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Tom Kirkland

Fonty Flock, one of three racing Flock brothers was always known as a jokester

1956 Southern 500 winner Curtis Turner takes a minute to clean his face and enjoy a cold refreshment following a long hot afternoon at Darlington

The starting lineup for the 1957 Rebel 300 Convertible Series race at Darlington Raceway. Although NASCAR officially discontinued the Convertible Series in 1959, Darlington continued to run the cars as the “Rebel 300” until 1962

Tom Kirkland had grown up in Florence and served in World War II. As he tells it today, “Even in the Army during the 1940s, I had a love of two things, photography and auto racing, and when I got out I decided to put the two of them together.” When Darlington Raceway presented its inaugural Southern 500 in 1950 Tom Kirkland was there. In fact Tom began documenting Darlington when it was nothing more than a dusty patch of land being cleared by track owner Harold Brasington.

It was an easy thing for Kirkland to drive down the road a piece and watch Brasington’s crews moving earth, which he did, and captured on film. He was at the first Southern 500, and at all the rest through 1967. He is also a photographic innovator. In the early days, like a lot of news and sports photographers, Kirkland employed a Speed Graphic camera that created 4 x 5-inch negatives. He then switched to an early Rollei reflex camera, the kind with two lenses, one above the other, using 2.5-inch film. That still left him hobbled when it came to capturing motion in stop-action style, so Kirkland got two more Rolleis and mounted all three on a boom, so he could trigger them in sequence when a crash, for example, took place. He was among the first to use the now-standard single-lens reflex camera with 35mm film, a risky step since the camera’s creator, Praktica, was located in then-East Germany and not widely found in the United States.

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Kirkland is the last surviving photographer who can trace his work to Darlington’s earliest days. With Darlington somewhat diminished, though still defiantly Southern, his images are enduring counterparts to today’s surgically scrubbed NASCAR doings. “The truth is,” he declares, “that if Darlington, the race track, had never existed, NASCAR would have never been what it is now. The races at Darlington pulled NASCAR out of the gutter.”

Driver Johnny Mantz enjoys a smoke and a kiss after winning the inaugural 1950 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

Darlington Track President Harold Brasington (far left) listens as NASCAR President Bill France Sr. (second from right) reviews plans for the new Darlington Raceway

Driver Eddie Pagan crashes violently through the guardrail and Darlington Raceway during the 1958 Southern 500. Although it looks spectacular Pagan received only minor scrapes in the crash.