Every time the Cookout Southern 500 rolls around, I am reminded of my many funny experiences at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest – and perhaps meanest – superspeedway.
As long as I’ve been around, I have been privileged to see the track evolve into the handsome facility it is now, all the while retaining its singular character and competitive challenges.
Hard to believe, but there was a time when Darlington fell into disarray. It showed its age.
I wrote about it once before, for a special Grand National Scene commemorative issue produced for Darlington last Labor Day.
Today, the week of the race that was first run in 1950, the story is retold:
There was a time when Darlington Raceway, the notorious “Lady in Black,” was more like the “Old Lady Wheezing on Her Death Bed.”
Given that the track is hale and hardy today and still plays host to the legendary Cookout Southern 500 in front of thousands of enthusiastic fans, that seems hard to believe.
But it’s true. From the year it was built, 1950, through the next three decades, very few improvements were made to the track’s facilities and amenities. That was largely due to the “thriftiness” of upper management.
I started covering Darlington races in 1975 when I was a sports writer in Roanoke, Va. The speedway had long since acquired the reputation as the toughest in NASCAR, and the Southern 500 was the race every driver wanted to win.
But year after year Darlington remained the same. Same grandstands, same garage area, same press box. The grass may have been cut but it didn’t look like it. Didn’t look like anyone bothered to use a paint brush, either.
I remember one member of the media who called the track “crusty old Darlington” just to be nice. No one outwardly blamed anyone for its condition, but it was widely speculated that management’s unwillingness to spend money was at the root of it.
Darlington’s president was Barney Wallace, who, it can be fairly said, was a totally colorless man. It was also said he didn’t care to spend a dime unless it was absolutely necessary.
Wallace’s right-hand man, “Red” Tyler, was his complete opposite. Tyler was friendly, outgoing and blessed with a sense of humor and a deep Southern drawl. As much as Wallace avoided the media, Tyler courted it.
Tyler knew exactly what was happening to Darlington. And he knew why.
“I remember one time, a driver on a low budget went to Barney after a race,” Tyler recalled. “He wanted some money to help him get home. He said, ‘Barney, can you help me get home?’
“Barney took out a map and said, ‘Sure, you just take a right on Highway 52 and ….’”
Once I was with Tyler in the infield. We entered the cafeteria, and he stopped. He looked at a big tear in the cafeteria’s screen door. I knew it had been there for years.
Tyler spoke into his two-way radio: “Barney, we got to fix this tear in the screen door. The flies are carrying off the food.”
Wallace’s reply: “Red, let’s wait until we count ticket receipts before we do that.”
Not only did that torn screen door reflect Darlington’s malaise, it was also evident in the men’s “locker room.” The room consisted of a small area with benches, a couple of sinks, mirrors and stalls. However, it was air conditioned.
The amount of graffiti that covered the white walls in the bathroom area increased year after year. I found it remarkable that there was not a single coat of new white paint.
Some of the graffiti was very funny. Funny enough that I thought I could write a very entertaining column about it. So I peered up and down the walls, writing down every clever message I could.
Suddenly, future Hall of Fame team owner Bud Moore crept up behind me.
“Look at this!” he bellowed. “Here’s a writer taking notes on what’s written on the outhouse walls. No wonder that everything you print is a bunch of —-!”
Then he laughed. Needless to say, I never wrote the column. Couldn’t have published most of the words on those walls anyway.
None of this is to put any blame on a single individual. Even Tyler knew Darlington did not have the resources to make improvements. It could not match other tracks in ticket sales, nor could it make any real effort to create a sizable marketing program.
So many thought Darlington plod along until it didn’t have the financial strength to plod any longer.
But by 1980, rumors surfaced that Darlington was going to be sold. And in 1982, it was – to the ever-growing International Speedway Corporation, now a part of NASCAR and parent to Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, among others.
It was exactly what Darlington needed. And, over the years, the track has been embellished in appearance and enhanced in functionality.
For example, lights were added in 2005, which was also when the venerated Southern 500 was moved to Mother’s Day to become Darlington’s first event staged at night.
In the years since, Darlington has seen its Labor Day date shifted to Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. But today the Southern 500 and Labor Day weekend have been reunited – spectacularly so, I might add.
The track changed, but its tradition did not.
The “Lady in Black” is hardly crusty anymore.