The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Appreciating The Lady in Black by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 7, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Appreciating The Lady in Black

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 7, 2009


This week, the Cup circuit heads to Darlington, South Carolina for what will regrettably be its only stop at the “Track Too Tough To Tame” this season. Even given the awkward eve of Mother’s Day race date that no other track ever wanted, the fact they’ll be racing there this weekend still makes my heart rejoice. For even if you’ve read my output for just a few months, it should be painfully obvious to you by now that Darlington is my favorite track on the circuit.

Some folks can’t understand my passion for this place. They tell me it’s a single groove race track that’s worn out, its time has passed, and it is located a million miles from nowhere. They seem to think those are “issues;” but to me, that’s part of the charm. By and large, fans who don’t “get” Darlington tend to be newer to the sport and have never made the trip to the Lady In Black. If all Arabs should visit Mecca once in their lifetime, any true stock car racing fan should go to Darlington at least once before they die. If you’ve never been there and have no plans to go … shame on you.

Others continue to insist that my dedication to Darlington is due to regionalism. One more time, folks, I was indeed born deep in the heart of the South…of Jersey, and I’ve lived in the Northeast most of my life. I’m from Chester County. Think Amish buggies, horse farms, and winding sun-dappled country back roads carved out by beneficent glaciers for the enjoyment of current day Harley riders. For those of you west of the Mississippi in culturally-impoverished burgs like L.A. who might not have taken your geography studies to heart, it’s a real long ride from Lancaster to Darlington. I don’t live there; but Lord willing, I will when I retire.

When walking onto Darlington Raceway property, you know you are walking on sacred grounds.

So, what lies behind my fascination and passion for this track? First off, it’s location, location, location. As you roll from Charlotte to Darlington (watching your speed, as race weekend is seen by local and South Carolina State police as prime revenue hunting season), you’ll go back in time, through dying mill towns, cotton fields, and any number of small towns that are still lost in the ’60s. There are places small enough where, after the races, people set up lawn chairs in filling station parking lots just to watch the big NASCAR teams’ transporters roll home to Charlotte in impromptu block parties. (Hell, there are towns small enough after Sunday services for get togethers just to watch the local cops ticket out-of-towners.) You’ll pass stately old antebellum towns that could double as Mayberry RFD. You’ll pass through groves of scrub pines in the sandy soil of the Sand Hills. As you get closer to the track on 151, you’ll see a collection of stately old Victorian homes with gliders and rockers on their wraparound porches, stately shade trees in the backyard, and gleaming American iron in the driveway. On Saturday morning, many men folk will be out there washing their trucks with a garden hose in the driveway. For one weekend, at least, the outside world that largely ignores its existence focuses its attention on the Darlington area — and appearances must be kept up, after all.

The people in this region are among the nicest I have dealt with in my travels — almost too polite, to the point of being courtly. If you need directions or you need a hand, they will always lend one. I can’t even remember how many times I had to ask for directions on my first trip to Darlington; but in every instance, I was offered assistance with a smile. It was just a matter of breaching the language difference between those who spoke Southern and myself — who spoke Yankee, and had yet to get a conceptual grasp on just how far a distance “a ways down” actually was. When I got a flat on my motorcycle on race morning one time, I was offered capable assistance and tools by a gentleman old enough to be my grandfather, a man who went the extra mile to call a friend who owned the local parts house to open up on Sunday morning and get me the inner tube I needed. It wound up getting delivered free of charge; and even though I offered a 20 as a tip, the men inevitably turned it down.

Even the harried convenience store clerks on the main drags to the track will take the time to smile, wish you a nice day and, in most instances, address you as “sir” even if you are a long-haired Yankee kid in a tie-dye Dead tour T-shirt. Their manners don’t come across as cynical or an affectation, but rather the sort of conduct required by the faith that is the bedrock of most of their lives.

