Well, Richmond’s Crown Royal Presents the Dan Lowry 400 last Saturday night provided just about all the excitement and intrigue any stock car fan could possibly have hoped for: exciting speed, door-rubbing passes, controversy, and a surprise ending to boot. As I wrote last week, fans aren’t going to find better stock car entertainment than NASCAR provides in its spring schedule of races. And in its own way, this coming Sunday’s Dodge Challenger 500 at Darlington Raceway should be every bit as good of a show.
However, fans best not forget just how close they came to seeing the oldest superspeedway on the Sprint Cup circuit become extinct. And had it not been for the tremendous fan support that the track has experienced the last three years, the “Lady in Black” would without a doubt be about as popular a tourist stop as North Wilkesboro Speedway is today. Like it or not, there have to be consistently 63,000 ticket purchasing patrons in the 63,000 seats available on race day; otherwise, the track will meet its untimely demise, no matter how popular it is among racing traditionalists. Sure, it’s only race date is on Mother’s Day weekend… but what nicer way is there to let Mom know you love her than with a tailgate party and a ticket to Darlington under the lights?
I’m not completely buying the recent encouraging NASCAR line that has the track’s continued race date secured for the foreseeable future. Not that I believe NASCAR is bound and determined to strip fans of their legendary tracks, but I am certain that they are always striving to maximize their attendance and gain exposure, working to develop interest in their product in more densely populated and affluent parts of the country.
Of course, those goals are not in Darlington’s best interest.
Darlington is in an out of the way part of the world, far removed from a thriving metropolis with potential new converts to win over to the sport of stock car racing. Additionally, the surrounding area has been hard hit economically during the last decade, making it difficult for the local, sparsely populated citizens – though known as some of the most enthusiastic stock car fans in the country – to lend a lot of support to the track.
In fact, it was those same factors aided in the demise of the “Rock” in Rockingham, N.C. four years ago. The two tracks, both mainstays of NASCAR during its early years and each unique in their track configurations, are only a little over an hour’s drive apart geographically. Both are rural and have seen their share of dwindling job markets as textile plant after textile plant closed. That created a domino effect, as associated businesses dependent on the textile industry likewise perished.
Another hurdle that Rockingham and Darlington have had to deal with since the advent of the 100,000 and more seat racing facilities is how to entice fans to visit their semi-isolated rural areas without the attractions that nearby large cities can provide, before and after the race for fans. Rockingham never solved the puzzle; so far, Darlington has managed to survive on the track’s own merits.
Of course, there were many other reasons why the North Carolina track went the way of the dinosaur. As exciting as Rockingham was during its heyday, the fans simply failed to turn out for races at the track that had hosted NASCAR racing since 1965. There were plenty of reasons for lackluster attendance numbers, particularly after the track’s one remaining spring date was moved to the usually frigid month of February. But all excuses aside, the track rarely was able to sellout the 60,000-seat venue. Even when it became clear that the track’s remaining race date was in jeopardy… seats went unsold!
It was clear NASCAR wasn’t overly concerned at exploring ways of boosting attendance, either. The Rock, North Wilkesboro, and yes… Darlington needed to make way for the bigger, sleeker and more profitable tracks of the “new” NASCAR. There wasn’t a lot of money being invested in their futures. Heck… it looked like paint had become an unnecessary expense to them, not to mention things like adequate concession stands, parking and restroom facilities.
For now, though, NASCAR is stuck with Darlington whether they like it or not. After poor attendance at its fall race – the coveted Labor Day Southern 500 – the first track to hold a 500-mile NASCAR sanctioned race was left with the only Mother’s Day weekend race date. No one should kid themselves; NASCAR knew that the date was pure poison and that the track had little chance of posting acceptable attendance numbers. The intent was transparent; failing to pack the stands once again, the sanctioning body would have enough justification, at least in their minds, to add the historic track to the growing list of tracks obsolete in today’s NASCAR market.
It appears race fans never got the memo, though. Darlington is going strong; the venerable old lady has not cooperated with its well-planned demise. For the last three years, fans have shown their support of the track and the stock car racing tradition that it represents by buying every seat in the house!
And as long as the sellouts continue… not even NASCAR, known for making radical and controversial business decisions would risk the wrath of its fan base by closing a sold out track.
Certainly, the future for Darlington looks brighter than it did in 2005, when they were setup to fail. Yet, not even with the recent expenditures in much needed and long overdue improvements to the track’s infrastructure – a movement that included this year’s repaving project and expensive new infield access tunnel – will stop the France family’s International Speedway Corporation from moving its remaining date to a track that better fits their business model should attendance falter.
However, the track’s fundamental handicaps have not disappeared. Unlike Bristol, installation of a significant number of seats are almost impossible due to its location to nearby railroad tracks, and the economic forecast for the rural region of South Carolina is not expected to change any time soon.
But this Saturday night and for the near future, at least, all NASCAR fans – most of whom have come to appreciate the colorful history and uniqueness that is Darlington’s alone – will be treated to another year of racing at the “Track Too Tough to Tame.” That continuation is thanks entirely to the fans of Darlington that refused to surrender to NASCAR’s “new is better mandate,” and have shown that they truly want Darlington on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Score one for the race fans!
And that’s my view from turn 5.