The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: Does Darlington Still Matter? by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 5, 2011

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MPM2Nite: Does Darlington Still Matter?

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 5, 2011


This weekend NASCAR racing returns to the Cradle of Champions, Darlington, SC. That remains somewhat of a miracle to me. During its infamous, Mike Helton coined, “Realignment” phase when the bastards couldn’t wait to abandon another traditional date in the Southeast for a higher profile event in a bigger market (Thanks, FOX!), it appeared the unenviable date, the eve of Mother’s Day, was assigned to the track purely to justify sacking the track’s second race date because of poor ticket sales. Traditionally, and NASCAR fans tend to be old-fashioned sorts, Mother’s Day weekend was sacrosanct on the schedule. One dubious and ultimately doomed experiment was run with a race weekend that coincided with Mother’s Day.

The Winston (remember those folks?) All-Star race was run on Mother’s Day in 1986 and only about 18,500 people attended the show that Bill Elliott stunk up to high Heavens. For comparison’s sake 110,000 folks attended the 1985 Winston in Charlotte the previous year. T-Wayne and the Winston folks didn’t make a lot of blunders in their storied marketing career with NASCAR, but that Mother’s Day race in Atlanta was a sure sign nobody is “perfeck.”

So yeah, back in 2004 when NASCAR moved the Labor Day weekend race to the travesty that is Fontana, sacked both Rockingham dates, and moved the Lady In Black’s sole remaining race date to Mother’s Day weekend, things looked grim for the Track Too Tough to Tame. But something odd happened. Fans kept showing up at Darlington just as they always had. (Cue up the Whos down in Whoville after the Grinch’s sacking of Christmas). Meanwhile attendance at the newer tracks in hipper more urban markets tanked. Funny how things work out like that. Or it would be funny if it still didn’t piss me off so badly.

NASCAR had legitimate business reasons for taking a race date away from Darlington. The sport was hotter than the Fourth of July at the point, and anytime a new event was announced a complete sellout was almost guaranteed especially if it was in a big TV market chock full of potential new fans eager to see what the fuss was all about. It’s not fair to say Darlington is in the middle of nowhere. It’s about three and a half miles northeast of Nowhere as the crow flies, a not intolerable ride from Charlotte or Florence even back in the day when GPS guidance was still the stuff of science fiction and you used a Texaco road map.

Darlington may not have two dates anymore, but it is still one of the most recognizable and challenging tracks on the circuit.

It’s necessary to put Darlington into historical context. Yes, building that great big track in the middle of nowhere once seen as a fool’s errand. Harold Brassington had taken a trip to see the Indy 500 and decided a great big paved track was what the then fledgling sport of NASCAR needed to put it on the map. Keep in mind when it opened in 1950 Darlington was the only fully paved circuit on the track dominated by half-mile dirt ovals. The very notion that production based American cars could last for 500 miles wide open on a banked 1.25 mile oval seemed absurd to many detractors. There was talk about a race where no competitor finished the full distance.

Again historical perspective is important. America had endured the great Depression, a seeming end to the notion of a Democratic society with capitalism as its base. To a terrifying degree this great country only pulled through the depression due to armed military conflict that enveloped most of the globe. To an extent we as a nation were drug kicking and screaming into the wars in Europe and the Pacific by the attack on Pearl Harbor. At that point the USA was still a B-lister in the global scheme of things, but after that attack on what was then still a territory of the United States, FDR led us into war. What followed was the most amazing victory the world had ever seen. A nation still in economic turmoil rose to its feet nose bloodied but still swinging with everything we had. Citizens soldiers, laborers, teachers, factory workers, and the rest, by and large the grandchildren of immigrants not career military types, rallied into perhaps the greatest army in human history. Across the Pacific and from Normandy and Sicily to Berlin the US armed forces (not to downplay the contribution of our Allies) fought in defense of freedom in the face of totalitarianism and tyranny. The cost in human lives lost was horrific but the battle needed to be won.

Meanwhile here at home something amazing was happening as well. The giants of industry, the companies that produced our cars, washing machines and streetlights, turned virtually on a dime to support the war effort. They built the aircraft carriers, battleships, tanks, bombs, fighters, bombers, Jeeps and trucks that helped turn the tide of the war.

Yeah, there was a heady sense of optimism here in the States back in the late forties and early 50s. We’d won the war. Anything was possible as we shifted back to a peacetime economy. Are, you sir, trying to tell me cars built here in the USA can’t run 500 miles wide open? Dad Blum it, I bet they can and I think I’ll go get me a ticket to see them do so. 25,000 fans attended the 1950 Southern 500 completely overwhelming the area’s infrastructure.

It was 75 cars that started the first Southern 500 and 28 of them were officially listed as running. Johnny Mantz won in a 1950 Plymouth that earlier that week had been driven as a street car, as Bill France ran around posting flyers to promote the race. That might seem impossible these days but that, son, is why it’s called “stock car racing.” Nowadays the Cup cars might have as much to do with what you drive on the roads as an ICBM does with the darts you chuck on League night at the Legion, but back then they were indeed “stock” cars.

