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.
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.
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