Darlington Raceway evokes a certain feeling of nostalgia and respect for racing enthusiasts. Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing put it perfectly when he spoke about the Southern 500’s traditional September date:
“God always intended the Southern 500 to be on Labor Day weekend. The race feels right again; things are back like they should be.” In addition to the date going back to its roots, so too will the race be set in Darlington.
Today we’ll take a look at the long and rich history of this track, and why it’s so important that 2015’s Southern 500 is taking place here.
A Significant and Historical Track
Located in northeastern North Carolina, Darlington was the location of NASCAR’s first 500-mile race and the first race on a paved oval that was longer than a mile. Back in 1950, the date of this historic race, the cars were street legal and fairly standard.
Some of the drivers back then even bought their cars from a local dealer, qualified, and raced. People thought that these cars wouldn’t survive a 500 mile race on the banked track under the scorching heat of Labor Day.
The winner did finish, winning by nine laps. The 10th-place car was 29 laps behind. In the end only 29 of the 75 total cars were still running by the end. The track earned the name “Lady in Black” as it continued to beat out many of NASCAR’s best drivers.
The 500 became a Labor Day weekend staple all the way from 1950 to 2004. It was moved from 2005 to 2013 to Mother’s Day weekend and then moved to April in 2014.
Jim Cassidy, the senior vice president of racing operations explained why these moves happened and why it was ultimately decided that the race should go back home:
“As NASCAR’s appeal broadened, we worked to build schedules providing the widest opportunity for fans to experience the sport while maintaining certain iconic dates. It’s a tough balance because there’s a great demand for events. We ultimately realized that Darlington’s Labor Day weekend date is a tradition that needed to be restored. ”
Richard Petty in particular is happy about the return to form. He has been present at almost every Darlington race as either crewman, driver, or owner. He won the 1966 spring race and both of the 1967 ones.
“It was the last race of the summer, kids were headed back to school, everybody’s vacation was over and it was the last holiday until Thanksgiving. It was the only big track we ran back then, so everybody wanted to win the 500. I’m glad it’s back where it belongs,” Petty said.
Fans were furious when the date was originally changed, and even more angry when it was moved to other tracks. Between 2005 and 2008, Dodge had naming rights and during that time it wasn’t even called the Southern 500.
Chip Wile, the track president since 2013, was overjoyed when he was able to deliver the news that the race was coming home. “The reaction to the news was incredible. So many people remember the Labor Day races and everything around them (parades, beauty contests, concerts, celebrity appearances, movie marathons, and Sundays at Myrtle Beach).
Tony Watkins who was the town’s Mayor for 12 years, described the shock when NASCAR first took the race away from Darlington:
“We felt NASCAR had taken us for granted, that we’d always been here for them and would always be here. When they gave away our ate, they failed to consider the history of the 500. People see it as an historical and traditional event that’s ours. It’s a local thing, a Darlington thing, a Southern thing.”
Indeed, NASCAR’s reasoning for the move was to appeal to a wider crowd, but in doing so they scorned the oldest fans they had. In an attempt to make more money, the races went to places that didn’t make any sense, and the turnout showed that the South was, and always would be, the place where the fans were.
None of the current Cup drivers have raced in Darlington Speedway on Labor Day. Only 11 of the current drivers have raced here in September, including the Cup champion Kevin Harvick.
Matt Kenseth who won the 2013 Southern 500 says the race won’t be different this year, but the atmosphere will be drastically changed. “There was a different vibe about Labor Day weekend from other dates. It got hot as fire and the track got slick, and it seemed like the longest race of the year.”
Whether the racers fondly remember Darlington Speedway and the Labor Day Southern 500, or they respect the tradition of it, one thing for certain: the race is back where it belongs. Thanks for reading!
All images via Getty Images