Then, there’s the track itself. You walk onto this speedway and are immediately struck by the fact you are walking on sacred ground. All the great ones, from Junior Johnson to Jimmie Johnson, from the Flock brothers to the Busch brothers, from local native Cale Yarborough to Juan Pablo Montoya, from David Pearson to David Green, from Cecil Gordon to Jeff Gordon and three generations of Pettys and Earnhardts have raced here. They’ve raced on a track with a notoriously abrasive surface and unforgiving corners, not to mention the normal brutal heat of Labor Day weekend — a race that proved a true test of both man and machine. There’s no question every driver who has managed a win at Darlington counts it as one of the crowning achievements of their lives.

Like the old saying goes, here you race the race track, not the other racers — and the Lady in Black is notoriously unforgiving to those who get sloppy. Even the best in the business will earn their Darlington stripes getting up off of what is now turn 2. Richard Petty won seven Daytona 500s, but just one Southern 500. You want to see that standard Petty smile turn to a thousand watts? Ask the King about his lone ’67 Southern 500 victory.

For newer fans who might need a primer in the sport’s history, I highly recommend a trip to the Joe Weatherly Museum on the grounds of the track. There, you’ll see cars from the earliest days to more modern mounts. Take a look at those cars of yesteryear and be amazed at what you see — drivers with balls of solid brass wheeled them around Darlington at incredible speeds for the era on the circuit’s original superspeedway. These were indeed “stock” cars, not unlike what you might find sitting on the street outside the track. The Plymouth that Johnny Mantz wheeled to victory in the first Southern 500 had, in fact, been used earlier in the week to drive around on the public roads by none other than Bill France, Sr. while he was hanging posters to promote the race.

Make no mistake about it, the Lady in Black is not an entirely affectionate nickname, or it wasn’t when it was coined. Cale Yarbrorough took a wild, out of the park ride into the parking lot here in 1965, back when only a flimsy guardrail separated the race track from the outside world. Richard Petty took a terrifying tumble here in 1970 down across pit wall, just as ABC’s Wide World of Sports joined the action live. The King’s head and arm could be seen exiting the car as it rolled, leading to the adoption of the window nets that are still standard issue in stock cars today. Even looking at Bill Elliott’s history-making 1985 Thunderbird, it’s hard not to note how relatively crude and homemade the car looks as he took the checkered flag for the Winston Million. That’s appropriate for a Darlington winner — Bill and his brothers built it in a family-owned shop that would shame even most Truck Series teams today.

Yes, there have been some terrible races at Darlington. Ned Jarrett won here by 14 laps in 1965, thanks in large part to that year’s Chrysler boycott of NASCAR. Mantz also won here by 15 laps in that first Southern 500, perhaps the only race with tire attrition worse than last year’s Brickyard 400.

But there have been some classic races at Darlington, too, too many for me to recount here in the space allotted me. (And one day, I’ll get the FS editors to allow me to rerun my seven piece history on the Southern 500… I promise… I hope.) There was the aforementioned ’85 Southern 500, when Bill Elliott became “Million Dollar Bill” and helped put stock car racing on the map outside of the Deep South. The single day payday was unheard of in auto racing in the era, and might have been the most brilliant marketing campaign of the late T. Wayne Roberts’ storied career. I remember watching in awe as Tim Richmond ran down Bill Elliott in the fading twilight on a rain slick track at the end of the 1987 Southern 500, sideways in every corner. To this day, that single race win has me convinced that nobody, nobody ever had the same car control that Tim did. And that’s from a guy in the grandstands wearing a Bill Elliott T-Shirt that stood up and cheered with the rest when Tim took the lead on lap 362. More recently, Ricky Craven held off Kurt Busch in a fender banging, tire smoking, drag race out of turn four by a mere .002 seconds in 2003, in what I remain convinced was the greatest race of the FOX TV era.

