It is a name that carries a lot of weight in stock car racing circles. It actually carries weight in any auto-racing circle. The NASCAR history that has taken place at the South Carolina Raceway fills books all on its own.
This is the first superspeedway built for stock cars, the home of the first 500-mile NASCAR race. This track was holding events ten years before Daytona International Speedway was constructed. This place helped NASCAR take a huge early step in bringing stock car racing out of its southeastern dirt track beginnings, and carrying the sport along its fifty-year journey into a national spotlight.
In the late twentieth century, speedway-building projects around the country were happening at a healthy pace. New, major league auto racing tracks were planning to open their gates in new, national market areas. Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Chicago, and Kansas City were some of the new tri-oval designs that went up. Atlanta’s speedway turned its true oval shape into another doglegged front stretch. The new oval in Miami also underwent some redesigning projects.
All the tracks had plenty of glass, polish and shiny chrome. Showcases that a sanctioning body could entertain current and potential sponsors. Auto racing as a sport, needs these places like major league baseball needs Coors Field and AT&T Park.
However, like baseball also needs its Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, NASCAR needs Darlington Raceway. In today’s era it reminds its visitors where the sport came from, how it has grown, and hopefully not to forget the past.
The Mother’s Day weekend events just completed saw an effort by the track management to embrace a “throw back” look and feel to the event. In place of the neat and tidy white retaining walls were the alternating red and white sections of days gone by. Winston cigarettes used to be a major sponsor in NASCAR at many levels. From the Cup division to the grassroots local tracks, the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company was a major marketing partner. Nearly every speedway under the NASCAR umbrella had the same paint scheme surrounding their racing surfaces.
That Darlington track returned to a former logo, one easily recognizable from the nineteen seventies or early eighties. Styles and culture evolve in this country. They always have and always will. Lettering and font designs have changed in all forms of advertising. Look at any product from a motor oil label to a soda can’s appearance. One can sometimes guess the year of sale by looking at a picture of a product.
This past weekend Darlington Raceway’s signage made the expected entry list to include Benny Parsons and Neil Bonnett. And that is a good thing.
And calling this event The Southern 500 brought about a smile to anyone with a sense of history. Media people could not get enough when referencing the name on their broadcasts and written stories. The Southern 500 name flows nice and easy and when it was spoken, a little upturn around the edges of their mouths was detected.
There are not a lot of venues on the Sprint Cup circuit that could draw the marquee names of the sport to come and visit. Saturday afternoon featured a press conference by David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. I firmly believe because this was Darlington, both legends were eager to attend.
Could the same be said about a random D-shaped oval built somewhere convenient to a major marketplace? No disrespect intended to the circuit’s other tracks, but it is an honest question.
Richard Petty spent time over the weekend in Indianapolis with his new venture in the IRL ranks for the 500 later this month. John Andretti drove the IndyCar with the Petty name on it in the first two days of qualifying. Petty’s first and maybe his only attempt at fielding an entry for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is important to him. But he was back in Darlington before the green flag waved for the Southern 500.
Sam Ard and his family visited the famed South Carolina oval before the start of last Saturday’s race. The two time then Busch Series champion and multi time NASCAR Late Model Sportsman winner met with Kevin and Delana Harvick, and Kyle Busch late in the afternoon. Health and monetary issues have challenged Ard and both Harvick and Busch have given of themselves to assist the former NASCAR driver.
Busch and the Harvicks showed great respect and appreciation for the earlier generation star, and all that he and his family have contributed to the sport over the years. The current top runners thanked Ard for everything he has done and genuinely understood that the success the sport enjoys now is due in part to the participants that came before.
The Ard family also visited the driver’s meeting and was further greeted by numerous NASCAR names. Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Mike Helton, and Dick Berggren were just a few who came by to greet the family and acknowledge their contributions to stock car racing.
It is a fitting racetrack that served as the backdrop for this gathering of the sport’s superstars and legends that helped NASCAR rise into the success it now is. The Raceway played its part in that rise also.
Daytona, Indianapolis, LeMans, Monaco, all have their place in auto racing history. Together, through different forms of racing, chapters have been filled in motorsports history books. Stock cars, open wheel, ovals, road racing, dirt, and asphalt have created their own stories and allure for the race fan. Each particular location sports its own attitude and personality.
The Darlington Raceway is included in that same level of importance. It is a tough place to drive. Only the best have survived the often grueling events here and gone on to victory. The track has taught many a driver to rethink their definition of confidence, and taught a few more the true meaning of patience.
It is an older track that has seen updates to make it viable in current times. But not too many to take away from the character that observers marveled at in 1950. “The Lady in Black” creates new stories, and reminds us of old ones whenever a race is run here. It is nice to see where racing came from, and where it is going, all at the same time.