 highlight reels. Piloting a slope-backed Dodge Charger for Cotton Owens, McQuagg was jockeying for position with Dick Hutcherson on the 81st lap when the cars tangled. McQuagg's number 6 hit the concrete retaining wall, and flipped side-over-side around eight times before coming to rest in the first turn.
McQuagg climbed out of the car and made his way to the inside guardrail, where he collapsed. He later said he had no memory of what went on in the accident.
Other than McQuagg's acrobatics, there wasn't a lot for the Georgia Gang to holler about when it came to the Southern 500 over the next dozen or so years. Occasionally a Peach State driver would run well, but for the most part, it seemed that Georgia drivers didn't have much to show at the track called "Too Tough Too Tame."
But then came a young redhead from a little town north of Atlanta, and that all changed.
Bill Elliott showed signs that Darlington was his kind of track early on. In his first try at the Southern 500 in 1977, he finished 10th driving a Ford owned by his father. One year later, in 1978, he bettered that effort, finishing sixth in a family owned Mercury. In 1979, only NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson stood between Elliott and a win in the Southern 500, as the Georgian finished second, two laps down to the all-time Darlington winner.
Over the next few years, Elliott would continue to put together strong runs at Darlington, including another runner-up finish in 1983 to Bobby Allison.
But in 1985, it all came together for Bill Elliott in the Southern 500 in a big way.
After foreshadowing his run at Darlington with a win in the spring race, Elliott defied the odds and made history on Sept. 1, when he piloted his Coors sponsored number 9 Ford to the win in the Southern 500, holding off a hard charging Cale Yarborough, who was manhandling his Hardees sponsored Ford around the tough track with no power steering.
Elliott had won the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 earlier in the year, and the Southern 500 win gave him a million dollar bonus from Winston in its first year of availability.
On that day, Elliott became one of the best known members of the Georgia Gang, and earned the nickname "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville."
Elliott would go on to record a total of four Southern 500 victories and five overall Darlington wins to make him the most successful Georgian at the speedway.
Now, with the latest Southern 500 ahead of us, the question again looms. Which member of the Georgia Gang will be the next to write their page in history at Darlington?
WDUN will have live coverage from MRN Radio of this weekend's NASCAR action from Darlington Raceway beginning with Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series Help a Hero 200 beginning at 7:30 pm on 102.9 FM and 550 AM, and carrying on to Saturday night's Bojangles Southern 500 beginning at 5:30 pm on 102.9 FM and 550 AM.