By Gray Bostick
Regardless the endeavor, there can only be one “First,” one “original pioneer,” a single individual or action that breaks the ice and sets the stage for more to follow, for the future to happen.
And when the dreams and visions that we as humans have the capacity to share our passion for — and the stars — align, sometimes like-minded and determined individuals get together and a tradition truly timeless in nature is set in motion.
Such was the case in 1933 when Harold Brasington Sr., enthralled and enthused by the growing new sport of Auto Racing, decided, after a visit to attend the Indy 500, to convert a row-crop, farm-field in rural Darlington, South Carolina into the South’s first Superspeedway. And rather than the folly some considered it to be over the ensuing years, instead it became fabled, known even today ever more widely as one of the most iconic and challenging tracks on the NASCAR circuit, and recognized by the single mention of “Darlington” throughout the world.
But it takes racers to make a race, and a key component to Darlington’s early success was shared commitment and determination to seeing Brasington’s idea come to fruition, and none more so than Bobby Griffin, of the local Griffin Motors Oldsmobile dealership, who so believed in the growing sport and the local track that he was the signer of Entry #1 for that inaugural Southern 500. Then had noted painter Francis Hainey hand-number and letter his car to advertise the race, and spent weeks traveling the state using the brightly painted stock race car as a rolling billboard promoting the upcoming event. He also later went on to serve on the track’s Board of Directors and help guide it through its early growth.
But commitment to a purpose was nothing new to Bobby Griffin, a U.S. Army vet who served in WW II in the European Theatre under Patton, fighting in the ferocious Battle of the Bulge and earning a battlefield commission during a particularly vicious Christmas Day engagement during the Battle of the Ardennes. And if his commitment was ever in doubt, it only needs be noted that he was a German POW not once, but TWICE. There was no “quit” in Lt. Robert Griffin, as four Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and numerous other military medals and recognitions can attest. And that commitment carried forward post-war as he served as State Commander of the South Carolina VFW for a time and was consistently active in state and local VFW and Veteran-related events and efforts.
The First Entry was a Chariot Red w/Canto Cream Top 1950 Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” Club Coupe, powered by an Olds Rocket V-8 303 C.I., locally ordered by and prepped at the Griffin Motor Company dealership in Florence — whose old dealership building was, coincidentally, recently added to the National Registry of Historic Places. It was driven by future NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker, who qualified 28th at a speed of 74.301 MPH for the race — in a field of what eventually grew to 75 cars! Ironically, the First Entry and ol’ Buck shared another less illustrious first, that of being involved in the first crash in Southern 500 history when he hit a spinning car on Lap 176.
The First Entry Replica has been re-created to match in every way possible the original equipment, power plant, and materials used during the original car’s days of thunder on the track, right down to matching paint colors and era-correct decaling, with the only exceptions made out of consideration for safety or modern reliability and efficiency.
One-of-a-kinds are just that: uniquely incomparable. Without peer or parallel. And this car represents the very beginnings of the legend of “The Lady in Black” and “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” a tradition that seems to have become even more beloved and embraced over the past decade, and a tradition set to grow, generation-to-generation. And with nostalgia all the rage and Darlington now known as the “Throwback Track,” where special old-school paint schemes and wardrobes are celebrated, a legend certain to grow larger and ever dearer to our aging hearts.