Taking away the Southern 500 is one of the worst moves NASCAR officials have made over the last decade, according to true-blue fans of the sport. Moving the race from historic Darlington Raceway – the “Track Too Tough to Tame” – to California has been a public relations disaster for those who grew up with Richard Petty and David Pearson battling down the backstretch, and before that, Junior Johnson taking on Ned Jarrett for Grand National supremacy.
Texas Motor Speedway shareholder Francis Ferko is partly to blame. Ferko sued the sanctioning body in 2004, charging NASCAR with anti-trust violations for not allowing a second race at the Fort Worth oval, owned by billionaire O. Bruton Smith. Something had to go, and NASCAR picked wrong.
After four long years, the Fontana track on the left coast has failed to capture the nation’s attention the way Darlington did for more than a half century. Ticket sales have stagnated in La-La land, as with many new markets since an early bump after a novelty affect. Meanwhile, Darlington’s spring event, the Dodge Challenger 500, has been one of the toughest tickets to corral.
Under pressure to make the slate more solvent, the traditional race has been revived, but not on Labor Day weekend. The new date is the Saturday before Mother’s Day in May ’09, at night under new lighting.
The original Southern 500 predated the Daytona 500 by nine years, starting in 1950 as NASCAR’s first answer to the Indianapolis 500 of open-wheel fame. Whether NASCAR is listening to its fan base or just filling another moveable date, the race is making a comeback in ’09 – not as the Mountain Dew Southern 500, or any other corporate title. After a four-year hiatus, the race will strictly be the “Southern 500,” nothing more, nothing less.
Darlington has recently added lights and other amenities, including 4,000 extra seats, to its prized layout. The track has been repaved and another $10 million has given the venue needed updates and improvements. NASCAR is apparently satisfied, giving hope for the restoration of other traditions still on hold.
The California date is locked into ’09, but a return to Labor Day weekend has not been ruled out for 2010, giving diehards reason to lobby NASCAR to finish the job rather than going half way.
The revived history would give NASCAR a boost by itself. Petty, NASCAR’s winningest driver, won the sport’s first 500 only once, in 1967. Pearson won the egg-shaped oval’s main event three times, and Dale Earnhardt took victory laps there on three occasions. Jeff Gordon won four in-a-row from ’95 – ’98, and again in ’02. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had no wins in his first five attempts and has never won at Darlington (Senior won 6 more spring races), adding priority status for the sport’s most popular driver. Terry Labonte won the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend in ’03. The November race in ’04 was won by Jimmie Johnson.