Ryan: NASCAR return another sign of Darlington’s resilience, renaissance
They tried to give up on the old girl too soon.
“The Lady in Black,” the moniker given to Darlington Raceway by sportswriter Benny Phillips more than 50 years ago, is meant to reference the fearsome qualities of the most formidable racetrack in NASCAR
But it also could be applied to how often Darlington once seemed dressed for death’s door.
NASCAR stripped a race away from its first superspeedway (which opened in 1950 with a 75-car field). It ripped away its tradition-steeped Labor Day weekend (and the accompanying parade with Clint Eastwood once serving as a grand marshal).
Even the signature Southern 500 -- synonymous with the South Carolina region known as the Pee Dee -- disappeared for a few seasons in the mid-2000s.
But slowly (aside from a second annual Cup race), it’s all come back.
The Southern 500.
The Labor Day race weekend (with a wildly popular new throwback tradition).
The parade through the streets of a city with roughly 6,000 people.
And now NASCAR is back, too.
The 1.366-mile oval will be the epicenter not only of stock-car racing but major-league sports in the United States over a four-day stretch that never would have seemed possible even a few years ago.
Left to the buzzards when the Cup Series chased the almighty dollar and the promise of new fans a couple of decades ago, Darlington has become a lifeline to rescue NASCAR from the brink starting Sunday.
If it wasn’t so readily usable because of its proximity -- along with Charlotte Motor Speedway -- to help play host to four Cup races in 11 days and alleviate a backlog of 32 races that still need to be completed in the next six months, there would be a much less rosy tune coming from NASCAR executives in Daytona Beach and Charlotte.
Instead, they are singing the praises of Darlington.
“You look at unintended consequences, or in this instance, maybe opportunities,” senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said during a NASCAR America at Home episode Friday (video above). “Not only is Darlington there and available. It’s an iconic racetrack. It goes back with our roots. Of all the places you can open up, it’s a win-win for everybody. It’s got that historic atmosphere. Drivers love to race there and want to win there as well.
“So it became crucial to us to go there not once but twice, race under the lights and then be able to go to Charlotte. And both those venues really enabled us to keep much of the schedule intact on the back half because we’re able to pack those (races) within two weeks.”
There’s been a misconception that NASCAR is being opportunistic as among the first major sports to wave the green flag. President Steve Phelps and others have trumpeted the ancillary benefits of enjoying a much brighter spotlight Sunday.
But to suggest it’s the primary thrust of NASCAR restarting is as reductive as saying Kyle Busch won the 2019 championship because he had the fastest car at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
This is much less about seizing the moment and much more about survival.
Motorsports generally isn’t built to withstand long periods of inactivity. Unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, there aren’t dozens of teams owned by deep-pocketed billionaires who can wait out a shutdown. There aren’t coffers stuffed to the brim with emergency reserves of cash.
NASCAR and many other series essentially have two options: Race as soon as humanly possible, or risk extinction by remaining idle.
It’s why we’re seeing virtually every other form of motorsport (IndyCar, IMSA, Supercross, World of Outlaws, NHRA, MotoAmerica, short tracks, etc.) announce plans and schedules while the rest of the big leagues officially are mum on their next steps.
As always with the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” there is a looming danger here.
Some sports probably don’t want to win the race to be first to return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
NASCAR has built a thorough logistical playbook and will have severe restrictions on access Sunday. But the sanctioning body will be flying as blindly into its first race without fans in 72 years as the drivers will be entering Turn 1 without practice or qualifying.
“It’s a big responsibility that we take very seriously because we know we must get it right,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp told NBC Sports. “There’s been a lot of planning, organization and details going into this.
“This entire region and the state of South Carolina all the way to the top is very humbled and very excited that we’re able to do this. What better place in my mind to come back racing than a track that is so steeped in history and tradition?”
It’s been a trendsetter, too, since Harold Brasington built the egg-shaped oval more than seven decades ago.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway laid the groundwork for superspeedways in this country, but it’s hard to imagine a Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway if Darlington hadn’t been the blueprint for the South.
“Darlington changed the sport in 1950,” Kyle Petty said on a recent episode of NASCAR America at Home. “Darlington has an opportunity to change the sport again in 2020. This may be a glimpse into the future of how NASCAR races are run moving forward (without practice or qualifying), moving from this date to 2021 and 2022. This little place in South Carolina has changed the sport two times.”
It’s another case of pride for Tharp, a Kentucky native who proudly has called South Carolina home for 35 years.
“I think Darlington exemplifies the state in which it is located in,” Tharp said. “South Carolina is a very gritty and resilient state in my mind. It’s a handshake state. You shake somebody’s hand, and they give you their word, they’re going to live up to it. Those are the kind of people in this state.”
That self-determination also is shaded by some bloodshed and ugliness stemming from the stir of Antebellum echoes in the South Shall Rise Again.
The Civil War started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It was the first state to secede from the Union. The Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia until five years ago (after Dylann Roof entered an African-American church in Charleston and slaughtered nine people).
There also are many indicators of its resilience as a unifier.
South Carolina has survived countless hurricanes. After many body blows to its economy, it remains among the country’s poorer states, but its income growth and employment numbers rapidly were improving pre-pandemic. The state made bold shifts to tourism and major manufacturing, and Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston became bustling centers of growth.
It could be argued that the handling of COVID-19 is another example of its bounce-back spirit. In Senate testimony Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci praised South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s response as a model for reopening that “I almost would want to clone.”
Gov. McMaster also has been instrumental in ensuring NASCAR could restart at Darlington – another clear sign that some fans’ ill will of nearly 20 years ago has long subsided.
During what seemed would be the last Labor Day race weekend at Darlington in 2003, T-shirts reading “Money Talks, Tradition Walks” dotted the grandstands. Longtime attendees angrily described the betrayal of moving the weekend to Auto Club Speedway in Southern California as a slap in the face.
“Tradition is something NASCAR doesn’t believe in anymore,” one local told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long at the time. “The so-called rednecks who made this sport can’t go there anymore. NASCAR needs to remember who made them.”
Those origins eventually were recognized, particularly with the Southern 500 being returned to Labor Day weekend since 2015. In a grassroots renaissance campaign that caught fire in the first year, Cup and Xfinity teams rolled out achingly crafted tributes to NASCAR history that have become the most highly anticipated paint schemes of the season.
“When two races went down to one, the fans and that community and this racetrack stood tall,” Tharp said. “And the crowds were still here. The stands were still full or nearly full. And then when the return to Labor Day, coupled with the throwback platform, came about six years ago, it just solidified the fact that Darlington is indeed one of the crown jewels of the sport.”
And a crown jewel of the state’s sports scene. The college football programs of Clemson and South Carolina reign supreme, of course, and Hilton Head Island has a prestigious golf tournament.
Yet Darlington remains beloved as South Carolina’s literal diamond in the rough.
“You come rolling down Highway 151 from the North Carolina area, and you go through some fields and farmland,” Tharp said. “And all of a sudden, you’re up on a really cool iconic racetrack. Darlington. It’s just a special place in a lot of people’s minds.”
And this Sunday, it’ll be a savior for NASCAR.
The Lady is Back.