Back in 1950, brand new cars were still in short supply as the factories re-tooled after the wars. To own a new car, particularly an Olds or Caddy with the new OHV engines was a major status symbol. And if you had a Ford and your buddy a Chevy they were probably frequent exchanges over who had made the wiser purchase. In the early days of the sport you weren’t so much a fan of the drivers as you were a fan of a make of car. Winning a 500 miler at Darlington provided manufacturers major bragging rights. And the fans kept turning up at Darlington handing ticket renewals down through generations as the on-going ground war as to whether Ford, GM, Chrysler (or Hudson, Studebaker or Kaiser back in those days) built the fastest and most reliable car.

If America had a romance with the automobile in the early 20th century it became a full blown love affair after the war. What you parked in the driveway of your little pink house in modern suburbia said a lot about who you were and what freedom was. as totally American as taking the family for a Sunday afternoon ride in your brand new long and chrome, shiny and black cruiser?

I’m not here to tell you that every race at Darlington has been a classic. Detractors wishing to make the point that the good old days weren’t that great frequently point out Ned Jarrett won the 1965 Southern 500 by a mere fourteen laps. Granted, but back in 1965 troubled times had come to more places than the Boss’s home town high school. The Dodge/Plymouth teams, including that of reigning champion Richard Petty were sitting out most of the season due to NASCAR’s ban on the Hemi powered intermediate cars. The tires of the day were simply not up to the speeds Detroit had wrought and accidents were frequent and none too occasionally deadly. In 1965, Cale Yarborough sailed straight over the guard rail and into the parking lot in his Ford trying to run down Jarrett. And if that was such a lousy race how come FOX still uses the footage of Yarborough’s epic flight in their pre-race video?

Yeah, over the years Darlington has produced some outstanding races and a few clinkers. On a Monday afternoon in 2003, 55,000 people watched Ricky Craven hold off Kurt Busch by .002 seconds in a tire smoking, fender crunching drag race off of turn four to the checkers. Until last month’s Talladega race tied the mark, that was the closest margin of victory in the sport’s modern history. And Darlington did it without the plates or some contrived drafting strategy of two-car packs. That afternoon it was all about Craven and Busch, each of who really wanted to win the damned race at NASCAR’s most historic super speedway.

If I were to sit here telling you the stories of memorable moments at Darlington this column would swell to an unmanageable size. As a race fan, not a writer, I will never forget seeing Bill Elliott win that Winston Million in 1985. I’ll never forget that first great road trip South to Darlington in a 1970 SS454 El Camino four speed. To this day I consider Tim Richmond’s winning the 1986 Southern 500 on a rain slick race track the greatest bit of driving I’ve ever seen in any form of auto racing. But Hell, to be able to win on the notoriously abrasive track that wore tires plum out in less than ten laps was an accomplishment for any driver. Even the great Richard Petty was only able to score a single Southern 500 win. (David Pearson had a lot to do with that).

Does Darlington still matter to the sport? If it doesn’t nothing else does either and we might as well pack up the tents and go home from this circus. I know in my heart, the day I hear NASCAR has dropped Darlington’s lone remaining date from the schedule, that’s the day I retire. And someday, maybe some fine sweet day, someone at NASCAR will figure out that we really need to head back to Darlington on Labor Day weekend if for no other reason to honor that greatest generation that helped put the track on the map and create this sometimes clumsy monster we call a sport.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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05/05/2011 10:38 AM

I love Darlington raceway. My husband and I have been to most all of the tracks on the East Coast and Darlington was one of the fondest memories we have. It sure wasn’t the food we remember. Those folks have some strange eating habits and huge slabs of fried bologna aren’t part of our regular diet. It also wasn’t the cultural experience, either. They roll up the sidewalks before the sun sets and you can just drive on up the road if you’re looking for entertainment. No, it was the track and the people that we remember so fondly. When we saw the country roads we just knew traffic was going to be a nightmare. Wrong! Darlington is the only track we’ve visited that has their shit together both before and after the race. Smooth sailing both ways and nothing but smiles, friendly waves and country hospitality! Everyone who worked at the track and everyone who attended the race were the nicest folks we’ve ever run across. We were lucky enough to attend the last Southern 500 in Darlington. That was a weekend to remember and I’m sad Nascar couldn’t see past their wallets to retain what was good about themselves.

Kevin in SoCal
05/05/2011 12:50 PM

Matt said: “back in 2004 when NASCAR moved the Labor Day weekend race to the travesty that is Fontana”

Not to be confused with the travesty that is your insults to Fontana.

05/05/2011 01:49 PM

Or the travesty that is ALL of his articles.

05/05/2011 01:50 PM

I, too, believe that Darlington is important to the fans of NASCAR – although NOT to NASCAR the sanctioning body. I believe that the plan was indeed to kill it off by putting it on a date that wouldn’t market well.

