Woody: The Lady In Black Has A Very Firm Grip
By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
As you drive into Darlington, having wound your way through miles of fertile cotton fields and pine forests, up ahead you’ll see a water tower on the horizon. It boasts a simple banner:
Darlington, S.C., is NASCAR country. Has been since 1950 and continues to be today, an old-fashioned track stubbornly enduring in a new millennium.
There has always been a Mecca-like draw to Darlington, both for its racing and its ambience. It’s a stock car racing retreat, a place to escape the gaudy glitz that more and more has encompassed the sport.
Vegas has its Strip, Darlington has its stripe.
You can have California’s wine and cheese; give me Darlington’s barbecue and ribs.
If you listen closely, you can hear the ghosts signing in the swaying Southern pines: departed heroes like Curtis Turner, Fireball, Little Joe Weatherly, Buck Baker …
And the retired latter-day legends: Petty, Pearson, Yarborough.
And all the rest who waged war on NASCAR’s Lambeau Field: Allison, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Gant, Wallace, Elliott, Jarrett, Gordon … checking out the list of Darlington winners over the decades reads like a Who’s Who in NASCAR. It’s not just a winner’s list, it’s a history lesson.
When you go to Darlington, you’re taking a trip down NASCAR’s memory lane. You’re stepping back in time. You half expect to suddenly see a ‘shine-runner thunder around a curve, his ’40 Ford’s rear-end sagging and swaying under its illicit load.
And to think we might have let it all get away. In 2005 Darlington was down to one annual Cup race. There was talk that the other one might be lost as well, that Darlington was destined to fade away like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham – old tracks left behind in the dust of progress.
Thankfully it didn’t happen. Darlington retained one race a year and it’ll be run Saturday night. It is christened the Southern 500, a link to the track’s storied past.
Lots of fans – at least Southern fans — would like to see the track get its second race back. Its action and ambience beats many of the new modern additions.
The new tracks are called cookie-cutter because they’re all about the same. If Darlington had been made by a cookie cutter it would have been one tough cookie: 1.3-miles of claustrophobic walls and hairpin turns that would cramp a hound’s hind leg.
Darlington has a delightful history, starting with the oft-told tale of how it got its unique configuration: the owner of the land refused to plough up his minnow pond, so the track had to be structured around it.
Those minnows had no idea how much trouble they’d cause in coming years.
The sharp turns and cramped confines makes for tight, wall-scraping racing. They used to say a driver wasn’t a driver until he’d been initiated with his Darlington stripe.
In recent years the sport has focused on expanding into new markets and that’s not a bad thing – not bad, that is, unless it forsakes its past in the process. Some of us feared NASCAR was on a path to abandoning its roots and selling its soul.
Maybe that’s helps explain why a return to Darlington is always so refreshing. It’s a reassuring reconnect with the sport’s past, a down-to-earth reminder about what got the sport to where it is today.
Would NASCAR have risen to its present popularity without gritty old tracks like Darlington? Maybe, maybe not. But the action and the attention they provided was definitely a catalyst.
Down home there’s a saying, “Dance with the one that brung you.”
Darlington, the temperamental “Lady in Black,” refuses to grow old quietly. She’s ready to dance.4 Comments