MONTE DUTTON: A TRACK TOO TOUGH TO DIE
NASCAR could learn from Darlington’s success.
All the frantic concentration on change has scrubbed too much of the grit off stock car racing. Lo and behold, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is still unique. Its relevance in the present is derived from its past.
Meanwhile, NASCAR modernizes.
Darlington isn’t the biggest house on the circuit, but it was packed, or at least that’s the way it looked on TV.
Denny Hamlin pulled off one of the more satisfying forms of victory. He messed up, by missing pit road, and made up for it with driving virtuosity. That’s pretty rare. Drivers make up for messing up by using wave-arounds and free passes. Driving virtuosity? Not so much.
NASCAR, of course, will take credit for the old-time color schemes, and old drivers in old cars parading around the track, and Richard Petty, making the start wait until he got good and ready in his 1967 Plymouth. The Southern 500 was always a throwback weekend. Hall of Famers have always congregated in Darlington, partly because the previous Hall of Fame was located there and partly because the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina is among the last places one would expect to find the tragically hip, or even the band of the same name.
Credit for a classic Southern 500 should go to the good folks of Darlington County, with an assist from the folks of Florence County, where most of the motels are, and the general tenacity and spirit of the feisty folks of the Palmetto State.
That famed country quartet, the Statler Brothers, had a song on the AM radio of my youth called “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”: Tex Ritter’s gone and Disney’s dead / And the screen is filled with … sex.”
Carl Edwards is gone and Tim Flock’s dead / And the track is filled with … children.
It’s a good thing. Any child who runs 367 laps around 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway is going to grow up in a hurry. It’s the stock car racing version of boot camp. When the race is over, the drivers look whipped. Back in the old days, everyone but Harry Gant looked like that.
It looked like NASCAR officials wanted to get rid of Darlington when they took away the spring race, and uprooted the Southern 500 from Labor Day Weekend, and then moved it to the night before Mother’s Day, a date on which no one wanted to go to a stock car race lest there be hell to pay with Mama.
Darlington made it work in no small part because South Carolinians who were proud of their place in the sport’s history kept on coming. People say “what goes around comes around” all the time, but most times it doesn’t.
The Track Too Tough to Tame proved it. It survives. It flourishes while glistening edifices in target markets struggle.
I used to sit in the press box, now affording a marvelous view of the track’s wrong side, and just watch the cars drift up the track and come within inches of the walls most of the time when they were lucky. I also watched from the lower rows of what used to be the back straight and is now the front. I baked in the sun and got drenched by the rain. I saw it young and drunk. I saw it old and tired. My first Southern 500 was 47 years ago.
This time I watched it on TV, but I could feel what it was like in person from so many memories. I could feel the humid mist of nighttime, chills from the reddening arms of unbearable afternoon heat and the sweat of trudging back to the car toting one side of a cooler. I thought of Barney Hall, Bud Moore, Cotton Owens, Harold King, Jim Hunter, Buddy, Cale, David, Bobby and Dale.
Racing would be better if more tracks conjured up such visions.