At the end of the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series season, Darlington Raceway was stripped of its tradition.
The next year it would stage only one event – and it was not the venerated Southern 500, the classic stock car race that was born at Darlington in 1950. It is the oldest superspeedway race in NASCAR and one that every driver wants to win.
That race was held on Labor Day, which made Darlington the place to be for fans and vacationers alike. It meant a long weekend of camping, grilling, drinking and partying into the late hours while watching fast cars try to negotiate an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile track.
Every driver would say virtually the same thing: Darlington is a mean, rough old lady that offers many challenges. To win meant you got the best of her and there was no better feeling than that.
In 2005, Darlington would have only one race for the first time since 1959. And it would be held in May.
Many fans felt that the loss of the Labor Day Southern 500 was just another step in NASCAR’s attempt to realign itself for a modern, younger audience. That was not the case, but longtime loyal supporters had been snubbed yet again.
But something happened in 2005; something unexpected.
The race was held on a Saturday evening, under the lights that had recently been installed at the old track.
This was something new, indeed. And it was not without its attraction. Fans turned out in significant numbers, lured by their desire to see what would happen at the elderly track under decidedly different circumstances.
It was a success. And the spring night race was a welcome part of each Cup schedule for the next 10 years.
Then, in 2015, the Labor Day date was restored to Darlington. And it’s been in its rightful place every year since, including the convoluted, COVID-19-caused 2020 schedule, when Darlington had three races.
But the restoration of its Labor Day date, while significant, wasn’t just a return to tradition for Darlington. There was something else which has become a new tradition.
It was the first time the old speedway staged a race with “throwback” paint schemes. Teams were asked to paint their cars to simulate the look and colors of those that came before them – many of which were driven by some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR.
The appeal to fans, especially those who were part of NASCAR’s years gone by, was tremendous. The cars carried the colors of the old, familiar sponsors of earlier days. And they also represented their role in some of the most memorable events of the past.
Darlington offered the chance to see a replication of some stock car racing history.
It will do so again on Sunday, May 9, when yet another “throwback” race takes the green flag.
While Darlington lives on and celebrates old and new traditions, there was a time when it could have been a relic, or worse, gone entirely.
Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Darlington remained unchanged – and it was obvious. Wood began to fray, metal began to rust, ruts were carved into dirt roads and the racing surface was as ragged as a cheese grater.
The press box was located atop a tall, red metal building that did not have an elevator. But believe it or not, that was an improvement. It used to be an open facility, a victim to the elements.
Some of the motorsports writers of that day waxed humorous about the task of covering a Darlington event in open weather. Birmingham’s Clyde Bolton wondered why he was given a pair of goggles before the race.
After it was over, he knew the answer. His face was covered with dust and rubber soot. He took off his goggles, looked around him and wondered why the press box was “full of minstrels.”
I was shown Darlington’s wear and tear many times. The late Red Tyler, the speedway’s vice president, was keenly aware of what was happening.
He once took me to the wall in the first turn, and with a mere screwdriver, he dug out a hole the size of a peach in the soft concrete.
“What do you think is going to happen to this wall when a car hits it?” Tyler asked. “Not to mention the car.”
While Tyler indeed offered many examples of Darlington’s deficiencies, I found a few on my own. This is a story I’ve told many times, but it is a personal favorite.
Darlington did have a locker room “facility” for the competitors, but it consisted of a small room full of lockers and a bathroom.
The stalls in that bathroom were painted white. Over the years they became covered with graffiti – which remained year after year because those stalls were never painted.
Some of that graffiti was hilarious. I came up with what I thought was an enterprising idea. What was written might make an entertaining column.
So, I peered up and down the walls, writing down everything I could.
Suddenly, 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 everything you write is a bunch of s—!”
What seemed like a gloomy future for Darlington changed when, in the early ’80s, it became a part of International Speedway Corp. – which has been assimilated into NASCAR.
There’s a story associated with that acquisition. Supposedly, the late NASCAR boss Bill France Jr. came to the track to conduct purchase negotiations.
He looked around and said, “Couldn’t you have at least cut the grass?”
Today, Darlington is very little like it used to be. I remember it used to be called “crusty,” which was the media’s way of being polite.
When it comes to describing Darlington today, you won’t see that word – anywhere.