Chasing history down U.S. Highway 1

April, 1, 2009
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Just got home from a lovely day trip into the past two centuries.

Destination was the 20th century, down in Darlington, S.C., home of NASCAR's first big track -- and to this day its most difficult.

We were shooting some TV advance material for ESPN at hallowed Darlington Raceway with its all-time maestro driver, David Pearson, and the man I think resuscitated the Lady in Black from her deathbed in the 1990s, Jim Hunter.

To get there from here, you drive through several glimpses of the 19th century, down U.S. Highway 1, for which the path through the Carolinas was originally cleared for another purpose -- Sherman's army marching 60,000 strong, felling forests as it came.

This was the second leg of their trip, the first being their more famous March to the Sea, from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga. Once rested at Savannah, Sherman turned to the north, wreaking vastly worse wrath than he had in Georgia, for as one of his soldiers said upon setting foot in South Carolina, "Here treason began, and here, by God, it shall end."

Somehow the western edge of his army barely missed the town of Cheraw, S.C., and as you drive through today, if there were no power lines or automobiles, it could just as easily be the spring of 1842, the year St. Peter's Catholic Church was established -- the old wooden church stands now, little changed from then.

My all-time favorite observation about the Carolinas was from the eloquent Charlotte Observer columnist Ron Green Sr., who once told me, "The Mason-Dixon Line should have been drawn between North and South Carolina."

That's how different they are. Their populations even have very different Southern accents.

Crossing the state line headed south, you're not only entering a different state but almost a different region, and the pace of life slows down by half.

The very border is a demarcation line between the pre-spring buds of North Carolina and the blooming, pollen-misted spring of South Carolina.

And there is the deeply traditional challenge of passing through Society Hill, S.C., without running afoul of the law.

It's the Eastern Seaboard's most notorious and longest-running speed trap, where, as far as I've been able to tell through the decades, every male citizen is a town policeman sitting in a patrol car with his radar pulsing.

Past Society Hill you're home free down to Darlington, and there we met -- Hunter and Pearson and me, and an ESPN crew led by producer Bonnie Larkin -- to sit on the dock at Walter McKnight's house, overlooking the lake and across to the Pearson Grandstands.

We talked for a good two hours on camera, and I haven't laughed that hard, that long, in years. What did we talk about? I can't tell you yet. It would spoil the fun of the feature pieces that will air on "NASCAR Now" the week, and the day, of the Southern 500, May 9.

Suffice it to say there's a lot of Hunter, who managed old Darlington from 1992 to 2000 and brought it back from dilapidation to dignity, talking about the history of the place.

And there's a lot of Pearson, telling the secrets of how he won 10 races, more than anyone else, on the Lady in Black & and precisely why he would barely turn the steering wheel coming off corners where drivers such as Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty would saw and yank on their steering wheels for dear life.

Pearson always looked like he was driving down an interstate, and I always wondered how he could do that, and today he finally told me. Just another case of legerdemain by the Silver Fox that no one could guess for decades.

Couldn't leave Darlington without stopping by the Raceway Grill, home of the best hamburger steak (smothered in onions and melted cheese) in the Eastern time zone. And french fries cut from fresh potatoes.

Which left me drowsy for the drive back north, up the way Sherman's army had come, and just at the state line I stopped and read the historical marker for the exact dates. They crossed into North Carolina on March 4-7, 1865.

Three days to cross the state line. That must have been some army.

The immortal Kurt Vonnegut Jr. admonished us all, in the last book of his life, to remember the times that we are truly, sublimely happy, for when you think about it, those times are relatively few in anyone's lifetime.

Today was one of those times.



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