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Flat Spot On: Dad-gum! It’s a Darlington Encore

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 6 2021

Kyle Larson’s Hail Mary move on Denny Hamlin on the final lap at Darlington sparked a lot of attention. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Well, here they went again at the Darlington Raceway with the Cook Out Southern 500, a race I saw for the first time after arriving on my motorcycle with a typewriter strapped to the back 45 years ago.

These days, I have to ask—what is there to like about this race?

Known as the Grandaddy of Them All back in the day, it preceded Monday Night Football by two decades by running on Labor Day. Now they race on Sunday. This year’s race starts about the time they used to finish in the afternoon before lights were added—and when the conditions were hot and slippery after more than 400 miles and the sunshine glaring through the windshield made it really challenging to drive on the 1.367-mile, crooked high banks.

Stages? Back in the day they guaranteed cautions just by throwing the green. Playoffs? Used to be that if you won at Darlington in the Southern 500, you were a champion.

The first time I ever set eyes on Darlington, you could barely see the track due to all the smoke wafting out of the parking lot across the Hartsville Highway. Nobody was cooking out as much as sitting in lawn chairs in the back of their pick-ups while throwing firecrackers with one hand and reaching into the cooler with the other. The air was rich with that bitter, sweet smell of cordite. State troopers, wearing khaki and stationed every 20 yards or so on the yellow centerline, provided only the vaguest air of security.

Denny Hamlin takes the checkers at Darlington on Sunday night. (Photo by Jared East/Getty Images)

These days they race backward with the start/finish where the back straight used to be. So, it’s more like a run it backwards weekend. Formerly known as the “Lady in Black,” now it’s “Too Tough to Tame”—as if it’s an overcooked steak. The only thing too tough to tame in the past were all the hangovers in the infield when race day dawned. In the earliest days, they had a temporary jail in the infield to handle some of the pre-race festivities.

In the “modern era,” those fights down in the old Turn 1 during the race were always pretty good. But some of the best fights were in the motel rooms where reporters gathered to play poker while betting on beer to chase whiskey and then ending up in a debate about which cars and drivers ran better on dirt. 

A Darlington stripe used to be a dance with the concrete wall on tip toes and before that with Armco. Now there’s a barrier made of foam and steel. It doesn’t sound like somebody dropping a load of kindling in the trunk when you hit it and is more forgiving than a first-grade teacher. (But safety is a good idea at a track that has claimed its share of participants in the past. And come to think of it, safety doesn’t hurt the quality of racing that is well over two times as fast as the first Southern 500.)

Used to be that if you couldn’t see the Southern 500 in person, you listened on the radio just like teenaged Fred Lorenzen growing up back in Illinois. All listeners were invited into the theater of the mind. Nowadays, you’re invited to watch an ad every three minutes or so on TV. Social used to refer to a dance the night before and media was something used by artists like papier-mâché. When I first started, there were Garage Passes, not media hard cards. At the time, social media was better known as Citizens Band.

You couldn’t come to Darlington in the past without talking about the minnow pond that the track builders had to work around, making one end of the oval tighter than the other.  Nobody cares about minnows any more, or ponds for that matter. They’ve long since forgotten that “Big Bill” France had to practically beg the organizers to land a NASCAR co-sanction for that first race in 1950 such was the inaugural excitement. Or, that a Plymouth owned by him and Curtis Turner won it in the hands of a guy from Los Angeles riding on hard-to-get Firestone tires. 

Hollywood stunt driver Johnny Mantz figured out that his tires would last longer if he didn’t go too fast, pitted only for gas and took the trophy back to the West Coast while all around him fell prey to asphalt made with a sea shell aggregate. Nowadays, drivers prepare with computerized simulators with programs generated by laser images of every square inch of the track. So much for eyeballing the groove as the Black Lady’s surface changed over the course of a sunny day with flirtatious indifference. Hence, the nickname for a place that always, without fail, sucks drivers into the wall, even at night. 

The cars, they sort of look like what’s driven on the street these days, but nothing like Ol’ Blue, Richard Petty’s Dodge Charger or David Pearson’s Wood Brothers Mercury. Roger Penske entered an AMC Matador driven to victory by Bobby Allison in 1975 that probably wasn’t anything close to stock, but sure looked like it.

“The King” and Leonard Wood have seen practically every one of the Southern 500s, although Petty saw one of them upside down on the front straight. Like Penske, they are still with us. So, there’s that saving grace. Richard Childress, one of 12 drivers who owned the car he entered in that first race I saw, is still racing, too.

The are no more confederate flags and there’s something good about celebrating the working class of the South on the Labor Day weekend without putting anybody down. And thank goodness it’s not an election year. After Bob Dole, Strom Thurmond and Jimmy Carter gave straightaway-side chats at the 27th Southern 500 and my first, the track’s announcer did his best to make up for them. “We want you to enjoy the race,” intoned the announcer. “Eat plenty of fried chicken, drink lots of beer and come back next year when all these politicians ain’t heah.” 

The race pace is faster than I remember, because drivers have downforce, side force and all kinds of g-force. The place still eats tires, which puts a premium on driver self-control, car control and pit road strategy. But nobody talks much about white-knuckling an ill-handling car any more for lap after lap, sometimes because that’s what it took to buy groceries, especially for those who owned their race cars. And, guys like Dave Marcis drove home afterward – to Wisconsin.

As the laps wound down on Sunday night, newcomer Ross Chastain had a look-in for a win after an impressive drive. Kyle Larson almost ended up in the minnow pond with an audacious move on Denny Hamlin on the last lap that included the Safer Barrier, a lot of sparks and banging fenders. Hamlin once again joined that relatively small club who have won the Southern 500, the Grandaddy of the Them All, without yet winning a championship.

This year might be different for Denny. And, dad-gum if I wasn’t still watching at the finish.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.”  Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Published by RJP Books, copies of “CRASH!” are available at Amazon, www.Coastal181.com and www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 6 2021
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