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Speed wins at Darlington, pays tribute to Dieringer


- Contributor
Thursday, May. 10, 2012

It was a triumph that brought tears to the eyes of even some of NASCAR’s most jaded fans.

On March 27, 1988, doughty, determined little Lake Speed swept to a first Cup Series victory by taking a wreck-riddled TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Speed, then 40, flashed to the finish line a comfortable 19 seconds ahead of runner-up Alan Kulwicki, who also was seeking a first Cup win. Speed led 179 of the 367 laps on the 1.366-mile track, including the last 49, in an Olds prepared by crew chief Darrell Bryant and engine-builder J.E. Beard.

That dramatic race of 24 years ago, after which Speed poignantly paid tribute to his seriously ill mentor, Darel Dieringer, returns to mind as the present day teams gather at the historic South Carolina track for Saturday night’s running of the Bojangles Southern 500.

"A lot of people are involved in this happening, " Speed, himself in tears, said in Victory Lane. "It's not just me.

"In my case, faith in the Lord brought me through. If it hadn't been for that in '86 and '87, I'd have packed it in and gone back home to Mississippi."

It took the diminutive Speed, a former six-time national go-kart champion and the only American to win that form of racing’s world title, eight years, 164 races and almost 80,000 miles of competition to score in NASCAR. His best previous finishes were second twice - in the Goodwrench 500 earlier in the month at N.C. Motor Speedway and in the Daytona 500 of 1985.

Davey Allison took third place in his Ford and was the only other driver in the lead lap. Following a lap down came Ford's Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin's Olds. Marlin was in a stirring battle with Allison for third before running out of gas with two laps left.

Finishing six through 10 were Mark Martin, Geoff Bodine, Phil Parsons, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker. Pre-race favorite Dale Earnhardt ran into tire problems and then into one of the wrecks and wound up 11th.

Throughout his career, Speed had run well at Darlington, but accidents or mechanical failures always seemed to keep him from winning.

That almost happened again Sunday on Lap 17 when pole winner Ken Schrader's Chevrolet slipped sideways in Turn 3, triggering a multicar crash involving contenders Harry Gant, Rick Wilson, Darrell Waltrip, Bodine, Terry Labonte and Morgan Shepherd.

"I saw Schrader start to slide and Rick go with him, " said Speed. "In my mind, I had Wilson set up to pass. Then, all of a sudden, I was getting ready to jam on the brakes. But a hole opened. I got on the throttle and shot through it. In the past, wrecks like that got me."

Although still early, that was the second major incident of the race. The first came on Lap 5 when the engine in Kyle Petty's Ford failed, spewing a thick plume of smoke as he entered Turn 1. Blinded, trailing drivers tangled and the cars of Ernie Irvan, Benny Parsons, Bobby Hillin, Michael Waltrip, Greg Sacks, Richard Petty and Neil Bonnett went spinning.

Richard Petty got the worst of it, slamming into the first- turn wall and heavily damaging his Pontiac. No one was injured in either wreck.

After those accidents, Bodine, Martin and Davey Allison emerged to lead long stretches, with Speed never far off their pace. Bodine led 61 laps, Martin was in front 59 and Allison 42.

Speed took the lead for the first time on Lap 170, and from that point it obviously was his race if nothing happened.

A third crash involving several cars - Bodine, Bonnett, Earnhardt and Buddy Arrington - occurred on Lap 239 in Turn 4. Arrington's Ford slammed into the inner concrete wall, and he was taken to a Florence hospital complaining of chest and neck pains. However, X rays were negative, and Arrington was released.

Runnerup Kulwicki said his hopes of chasing down winner Speed were diminished by a blind spot in what then was the first turn. After the track was reconfigured, it is now the third turn.

"You absolutely couldn't see going into that corner during the last 100 laps, " said Kulwicki. "The windshield becomes so sandblasted here that when the sun starts setting behind the first turn, it becomes impossible to see. You just drive on instinct, hope that's enough, and say ‘Well, I didn't hit the wall that time' every lap that you make it.

"I'm not making excuses. Lake ran good, and he deserved to win. I really congratulate him. But our day is certainly coming."

Speed agreed it was tough in the first turn in the late stages. "You just hope the feel of the track will help you make it through there, " he said. "I tried to look out the right side window at the rim of the wall to sort of see where I am.”

Speed's deepest thoughts during his winner’s interview in the press box were of old- time race driver Dieringer, who aided and encouraged him early in his career.

"I wish Darel could have been here, " said Speed, son of a former mayor of Jackson, Miss. "I hope he was well enough to at least watch the race on TV. If he was watching, I know he was riding with me."

Charlottean Dieringer, a top NASCAR competitor in the 1960s and a Darlington winner in the 1966 Southern 500, was suffering with cancer. The disease took his life on Oct. 28, 1989.

Dieringer was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame, largely on the basis of his courageous testing when Goodyear was developing an inner-liner to lessen the impact of blowouts in its tires.

Speed credited Dieringer with helping him break into stock car racing in 1980 after his a 19-year go-kart career that produced the world championship at LeMans in 1978.

"Darel taught me a lot, and I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him, " Speed said. "I remember him bringing me to Darlington for the first time to practice. We drove through that gate right there, and I said to myself, ‘You've got to be kidding.' The track in the turns looked about as wide as a sidewalk. I saw right away why they nicknamed it ‘The Track Too Tough To Tame.’

"Darel started telling me about this place's history and it's prestige, and I was awed. I was determined to master it someday."

Speed, an owner/driver with only 11 employees on his team, also praised them.

"The guys on my crew, led by Darrell Bryant, have done a tremendous job under a pressure situation, " he said. "We're a small group compared to the other teams.

“ I think a lot of praying helped keep me in this sport. I had no ride and no prospects. I saw the only way for me to have a competitive car was to own it myself."

Speed conceded he could hardly make himself look at the scoreboard as the laps wound down and he continued to pull away from Kulwicki.

"The last time I looked was about Lap 300, " said Speed, who averaged 131.289 mph despite 40 laps of caution. "I sort of sensed when about 20 laps were left. My biggest fear then was that a caution flag would come out. So many variables can come into play when a bunch of cars are lined up real close for a restart. Anything can happen.

"For my first win to happen here is very special, in part because of how special I know this place is to Darel Dieringer and what me winning will mean to him."

The triumph at Darlington almost a quarter-century ago was to prove the only victory of Speed’s career. He retired in 1998 after compiling 402 starts on NASCAR’s major circuit.

Speed who has been inducted into Karting’s hall of Fame and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, resides in Kannapolis, N.C., and occasionally takes part in historic kart events.

He fondly recalls the day he dominated at Darlington, producing some of the warmest, most touching memories ever at the speedway dating to 1950 and NASCAR’s earliest era.

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