Except that NASCAR guessed wrong. We were at the LAST Southern 500 in 2003 when Terry Labonte won. We went to the one they held in November – daggone that was a cold day! and we’ve gone every year since then on Mother’ Day weekend — I remember the first one in particular because I talked to fans who came from all over the place, Chicago, Canada, (we drove from NJ) and everyone said the SAME thing. They came because they wanted to prove NASCAR had made a mistake.

I also personally boycotted watching the Labor Day race at Fontana (sorry Mike from SoCal)just on principle.

so here’s to all the fans who continue to go to Darlington for the race – even though it is NOT the Southern 500, no matter what the track has decided to name it.

05/05/2011 01:52 PM

oops, sorry make that Kevin in SoCal

Geez, Goldman – still back to make snarky comments?

Carl D.
05/05/2011 02:37 PM

Darlington is my home track as I live about an hour from the track in central SC. I’ve been to too many races at Darlington to count, and though I’ve had a few bad experiences, most have been quite memorable. Sneaking past a security guard to meet Ned Jarrett in the garage in 1998 is a highlight… what a truly gracious man he is.

Darlington may be in the middle of nowhere, and it may not offer the ammenities that Charlotte Speedway does, but when it comes to the actual racing, I’ll put our track up against any on the circuit.

AnnieMack. Next time you’re in Darlington try some of SC’s famous mustard-based BBQ. We’re famous for it, and for good reason.

05/05/2011 05:42 PM

The Rebel on Confederate Memorial Day (this weekend) notwithstanding, NASCAR deserves to put the Chase back in Darlington for The Southern 500 to end the season in Darlington. Had it not been Ferko (a lawsuit that threatens other sport too), this travesty of having one date at the worst possible date would have never happened. It’s time NASCAR seriously consider a return to a spring Rebel and fall Southern dates with the fall race being a Chase date. Jimmie Johnson had a Put Up or Shut Up moment the last time the classic was run and began his Mr. Clutch run. It’s better to allow drivers such as Jimmie Johnson to gain enough experience that by his 10th Darlington race (third 500-miler) he was able to win at the place. Denny Hamiln’s debut at the Bi-Lo 200 NNS race (on the November 2004 Southern 500 weekend) was impressive.

05/05/2011 10:00 PM

I started watching Nascar around 1991, while I was in the Navy in Charleston SC. I now DVR most races other than the Daytona 500, and most short tracks, there are a few I MUST watch real time. The 2003 race with Craven and Busch I relive every other month or so on youtube just to recall that moment. Best finish I personally ever seen IMHO. Add to that I am a HUGE Mark Martin fan, and his winning at Darlington 2 years ago was probably my favorite win of his I have ever seen. Not a scratch on his car at the finish, looked like it hadn’t even been raced, at the track “Too Tough To Tame”, and every car is expected to have a “Darlington Stripe”. I agree with Matt, they need to put a second date back, and I don’t care if it’s on Christmas Day, I’ll still watch it.

05/06/2011 08:41 AM

Didn’t NASCAR call the Labor Day race in Atlanta in 2010 the “Southern 500”? I swear I remember them saying some BS like “The Southern 500 is back on Labor Day” blah blah. So this year, they saw how that STILL didn’t cut it and, while Atlanta’s only date is Labor Day weekend, the “Southern 500” has again been moved, but back to Darlington on Mother’s Day weekend.

Maybe there will be some paint drying around here this weekend that I can watch.

05/06/2011 03:21 PM

We used to drive from California to attend races at Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond. Refused to drive 40 minutes to Fontana. Went 2 times to Fontana and that track and NA$CAR/ISC truly suck.

old gal from socal
05/06/2011 04:55 PM

Mike—I’m right there with you, having forsaken Fontana for RIR, BMS, even PIR. Only my opinion, but Fontana has had sub-par racing (especially compared to the spectacle that was Riverside Int’l Raceway) for too many years. That being said, the last couple of races, Nationwide and Cup, have been surprisingly better. It’ll never be Darlington but maybe it’s too early to permanently consign it to landfill status…that’s my hope, anyway.

05/06/2011 08:43 PM

Old Gal, I would love to see the Cup race moved from Fontana to Irwindale. If you have not been there yet you must go. Great half mile track with progressive banking.

05/09/2011 12:40 PM

The first non-Daytona 500 race I ever saw on TV was Lake Speed winning the TransSouth 400 at Darlington. I was hooked. I stopped by the track in 1992 when moving back North. It was like walking into a time warp – it felt like I was in Mayberry. The guard at the turn one access gate let me walk out on the surface of the track – it was incredibly rough. I was amazed that any driver could keep a set of tires on a car for 10 laps there! Davey Allison had just been there practicing for his shot at the Winston Million the upcoming Labor Day. You could really feel the history of the sport there… It remains my favorite track memory, and I didn’t even see a car run there.