[media-credit name=”Joe Dunn” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]I’ve only attended four races at Darlington Raceway. What really confuses me about that is the fact that it is one of my favorite places to see a NASCAR race. Something always gets in the way of heading down the hillbilly highway (Interstate 77) and making the trip through the lazy southern towns to what I consider one of the places that should never change. I look forward to it every year.
I’ll never forget that trip to Myrtle Beach way back when. I don’t know if I took a wrong turn or I was meant to go that way, but I found myself in Cheraw, SC, when I should have gone the other way. Back in the 1970’s there were no GPS devices and we were too lazy to stop at a gas station for a map, so we just kept driving on a narrow two-lane road which led us to Darlington. My eyes immediately lit up when I saw the sign. I kept wondering if I could find the track. Well, it was right on the road and I made an abrupt right into the parking lot. There it was—the place I had heard my father talk about and the track too tough to tame. The Lady in Black.
I remembered that they had a museum there and I wanted to see it, so I headed to the first open door and talked to a lady in what looked like a police uniform. I asked her about going into the track, but she said they weren’t doing tours and after she thought a minute, she told me I could go in if I didn’t go any further than pit road. So off I went through what was then the first turn gate on onto the track. I was immediately transported back in history. The track looked just like it did in pictures and on what little TV we got in those days. Standing on pit road, I could see the red building in Turns 1 and 2 that TV had captured so many times. Little did I know I would be working in that building in the future?
To my right was the Union 76 sign and to my left was the first turn. I couldn’t stand it. I had to walk the track. I headed up to the banking in the first turn and surveyed the track from there. Then I walked back to pit road and went over to Turns 3 and 4. The fact that they were totally different made an impression on me. How in the world could anyone drive this track? How could you set up a car? It made my heroes even more gigantic.
After that religious experience, I headed to the museum, which in my opinion still represents a hall of fame better than the official shrine in Charlotte. It was small and crowded, but up close and personal. I left with the feeling I had gone to a mystical place. Darlington Raceway is NASCAR. Yes, Martinsville is in the same league, but they may be the only two tracks that take you back to the roots of what this sport is all about. It takes you back to the days when men fought for wins and didn’t necessarily care who got the most points.
Some of the best races I’ve ever seen came at Darlington. Who could forget 1985? It was there that Bill Elliott won the Winton Million on a hot September day. Cale Yarborough and Elliott had the fastest cars, but Elliott wasn’t as dominant as he had been in the past and Yarborough was charging. Yarborough blew his power steering near the end of the race in a cloud of smoke, but recovered to try to chase down Elliott. The mental image of the tough Yarborough gaining on Elliott in the final lap will always be etched in my mind. Elliott won, but Yarborough’s determination showed as they came out of the fourth turn, Yarborough sideways in pursuit of the No. 9 Thunderbird.
That’s just one of the great finishes at this track. I’ll still remember May 16, 1996. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch fought side by side to the finish, touching so many times. The two passed each other more times than I could count in the last two laps with Craven getting up alongside as they reached the start-finish line. Craven’s margin of victory was just so close.
It’s a shame that NASCAR saw fit to take a race from this shrine to real racing and gave it to California Speedway. The Labor Day Southern 500 was one of the traditions of the sport that should not have been taken away. To think that NASCAR saw fit to re-think that decision and not restore two races at Darlington is almost a crime, but we still have one race at the track and it takes place this weekend. For a while it looked like the track would join North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham in the list of extinct tracks.
So, I shame myself. I’ve attended over 200 Sprint Cups races in my lifetime, some I worked and others where I sit amongst the real people in the stands, but only four at Darlington. That’s going to change. We’ve lost too much history in this sport in the name of sponsor dollars and TV exposure. For every Darlington (or Martinsville) we have a multitude of cookie-cutter tracks that offer less challenge and poorer racing than that little track in South Carolina. It’s time to enjoy it before it’s gone.