Darlington Raceway will celebrate its 65th year of racing later this week when the Sprint Cup Series rolls into the South Carolina track for the running of the Bojangles’ Southern 500.
For years the track was considered one of the most anticipated stops on the Sprint Cup schedule, but now is just trying to find the right date on the schedule to hold its lone race of the year.
Longtime fans of the sport will remember the track as hosting two races each season — one race held early in the spring to take advantage of South Carolina’s great weather and the second held during the prized Labor Day weekend slot. It was the track’s Labor Day Southern 500 that set it apart from the other tracks, as it was considered one of the four crown jewel races on the schedule.
The Southern 500 joined the Daytona 500, Charlotte’s World 600 and Talladega’s Winston 500 as the four races that every driver wanted to win. Each race was unique to the schedule, but the Southern 500 was held on Darlington’s oneof a-kind 1.366-mile track. Unlike the other oval tracks that held Cup races, Darlington was the only one that featured turns that had different levels of banking and a different radius. Because of the two totally different ends to its oval, Darlington had the reputation as being the toughest track on drivers and crew chiefs faced with setting up a car to get around both ends of the track efficiently.
The track’s surface seemed to always be worn out, and the hot South Carolina sun always made it one of the slickest in the sport. The track was also known for its thin layer of sand deposited by the winds from the nearby sand hills. The sand not only made the track slicker, but was also tough on tire wear.
The sight of cars rubbing the outside wall became so common at Darlington that the resulting damage was called a Darlington Stripe. Few cars, whether they were running up front or back in the pack, finished a race without one of the famous stripes. It was this kind of action that made it one of the best tickets in all of the sport, but in recent years that has all changed.
While the track’s famous racing surface was aging gracefully, the same could not be said about the track’s amenities. It lagged behind when it came to what the other tracks on the schedule offered to their fans and soon the track began having trouble selling tickets.
The track eventually lost its Labor Day race, which, as it turned out, really gave the track a crippling blow. The track’s one race was to be a spring date, and while NASCAR didn’t want to run a race on Mother’s Day it gave Darlington the Saturday night before Mother’s Day to hold its one remaining race. It was a hard date to sell tickets, but to the track’s credit it promoted both the race and the date heavily, but it was a struggle every year.
This season, NASCAR moved the Mother’s Day weekend date to Kansas Speedway and gave Darlington an earlier spring date that, according to track President Chip Wile, will give the track an opportunity for a fresh start, and one he thinks will give the fans a better experience. The weather in April is cooler than in May plus the colleges in the area are still in session, giving the students the opportunity to come to the race.
Ticket sales for this weekend of racing at the track that begins on Friday night with the Nationwide 200 will be crucial to the track as it struggles to remain on the Cup schedule. The track will provide plenty enough action; the question is whether it will be enough to fill the seats. Darlington is more than just a race, it’s the history of the sport and it’s a track that should be able to open its gates to the sport every season!
Event: Bojangles’ 500
Track: Darlington Raceway (1.366 oval, banking in turns 1 & 2 – 250, 3 & 4 – 230)
Date: April 12, 7:30 p.m.
Defending champion: Matt Kenseth