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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Why Race Fans Love Darlington So Much

You don’t often read an article from a motorsports writer or a comment from a fan suggesting that the one event per season left at the Lady in Black needs to go away. Fans may argue on whether Talladega, Pocono or even Martinsville should remain on the schedule. But no one will disparage the Track Too Tough To Tame.

Why Darlington?

This isn’t a place with a casino or a shopping mall, which might give it a better chance at drawing the non-racing fan or the NASCAR widow who may get bored. To listen to NASCAR, you would think that this is death to the effort spent chasing the “casual” fan.

Any upgrades that have been done to the speedway haven’t had a great deal to do with fan comfort. It isn’t horrible, but as a facility it doesn’t rank with the nicer, newer places, some of which even have actual seats. There is still that uncomfortable metal bench seating at most of the track, and for 500 miles that can be rough on a behind.

Creature comforts and amenities aside, does Darlington even produce the best racing? Drivers spend most of the races at Darlington in a single-file parade, every so often slapping the wall either because the car setup isn’t quite right or because the track gobbles tires like I gobble pizzas – quickly and remorselessly.

At no other venue are track inequities so celebrated. When drivers slide around at Atlanta or when cars scrape the wall by the dozens at Charlotte, Goodyear is immediately put on the hot seat for at least two weeks. At Darlington, it’s a badge of honor for a driver to earn his “Darlington Stripe.”

Is the difficulty of navigating a racetrack something to praise about it? Pocono’s tunnel turn is one of the trickiest in the sport, but certainly many race fans wouldn’t mind seeing Pocono lose an event. Teams are still trying to figure out Atlanta with the current top-heavy racecar, which makes for either a parade or a wreckfest, but not many would call it great racing. Charlotte has been rough on drivers since the 2005 resurfacing, but the “Beast of the Southeast” nickname didn’t exactly sell that particular feature. Road-course racing isn’t for the unskilled among NASCAR ranks, but many fans and writers hold their nose at the mere idea of stock cars turning right.

This isn’t to say that Darlington hasn’t produced some fantastic memories, like Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon or Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch. Or that the racing isn’t any good; that is hardly questionable. It’s always fun to watch drivers fight with a track. They are paid enough to earn their keep occasionally.

However, it’s not as though no other track does any of these things. Individual things about Darlington Raceway don’t quite make it unique. Single-file racing happens at many tracks, especially the speedways. Atlanta does an efficient job of chattering away at rubber these days. Pocono creates plenty of headaches for crew chiefs.

Nor is a strange layout anything unique. Although it might be nice to see more asymmetry in the sport, Pocono, Phoenix and Indianapolis all are shaped differently than the usual D-oval that most events take place on these days.

Darlington Raceway isn’t near any other major attractions besides Myrtle Beach. Myrtle Beach is a nice vacation spot, but no one who lives near the Outer Banks, the Jersey Shore or the fine beaches in Delaware or Maryland needs to make a trek to enjoy the sound of ocean waves during the day and loud music at night. Certainly, people in Florida have plenty of nearby places to mix in a race with a beach vacation.

So why the dedication to the old girl?

Part of it is the snubbing of tradition by NASCAR, best illustrated by the disappearance of Darlington’s long celebrated Labor Day race, once one of the most prestigious a driver could hope to win – and to a largely unreceptive southern California market, no less. It may have been the biggest sin committed against the sport’s devotees by the France family.

NASCAR may have had to take a date from Darlington simply because it wasn’t drawing fans in a depressed economic area. That is tough to swallow but not quite unreasonable. But the one thing you knew about the Lady in Black was that people that attended races there didn’t need a casino or seats with armrests or a nearby city full of attractions to do it. Hardcore, longtime fans of any sport – the kind that show up at Darlington or Martinsville – want its leaders to respect the sport’s history, especially a half a century of racing at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, which could still easily have been done.

As we all know, disregard for history and tradition has done plenty of damage to this sport, mostly because people can’t keep following an endeavor where the marketing, rules, and venues are constantly changing, first to appeal to indifferent folks, and then to appeal to folks who became indifferent when they were made to feel insignificant.

In the midst of all of this, Darlington Raceway, like Fenway Park, sits like a rock and insistently remains what it is, as the rest of the world looks for modernization and discards special mementos the second something shinier comes along. As new and expensive facilities for every sport turn up everywhere, featuring all sorts of distractions (from a sport supposedly so beloved that hundreds of millions of dollars to build a home for it were absolutely necessary), some of the old standbys stick around. It’s no easy thing for a sports venue these days to reach the level of not needing replacing.

Very few racetracks are so one of a kind that it would be sacrilege to design anything close to it. Darlington most certainly is one. Like Fenway, anyone you have to explain this joint to isn’t going to get it.

Other tracks may have quirks of their own, but Darlington had all of its character long before Atlanta created difficulty for a top-heavy car, before Bruton responded to Charlotte eating up tires by calling it the “Beast of the Southeast”, before NASCAR discovered that cars racing in big packs at Talladega created big wrecks and highlight reels. Whatever the track’s deficiencies, the Track Too Tough To Tame separates the men from the boys behind the wheel, and always has, and everyone there knows it. The Lady in Black is where cocky hot-shot attitudes go to die.

Oh, there are upgrades here and there, repaving that did have to be done and lights being installed. Even some seats have been upgraded. Fenway didn’t always have a Green Monster. But both places have, as a whole, endured through years of radical changes in sports and in society, with their quirky and unique on field products that emerged from necessity changing very little.

Since many NASCAR fans were young wide-eyed children, they could attend a race at Darlington Raceway and know that they were going to see great racing. Not a casino. Not a shopping mall. Probably not a multiple-car wreck. Just the best drivers and crews that motorsport has to offer battling both a track and each other. Gordon, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart all try to charm the Lady in Black today, just like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and David Pearson many years ago.

Maybe it’s just all been clever marketing, but even if it is, the Darlington people thought of it first.

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