This week’s Showtime Southern 500 is a NASCAR tradition. (Sort of, anyway; it’s on the wrong weekend now.) Once NASCAR’s oldest race, it was the one everybody wanted to win-the trophy was as sought after as the Daytona 500 hardware, and harder to win, because drivers don’t race each other at Darlington; they race the track, known as the Lady in Black for her reputation as a killer of dreams. While Saturday’s running isn’t the same race at heart, Darlington, the Track Too Tough to Tame, is the oldest superspeedway in NASCAR.
But she’s not the oldest track to be showcased on Saturday.
That honor goes to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. That track opened in 1875, and it’s still a dirt track. You won’t hear the roar of a motor there, but the horsepower is astounding. The track, of course, is the host of the Kentucky Derby, which goes to post just before the drivers take to the track at Darlington. It just might be the most famous collection of horsepower to gather in the United States.
800 horsepower vs. _real_ horsepower.
These are, without a doubt, two huge pieces of their sports’ respective history. Each represents tradition as well as the fresh excitement that comes with each successive race. Each winners’ list represents the greatest names ever to grace a racetrack. Each race is a throwback to simpler days that we all long for sometimes.
So, how do the best compare?
OK, it’s not every day you see race drivers compared to race horses (with the possible exception of Carl Edwards to the not-so-racy Mr. Ed), but if you follow both sports, the comparisons come easily. Each has its superstars, its underdogs, its super-pedigree disappointments and its rags-to-riches story.
If Sprint Cup drivers are at the very top of their game, so too are the thoroughbreds who race at the top. And when you look a little closer, the comparisons begin to fall into focus.
Take, for example, the names held above all others as the best in their respective sports, Richard Petty and Man O’ War. Every great in their sport will be held up to these two, and most pale in comparison. Each laid an indelible stamp upon a landscape built on speed and heart and raw talent. Man O’ War’s blood flows strong in the lines of thoroughbreds, Petty’s influence is still felt throughout the Sprint Cup garage…and will be for generations.
And then there’s Dale Earnhardt, the blue-collar driver who won the hearts of blue collar people, making moves that should have been impossible. Enter Seabiscuit, the decidedly blue-collar horse who by most accounts, should never have won anything. Instead, he won everything, even when he shouldn’t have, giving people caught in the throes of the Depression something to cheer for.
Earnhardt was everyman’s driver-he didn’t always do it by the book, but he got it done. So did Seabiscuit, who outraced horses like War Admiral, the huge, talented son of Man O’ War who had nothing to prove save that he could beat a smallish, quirky horse that came from blood held in considerably lower esteem. But the big horse couldn’t do it. Seabiscuit looked him in the eye, _intimidated him_, and ran right on by. Sound familiar?
The best of this time? How about Jimmie Johnson and Zenyatta, the mare who retired with just one loss to her name, and that by the slimmest of margins. Starting at the back of the field, looking like a lost cause, time and again Zenyatta would be there when it counted, making it look like a walk in the park while the competition groaned in frustration. And she had swagger-she danced to the start like she knew she was the class of the field, and time and time again, she backed it up with sheer dominance. That’s Johnson to a T-as Denny Hamlin learned, you don’t get inside his head. Johnson exudes confidence, and the whole field knows it. And like the mare simply known as “Z”, JJ is always there at the end, dominating.
Speaking of Hamlin, how about Big Brown (obvious sponsor conflict notwithstanding)? Big Brown was poised to win the Triple Crown in 2008, winning the first two races with apparent ease. And then came the final test, and he couldn’t get it done. That looks a lot like Hamlin’s 2010 Chase, where he led going into Homestead…and let it all slip away.
How about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and a horse named Rock Hard Ten, who was supposed to blow away the competition a few years back, but who ended up doing only well, never meeting the ridiculously high expectations placed on him? Or Kyle Busch and Quality Road, a brilliant racer…when he’s not having a meltdown. Quality Road had to be pulled from the 2009 Breeders’ Cup classic after a starting gate tantrum. Zenyatta went on to romp to yet another win. Yawn.
Or how about Davey Allison and Swale? Swale won the Kentucky Derby as well as the final race in the Triple Crown in 1984…and was gone eight days later, still not yet in his prime. The list goes on.
Horses and horsepower will share Saturday’s spotlight, and the two may just be more alike than you thought. Both races are among their sports’ most coveted, and both will be hotly contested. Darlington and the Downs, one day with the best two sports have to offer. What a day.
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