In the end, Darlington doesn’t need me to defend her. The Lady in Black has earned a spot in this sport’s history that is beyond attack or even civil debate. To paraphrase Stephen King, anyone who dare question the existence of Darlington needs to have their powers of reason called into serious question. It’s like trying to explain to non-believers the enduring legend of Harley Davidson. There are cheaper, better-performing, bikes that get better gas mileage, but until you’ve thrown your leg over an American V-twin Harley Davidson and ridden the back roads, you’re just not going to get it. There is no reason in this era of fuel mileage and global warming concerns for the Mustang GT to have endured nigh on 35 years now, but until you’ve driven one, rear tires churning away from a stoplight, you don’t know what cars are all about. Some called it the devil’s music and called for it to be banned, but rock and roll has endured. Some of its leading purveyors including the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen might have their charms lost on folks who let their tastes be dictated by American Idol; but for decades, they have been playing to packed houses of delirious fans who are in on the secret. If you’ve never seen the Dead or the Boss perform on a good night, you’re missing out on something so pure, so real, so all-encompassing, my pity at your loss must be mixed with loathing of your abject stupidity at missing something so overwhelming that it has defined generations of fans. Some things, like the opening notes of Thunder Road, the uneven idle of a Cobra Jet Mustang with its shaker hood rattling back and forth, the Potatoe-Potatoe-Potatoe rumble of a Harley, or the racing at Darlington have survived generations and defined us as a people and indelibly marked our culture. If I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand it.

They’re racing at Darlington this weekend. Let’s rock and roll.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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©2000 - 2008 Matt McLaughlin and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Kevin in SoCal
05/07/2009 01:45 AM

From someone who normally thinks you’re just blowing hot air, THANK YOU for this great article that even a culturally-challenged dummy like me can understand. This is the kind of story that brings traffic to

Bill B
05/07/2009 07:13 AM

Very well written article but somehow I get the feeling that the picture you paint of Darlington is somewhat romanticized. Maybe not but it sure sounded like a travel magazine article. On the other hand it definitely made me want to go to a race at Darlington.

Yes, I agree, the beginning notes of Thunder Road are magical.

Stu Gatz
05/07/2009 07:36 AM

There is no finer track for Racing than Darlington…. Well maybe Rockingham, but King Brian made sure that will never happen again.
Even with the Carp of Tomorrow Car the racing at Darlington is still the finest.
Thank you for a Grand Tribute to the Lady in Black.

05/07/2009 08:55 AM

Darlington Raceway “Too Tough to be Lame” and we wouldn’t miss a race there for anything.

I been looking since Monday for your article on our favorite track. You did not disappoint. Even Kevin in Socal gave you a thumbs up…isn’t that a first?

05/07/2009 08:55 AM

Great article. Exactly what NASCAR should be all about. The Lady in Black is the storied race track that true fans, no matter their age or background, should NEVER allow to die. If NASCAR ever takes this track off the schedule, the true fans should boycott all races.

05/07/2009 09:21 AM

If anyone doesn’t understand the contrasts between the “ new “ Nascar and the “ traditional “ Nascar “ this column should explain all there is to know . Darlington isn’t about the glitz , or corporations , or trends , or demographics . And thankfully it isn’t about Brian France , or Helton , or Darby . And even FOX can’t ruin it .
Darlington is what stock car racing was born from . And along with Martinsville , still represents the racing and not the show .

Jeff G
05/07/2009 09:46 AM

Great article Matt. I love the lady. Way back in the mid 70’s on our way to Myrtle Beach we stopped and went into the track. No closed doors or gates! We actually walked all the way around the track (ON THE TRACK). They had those covered grandstands back then. Such an awesome place. I really felt as if I were in a Church. It was so quite, but I could hear the “motors” in my head.

OH MY… to be 20 again, with a 70 Cuda, and the best looking girlfriend in red “hot pants”, and $200 bucks in my pocket. That was the trip of my life……..

Even Kevin in SoCal would have loved that week..

05/07/2009 09:48 AM

You have to love this PR nightmare. Yesterday for the second time in the last 2 weeks, ESPN’s Nascar Now ran another in a series of small segments promoting the Darlington Race. In a previous segment Cale Yarbrorough drove Joey Lagono around the track, while in yesterday’s segment Cale showed Joey around the museum and talked about the track’s history. The thing that is so funny and makes you scratch your head is that here you have Cale Yarbrorough wearing a HONDA cap mentoring TOYOTA driver Joey Lagono. Bet that raised a few eye brows over in Japan.

05/07/2009 09:50 AM

GREAT article!! I am now adding Darlington to the top of my list!! Thank you!!

