The Frontstretch: Why Race Fans Love Darlington So Much by Kurt Smith -- Thursday May 6, 2010

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Why Race Fans Love Darlington So Much

Kurt Smith · Thursday May 6, 2010


You don’t often read an article from a motorsports writer or a comment from a fan suggesting that the one event per season left at the Lady in Black needs to go away. Fans may argue on whether Talladega, Pocono, or even Martinsville should remain on the schedule. But no one will disparage the Track Too Tough To Tame.

Why Darlington?

This isn’t a place with a casino or a shopping mall, which might give it a better chance at drawing the non-racing fan or the NASCAR widow who may get bored. To listen to NASCAR, you would think that this is death to the effort spent chasing the “casual” fan.

Any upgrades that have been done to the speedway haven’t had a great deal to do with fan comfort. It isn’t horrible, but as a facility it doesn’t rank with the nicer, newer places, some of which even have actual seats. There is still that uncomfortable metal bench seating at most of the track, and for 500 miles that can be rough on a behind.

Creature comforts and amenities aside, does Darlington even produce the best racing? Drivers spend most of the races at Darlington in a single-file parade, every so often slapping the wall either because the car setup isn’t quite right or because the track gobbles tires like I gobble pizzas— quickly and remorselessly.

At no other venue are track inequities so celebrated. When drivers slide around at Atlanta or when cars scrape the wall by the dozens at Charlotte, Goodyear is immediately put on the hot seat for at least two weeks. At Darlington, it’s a badge of honor for a driver to earn his “Darlington Stripe.”

Is the difficulty of navigating a racetrack something to praise about it? Pocono’s tunnel turn is one of the trickiest in the sport, but certainly many race fans wouldn’t mind seeing Pocono lose an event. Teams are still trying to figure out Atlanta with the current top-heavy racecar, which makes for either a parade or a wreckfest, but not many would call it great racing. Charlotte has been rough on drivers since the 2005 resurfacing, but the “Beast of the Southeast” nickname didn’t exactly sell that particular feature. Road course racing isn’t for the unskilled among NASCAR ranks, but many fans and writers hold their nose at the mere idea of stock cars turning right.

This isn’t to say that Darlington hasn’t produced some fantastic memories, like Burton and Gordon or Craven and Busch. Or that the racing isn’t any good; that is hardly questionable. It’s always fun to watch drivers fight with a track. They are paid enough to earn their keep occasionally.

However, it’s not as though no other track does any of these things. Individual things about Darlington Raceway don’t quite make it unique. Single file racing happens at many tracks, especially the speedways. Atlanta does an efficient job of chattering away at rubber these days. Pocono creates plenty of headaches for crew chiefs.

Nor is a strange layout anything unique. Although it might be nice to see more asymmetry in the sport, Pocono, Phoenix and Indianapolis all are shaped differently than the usual D-oval that most events take place on these days.

Darlington Raceway is antiquated, with no casinos, shopping malls, or amusement parks in sight. So why do race fans love the Track Too Tough To Tame? Kurt Smith has an idea.

Darlington Raceway isn’t near any other major attractions besides Myrtle Beach. Myrtle Beach is a nice vacation spot, but no one who lives near the Outer Banks, the Jersey Shore or the fine beaches in Delaware or Maryland needs to make a trek to enjoy the sound of ocean waves during the day and loud music at night. Certainly, people in Florida have plenty of nearby places to mix in a race with a beach vacation.

So why the dedication to the old girl?

Part of it is the snubbing of tradition by NASCAR, best illustrated by the disappearance of Darlington’s long celebrated Labor Day race, once one of the most prestigious a driver could hope to win—and to a largely unreceptive southern California market, no less. It may have been the biggest sin committed against the sport’s devotees by the France family.

NASCAR may have had to take a date from Darlington simply because it wasn’t drawing fans in a depressed economic area. That is tough to swallow but not quite unreasonable. But the one thing you knew about the Lady in Black was that people that attended races there didn’t need a casino or seats with armrests or a nearby city full of attractions to do it. Hardcore, longtime fans of any sport—the kind that show up at Darlington or Martinsville—want its leaders to respect the sport’s history, especially a half a century of racing at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, which could still easily have been done.

As we all know, disregard for history and tradition has done plenty of damage to this sport, mostly because people can’t keep following an endeavor where the marketing, rules, and venues are constantly changing, first to appeal to indifferent folks, and then to appeal to folks who became indifferent when they were made to feel insignificant.

In the midst of all of this, Darlington Raceway, like Fenway Park, sits like a rock and insistently remains what it is, as the rest of the world looks for modernization and discards special mementos the second something shinier comes along. As new and expensive facilities for every sport turn up everywhere, featuring all sorts of distractions (from a sport supposedly so beloved that hundreds of millions of dollars to build a home for it were absolutely necessary), some of the old standbys stick around. It’s no easy thing for a sports venue these days to reach the level of not needing replacing.

Very few racetracks are so one of a kind that it would be sacrilege to design anything close to it. Darlington most certainly is one. Like Fenway, anyone you have to explain this joint to isn’t going to get it.

Other tracks may have quirks of their own, but Darlington had all of its character long before Atlanta created difficulty for a top heavy car, before Bruton responded to Charlotte eating up tires by calling it the “Beast of the Southeast”, before NASCAR discovered that cars racing in big packs at Talladega created big wrecks and highlight reels. Whatever the track’s deficiencies, the Track Too Tough To Tame separates the men from the boys behind the wheel, and always has, and everyone there knows it. The Lady in Black is where cocky hot-shot attitudes go to die.

