That sound you hear is Harold Brasington turning over in his grave. The man who was responsible for building Darlington raceway back in the late 1940s does flips in his grave every year about this time. Labor Day weekend is when the Rebel 500 was always run at his beloved race track. As the world around Darlington became more politically correct, the name was changed to the Southern 500. It was still the crown jewel of racing events on the Cup schedule. Sure Daytona is the "Super Bowl" but the Rebel 500 was the first. Darlington was the first superspeedway and the Rebel 500 was the big race that was run on the hallowed track every year on Labor Day weekend. At least every year until 2004, when the event was moved to November. That was the last time the Southern 500 was ever contested.
In 2005 the Labor Day event was moved to California Speedway. For some reason, the powers that be in Daytona felt like Darlington's only race on the schedule didn't fit on Labor Day weekend anymore. Instead they wanted to start a new tradition on the West coast. The hotbed of stock car racing that is Southern California was the new home for the Labor Day race on the Cup schedule. And so a storied tradition that dated back to 1950, the third year that NASCAR existed, was unceremoniously dumped from the schedule.
Darlington's place in NASCAR history can never be overestimated. It was the first high banked, paved oval. It was the first NASCAR track that was over one mile in length. It is without a doubt the grandfather of every single track on the schedule right now with the exception of Martinsville. If it weren't for the success of Darlington, Bill France might never have built Daytona. The series very well could have languished on the dirt tracks around the Southeast and never seen its meteoric rise to popularity that we have all witnessed over the last 15 years.
There were 75 cars in the very first Rebel 500. 75!!! Can you imagine a Cup race today with 75 cars competing? The following year saw 82 cars compete. The thought of that is simply incomprehensible. In the race in 1982, won by Cale Yarborough, there were 41 lead changes. In 1965, Ned Jarrett won the race by 14 laps. People complain about boring races these days! Can you imagine seeing a driver win a race by 14 laps? It was probably still more exciting than the race will be this weekend in Fontana. David Pearson won 10 races at the track, but only three of them were Southern 500s. Cale Yarborough's five wins at the track were all in the Southern 500. The place is just dripping with history. Unfortunately, there will never be any more Southern 500 history made there.
The truly sad part of this story is that the modern NASCAR fan probably doesn't have a true appreciation for the place the Southern 500 holds in NASCAR's history. It is obvious that the California fans don't have an appreciation for a Labor Day event. If you looked at the stands last September, there were thousands of empty seats. The track promoter claims the seats were sold but the fans were simply shopping instead of watching the race. Is there any greater slap in the face of history than to be more interested in shopping than what is taking place on the track. Darlington may not have sold out every race, but the fans that were there didn't leave their seats to go shopping during the event. The fans are loyal to a fault in the Southeast. They have proven that over the last two years by selling out the only Darlington date left on the schedule both years, even if it does fall on Mother's Day weekend.
It is truly a shame that Darlington does not host a race on Labor Day weekend anymore. The event was an institution for half a century in the sport. Most every older driver will tell you that for most of the Cup Series’ life, Darlington was the race that truly determined the best driver. Daytona may have been the big race of the year, but the drivers wanted to win Darlington the most because it proved you were the best driver. There is no doubt that longstanding NASCAR fans will be watching the race this weekend. They love their sport and are loyal to the end. But anyone who was a fan back in the day will feel a very painful twinge when they drop the rag on the race this weekend and it takes place in the Pacific time zone. Some pieces of history should not be forgotten. Let's hope that someday NASCAR will come to its senses and put the Labor Day race back in Darlington where it belongs.
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