Howard Cosell – Eyewitness To Tragedy
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The inaugural Southern 500 was held in 1950 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and both local and national media were on hand to cover the event.
Space at the new speedway had always been at a premium. After only two years track President Bob Colvin soon realized he needed to limit the number of radio stations at the track without limiting the coverage and race promotion each provided. His plan was to award coverage rights to one station.
Local radio station employee Erv Melton soon got wind of Colvin’s plan and urged WJMX owner Paul Benson to pursue this new opportunity. Erv was the station’s resident news hound and was well known around the Florence, S.C., area for his eye-catching station wagon adorned with antennas on all four corners. He had a knack for always knowing what was going on in and around the Darlington area.
At first Benson resisted the idea but after Melton’s continual urgings he finally offered WJMX for consideration. In 1952 Colvin granted exclusive broadcast rights to all events at the Darlington to WJMX. The newly created Darlington Raceway Radio Network would be the first dedicated radio network to carry NASCAR racing into the homes of race fans throughout the country.
In return for this exclusivity Benson would split all broadcast profits with the track and provide those initial competing radio stations a feed of the broadcast free of charge. While other stations could set up and broadcast before and after the event actual race coverage would be supplied by WJMX.
As coverage of the races increased Benson would occasionally bring in nationally known personalities to add appeal and marketability to the network broadcasts. One such person was veteran broadcaster and eventual cult hero Howard Cosell. In 1960 Cosell was part of the ABC radio family and hosted a program called Speaking of Sports.
Paul Benson was extremely proud to have Cosell’s participation in the broadcast as noted in the network promotional flyer from 1960. “Howard Cosell, ABC’s top Sports man will join the regular crew of veteran announcers this year. Widely known for his ‘Speaking of Sports’ (radio program) Howard will add much color to our 1960 broadcast.”
Cosell flew into Florence and was greeted at the airport by Benson, engineer Frank Jenne and lead announcer Dave Rogers. They escorted Cosell to a ‘chicken bog,’ an annual media dinner held on Sunday night prior the Labor Day race. The event was located in a tent just outside the first turn of the speedway. In attendance were media members, track officials, drivers and invited celebrities. Most people under the tent never even took notice of the “radio guy from New York.” Cosell had yet to achieve the celebrity status he would enjoy later in his career.
One person that did take notice of Cosell was the young son of Benson.
“He was such a great storyteller and he really captivated me,” recalled Paul Benson III. “My dad invited him to the house for dinner and he was such an interesting man. He really surprised me with how much he knew about all sports including racing.”