Oh, there are upgrades here and there, repaving that did have to be done and lights being installed. Even some seats have been upgraded. Fenway didn’t always have a Green Monster. But both places have, as a whole, endured through years of radical changes in sports and in society, with their quirky and unique on field products that emerged from necessity changing very little.

Since many NASCAR fans were young wide-eyed children, they could attend a race at Darlington Raceway and know that they were going to see great racing. Not a casino. Not a shopping mall. Probably not a multiple car wreck. Just the best drivers and crews that motorsport has to offer battling both a track and each other. Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Tony Stewart all try to charm the Lady in Black today, just like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and David Pearson many years ago.

Maybe it’s just all been clever marketing, but even if it is, the Darlington people thought of it first.

Contact Kurt Smith

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Bad Wolf
05/07/2010 12:26 AM

Nothing like Darlington back in the day when they ran bias plies and the smoke would be rolling off the tires as they came out of the turns.

05/07/2010 07:54 AM

Actually, a race at Darlington that was televised on the old “Wide World Of Sports” two weeks after it was run was what started my love affair with NASCAR, an affair that has been a struggle for the last couple of years. It was, of all things, a convertible race ran on May 6th, 1961. Fred Lorenzen and Curtis Turner in Ford Galaxies and Fireball Roberts in a Pontiac Catalina beating and banging on each other! Roberts dropped out and left it between Lorenzen and Turner to duke it out! Lorenzen won and became my first hero! I was 6-years-old! It was so magical back then! Too, I was at the last Labour Day Weekend running of the true Southern 500 in 2003! My only regret from that weekend was not being able to get one of the tee shirts that said “California Sucks! Darlington Is THE Labor Day Tradition!” I guess I’m very old school! Which, according to DansMom, and Brian France, is the type of fan that should just go away! And slowly, we are! NASCAR has changed a lot since those days of dirt tracks, 50-race schedules, stock cars that looked like street cars, cars sponsored by some local car dealership, The Rock, Trenton with it’s dog-leg backstretch, I could go on and on! Yes, she’s (DansMom), is right, we the old school fans are dinosaurs, and Brian France is driving us away! But, at least we were there when the sport was worth watching, and have the memories! Not like the Spec-car garbage the new occasional fans are stuck with today!

Don Mei
05/07/2010 09:15 AM

The problem with us “old school” fans is that when we go away, the ones who replace us will last a few years bfore moving on to the next “in Thing” in motorsports. Molten Lava Motocross maybe??

05/07/2010 11:17 AM

Darlington is where the crossover came into being in turn three . I remember a great display by Earnhardt being passed on the backstretch by Irvan , and then diving back under him going into three . That went on for a number of laps .
There are a number of ways to get around Darlington , and it’s always great watching the different lines drivers use . The place has a personality , unlike the 1.5 mile clone that took over the Labor Day race .

The Mad Man
05/07/2010 12:03 PM

NASCAR figures the average fan last about 6 years. Us old fans, and I do mean old, have been following the sport for 30-50 years, depending on when we first came on board. In my case, 1963. We’ve outlived the “life expectancy” 5 times or more over. We’ve seen it go from actual stock cars, to stock looking cars, to template racers, to the generic car we have today. We’ve seen drivers go from rough and tumble guys like Turner and Weatherly to the prim and proper Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. We’ve also seen some of the greatest racing there ever was. Rockingham with Cale going over the wall, North Wilkesboro with Junior Johnson going through the wooden fence and re-entering the track, the Pearson-Petty battles, and races on tracks that no longer exist. Drivers racing 2-4 times a week all over the place. Drivers who actually worked on their own cars. Drivers actually helping each other out with money, parts, and even rides for no other reason than to help them win a championship or just to see them on the track competing against them and I do mean competing. They can’t take these memories away from us and even though the “In Crowd” and the Short Attention Span crowd have come and gone several times, they’ll never know the joys, thrills, headaches, and heartaches us older fans have experienced.

05/07/2010 03:07 PM

Haters unite!

Notice the time stamp of the post:

3/4ths of Saturday’s race will be a single file parade. A few cars scraping the wall, a few solo car wrecks.

Then the last 50 laps will be an all out wreckfest, cars trying to go3 and 4 wide in teh turns…

Sounds pretty awful to me.

05/07/2010 03:40 PM

Only thing i noticed about the time stamp is the fact that you must be the only person left in the nascar marketing dept., for that matter in the whole nascar office building . It’s Friday afternoon , nobody comes back from lunch in that building on Fridays .

By haters unite , were you refering to haters of DansMom ?

05/08/2010 01:04 AM

I’ve attended races at Daytona, Michigan, Kentucky, Bristol, Indy, Charlotte, and Darlington and to me none of those were as enjoyable as Darlington. The drivers still have to drive the cars at the track and they have to setup their passes because with that little loss in momentum from a failed pass could mean instead of gaining one spot you lose two. Guys drive down hard into turn one or turn three and slide up and allow crossover moves. It’s truly an exciting race to attend. I wish I would have waited and attended Darlington again this year instead of going to the Daytona 500. The only race I have attended that was even close to being as exciting was the night race at Bristol but I still prefer Darlington. It to me is really one of the last tracks left that separates the men from the boys. Think about it how many drivers have got their first win at Darlington? When you read through the list of winners it’s a list of who’s who in the sport. Pearson, Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, Elliott have all had a lot of success at this place. If this is a track that you’ve never been to I recommend you definitely trying to make one trip there in your lifetime, you really feel the history of the place as soon as you walk out and see the track the first time.

Contact Kurt Smith