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Woody: The Lady In Black Has A Very Firm Grip

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 5 2009

There are special places in the history of NASCAR and then there is Darlington. (Photo courtesy of Darlington Raceway)

There are special places in the history of NASCAR and then there is Darlington. (Photo courtesy of Darlington Raceway)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer 
RacinToday.com

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:

NASCAR.

‘Nuff said.

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. 

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 5 2009
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • Keith says:

    I’m leaving Thursday night to go driving 550 miles to get there and would not miss it. I would not drive the 75 to go to Pocono. Darlington is the best track on the circuit.

  • They tried to kill the old girl but she just won’t die! Darlington Raceway is not only “Too Tough Too Tame” she is “Too Tough To be Lame!”

  • Chet from Glenville, ny says:

    If there was ever a track that deserved two race dates, it’s Darlington! Nascar has turned it’s back on the tracks that has brought them to where they are.They’ve forgotten where they came from. The tv ratings prove that weeek after week and of course the cot which is anything but a race car. With the economy being the way it is, I can understand ticket sales being down, but tv ratings should be up. The proof in the puddin is we are getting very tired of the cookie cutter racetracks, the boring races in California, the glitz of Las Vegas and NASCAR’s penalty boxes, yellow lines and their dictatorship.That’s what is driving tv ratings down.
    Bring another date to the “lady in black” and let the boys go racing!