Darlington's Place in Racing Secure (For Now)

Hank EptonCorrespondent IMay 7, 2010

It’s a little place tucked in the northeastern part of the state.  A rest stop on the way to Myrtle Beach filled with farmland, cattle auctions, and roadside tomato and watermelon vendors.  The city itself looks like the old south: barbecue places and hardware stores, houses with curbside pickup truck pickup to take you down two lane state roads over to Timmonsville or out to Conway.  It also looks like old NASCAR when you jump off I-20 near its intersection with I-95.   Of course, when they built the place the interstates weren’t there.

Harold Brasington opened Darlington in 1950.  He had to make some concessions during construction, taking care not to disturb Sherman Ramsey’s minnow pond behind what was then turns one and two, prompting an egg shaped design.  Since then, it has hosted NASCAR races and become the venue where the sport’s greatest seem to excel.  Its first race was won by Johnny Mantz, in a car owned by Bill France and shod with truck tires that were durable enough to handle the track’s abrasive surface.  Since then, the all-time win list there looks like it could be the Mount Rushmore of the sport:  Pearson, Earnhardt, and Gordon top its all-time win list with 10, nine, and seven wins respectively.  It’s a badge of honor to have handled the “Lady in Black”, as fewer than 10 drivers starting this weekend can claim a victory there.

Before 2003, part of the Labor Day weekend in the south was the Southern 500.  Darlington lost its Labor Day date in ’03 to California, and then lost its fall date all together a couple of years later.  21st century NASCAR seemed to lose interest in one of its traditional stops.  Imagine golf suddenly deciding that Augusta National wasn’t worthy of its spring tradition, and you’ll understand how absurd the loss of the fall race appeared to many fans.

Darlington has kept a lot of its old charm since Harold Brasington was inspired by Indianapolis to build his track.  The grandstands at the exit of turn two used to be where fans could see the race to the flag before the track was reconfigured, and the garage area still looks pretty much the same as it always has.  The speeds have climbed dramatically, but the racing has remained the same.  Enter the corner low and drift inches from the wall… finding out just how easy it is to get the “Darlington stripe”, with the paint removed from the right side of the car as it leans against the wall coming out of turn two.

Unfortunately, tradition has taken a back seat in the sport today.  Back to basics and old school racing edicts from NASCAR haven’t spilled over to protecting Darlington, one of the oldest venues on the schedule.  The Labor Day tradition has been passed from California and then to Atlanta in an attempt to at the very least put the Labor Day race back in the south.  It’s in the south all right, but it’s not the race that made Labor Day special to NASCAR fans in the Carolinas.

We all get it; NASCAR was racing too much in the Carolinas: more than a dozen times a year within a couple hundred miles from Charlotte.  It had to break out to get bigger.  But part of getting bigger has to mean bringing fans in to not only enjoy the sport, but appreciate its history.  There was lots of racing before the track building boom, and lots of amazing memories made on Labor Day weekend at the “Track Too Tough To Tame”.  Darlington, its tradition, and its fans, are NASCAR.  It’s been around longer than Daytona, longer than Charlotte, longer than Talladega, and has been a part of NASCAR for all but one of its 61-year history. 

What good is bringing new fans to the sport if the sport you give them is devoid of the things that made it great?  In many sports, the history lies with the teams.  The venues may change, but the dimensions of the field always remain the same.  In racing, the tracks mean everything.  Just as in golf, memories are made at certain times in certain spots.  Darlington is stock car racing’s hallowed ground.  Its Labor Day tradition needs to be re-introduced to a new generation of fans.  Instead of telling us that it doesn’t have the support of a large television market or the greatest creature comforts, show us how NASCAR is doing right as a custodian of its own tradition.

Next week, NASCAR pays homage to its tradition by opening its hall of fame in Charlotte.  The hope is that old fans can remember the greats, and new fans can get to know them.  Darlington IS the hall of fame of NASCAR.  We all need to learn more about it and visit it more than just one spring Saturday night a year.