The track needs a boost, and changing the 2004 Southern 500 to a night race could return past status.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 2002
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Anyone wondering what NASCAR was like in its early days, before corporate sponsors and multicar teams, needs to visit Darlington Raceway.
It hasn't changed.
Darlington, NASCAR's oldest superspeedway and site of its first 500-mile race in 1950, is tucked away in rural South Carolina, built by a farmer who thought it would be fun to race cars.
"It's kind of like stepping back in time when you go to Darlington," said Jeff Burton, a two-time winner here. "It doesn't have the great suites and it doesn't have all the pretty grass. But what it has is a facility that was built a long time ago and has put on a lot of great races with all of NASCAR's great drivers. It's what racing ought to be."
As host to the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend, Darlington's place in history is secure. Its future looks bright, too.
To fight sagging attendance and restore Darlington to its place of honor, track officials are considering installing lights and turning the Southern 500 into a Saturday night race for 2004.
"The general feeling is that moving the Southern 500 to a night race will give the race a boost and highlight its position in the sport," said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter, a former Darlington president. "I think that would bring a tremendous element to this particular event."
Fans love night races, and Darlington could use a spark.
"It's important to make sure they do the proper lighting and do it right, because Darlington is a tricky place during the day, and you want to make sure there are no shadows," said Gordon, who starts third today. "I think it would be a positive in many ways for them. I think it would be a good investment."
The grandstand on the backstretch, which until 1997 was the frontstretch, is the original from 1950. Walking into the track offices is like setting the dial on a time machine to the '50s.
"It is a Model-T Ford in a space age," Hunter said.
Past winners include David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, Buck Baker, Joe Weatherly ... the list goes on. Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon are five-time winners.
Called the track too tough to tame, Darlington is a beast, shaped like an egg because the farmer, Harold Brasington, had to avoid his favorite fishing pond.
The fastest line is about a foot from the wall, and the slightest loss of concentration results in a Darlington stripe, a black streak on the car's right side from scraping the wall. The surface, a mixture of asphalt, sand and crushed sea shells, eats tires.
Rookie Jimmie Johnson never will forget seeing his first Darlington race as a spectator.
"Watching the guys sail off and run along the wall, I thought it was one of the oddest and most challenging things I'd seen," said Johnson, who finished sixth in his first Winston Cup race at Darlington in March.
"I'd only watched it on television before that. I always thought it was a cool track once I got involved with it and understood the history. You can now catch a lot of those classic NASCAR events and see races from way back at Darlington."
No one building a track today would use Darlington as a model. With several gleaming new facilities begging for a second Winston Cup date, Darlington seems always in jeopardy of losing one of its two races, most likely the March race. And even the Southern 500 has not sold out the past three years at the 60,000-seat facility.
Lighting the track could secure its place in the lineup without sacrificing its nostalgic charm.
"A lot of these older events that have been here for so long, sometimes they need a little boost," said third-generation driver Kyle Petty, who used to play football on the Darlington infield while his father, Richard, raced.
"People have been coming here Labor Day weekend for 50 years. To have a night race here would be special for this place. More than breaking tradition, I think it would help create new tradition."