05/07/2009 10:14 AM

Folks there is no better one-two puch than Richmond and Darlington (with a week’s worth of golf in between for extra measure)! Happy Mother’s Day to ALL!

05/07/2009 10:48 AM

Had the pleasure of going to the final Southern 500. That is, until they renamed this year’s race the Sou. 500. And even mine wasn’t legit I guess because it was the fall vs. Labor Day weekend. But it was indeed Darlington, TX Terry won it – fitting considering his great runs there in his early years. My one regret – despite wanting to go to the museum, we didn’t make it.

05/07/2009 11:38 AM

Maybe there is a bit of romanticism here; but, the morning I visited the track (summer of 1992), I thought I was in Mayberry too… I got to walk out onto the track surface in (then) turn 1. Davey Allison had been there during the week to get some practice laps in for his chance at the Winston Million that year. The museum was great – I think my wife and I, plus my in-laws, were 4 of the 10 people there that day.

The history of that place, coupled with the feeling I was transported back to the 60’s, was totally awesome. That track visit is probably my favorite stock car related memory that I have, and I didn’t even see a race there…

Kevin in SoCal
05/07/2009 12:44 PM

Cale wearing a Honda hat?? What the hell??

Golf?? When I think of golf I think of the same things you all think of when the next race is at Fontana.

05/07/2009 12:57 PM

There is no “e” in potato, Mr Quayle!

05/07/2009 01:19 PM

From someone born in Florence, SC, which is right beside Darlington, that was a great article…and corrent even down to the speed traps between CLT and Darlington! hehe My first ever trip the a racetrack was for qualifying in 1981 when I was 5. We moved away shortly there after (Dad is retired from Piedmont Airlines), but I did get back for a race a few years ago. It is quite a place, a real step back in time, compared to all the cookie-cutter tracks we have now.

Oh, and those questioning Cale’s Honda hat? It is because he owns a Honda dealership in Florence about a mile from the house I lived in…and has since the early 80’s. I assume it is still there, and he may have others by now, but I remember back in the day, my parents would take me by there in hopes to meet him. We were big Cale fans at the time…up until Terry started driving for Piedmont. And while not mentioned, I always loved that Terry won the last “real” Southern 500!

05/07/2009 03:20 PM

How could you not talk Darlington for the neophyte without mentioning Harold Brasington’s minnow pond?

05/07/2009 04:40 PM

AMEN Brother

Duane in NC
05/07/2009 09:44 PM

And don’t forget about what can occur after a race. I remember back around 86 or 87 Tommy Houston, BGN, nailed the pace car in the side. I remember I was putting my camera up, you could hear him accelerate, ticked, and then wham. I looked up and saw the pace car spinning. This was after the checkered flag and occurred at the end of the frontstretch pitroad on a once two pitroad track. Houston was pitted on the backstretch.

Kevin in SoCal
05/08/2009 03:47 PM

Why hasnt this race sold out yet? There are only about 66,000 seats. Even Fontana sells that many and you all complain about it.

Duane in NC
05/08/2009 09:12 PM

You got two things going against Darlington right now. First, it’s Mother’s Day weekend. Alot of families spend Saturday with one mother and then Sunday with the other. How many wives do you know that will actually let their husband pass on the Saturday visit every year for a race. Second, the region that Darlington is located in has been hit especially hard from the economy. Some of the areas over here have been slammed from the loss of textiles, furniture and tobacco. People in this region don’t have the money these days to pay for a NASCAR show. Many folks in the region have been laid off multiple times over the last ten years.

05/11/2009 10:34 AM

First, fontana is 1 hour from a city of a couple of million people. If you combined all the people within a hour from Darlington you wouldn’t come close to that number (probably less than half of that)Second, california ranks in the top 10% of the nation for annual income, South Carloina in the bottom 10%. When you buy a ticket to Fontana you also get a ticket to another pro sports event, a free tram ticket, a free pit pass, a free program and hat. My 70.00 got me into the Darlington backstretch and that was it. Fontana is the France family’s pet project and they will do whatever it takes to try to make it work.
One last thing, Fontana hasn’t sold 66,000 seats in years…the only way they get that many to attend is that grocery stores and radio stations within 100 miles give away thousands of tickets.