Image via Wikipedia"You never forget your first love, whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition. And, if you happen to be a race car driver there's no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway."
-- Dale Earnhardt
People call Darlington "the Lady in Black" and the track "Too Tough to Tame," but, while Harold Brasington was building it, they called it "Harold's Folly." Brasington's dream, a wild one indeed, was for tiny Darlington, South Carolina, located about 70 miles from anywhere, to have its very own world-class speedway, a track to compare to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He wanted to build a 1 1/4-mile oval, but had to alter his plans to work around a minnow pond on the property. He ended up with a track that was 1.366 miles and a little egg-shaped.
Darlington Raceway opened in 1950, back when NASCAR was still mostly run on dirt. The first race, co-sanctioned by NASCAR and the Central States Racing Association, had more than 80 entrants. Brasington set up a two-week qualifying process (similar to that of the Indy 500) to cut it down to 75 cars. Many of the drivers had never driven on an asphalt track. Californian Johnny Mantz started in the rear of the field, but won that initial Labor Day race with an unusual tire strategy: he used truck tires, which held together much longer than car tires of the day. Many drivers ran out of tires during the race and bought tires from spectators in the infield.
For many years, Darlington hosted two Cup races a year and the Labor Day race, the Southern 500, was one of the biggest events on the NASCAR calender. But time caught up to it. Attendance started slipping as textile mills in the area closed. Race fans began seeking "destination" sites where there was much more to do besides just watch a race. NASCAR wanted sleek, new facilities with luxury skyboxes and modern amenities. NASCAR moved the Labor Day weekend race to California Speedway, and moved the Southern 500 to November to be part of the Chase for the Cup. In 2005, NASCAR finally eliminated the Southern 500 all together and many feared that they would soon close Darlington like they had North Wilkesburg and Rockingham. Darlington now hosts one Cup race per season, a night race held on the evening before Mothers' Day. The Southern 500 name returned to the race in 2009.
As a result of the Milwaukee Mile being unable to secure a promoter for the 2010 season and canceling the scheduled Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races, NASCAR, in January 2010, announced that the Truck Series would be returning to Darlington on August 14. It is scheduled to be a one-day affair with teams arriving, practicing, and qualifying before racing under the lights that night.
Over the years, the track has been modified. The original frontstretch is now the backstretch and vice versa. The pits, which used to be split up along both straightaways are now all located along the frontstretch. Capitol projects in recent years have added lights and more seats, repaved the track, and added a larger access tunnel to allow modern car haulers and motorcoaches to get to the infield.
Most drivers will tell you that, at Darlington, you don't race against the other drivers, you race against the track. The high banked turns (25 degrees in Turns 1 and 2, 23 degrees in Turns 3 and 4) allow for high speed racing. Both straightaways are 1229 feet long. The closest finish in NASCAR history occurred at Darlington. On March 16, 2003, Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch by 0.002 seconds for the win.
Jamie McMurray holds the track Cup qualifying record. He turned a lap of 27.264 seconds (180.370 mph) in May 2010. David Pearson leads all drivers with ten wins at Darlington Raceway. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins.
See also: "The Track That Defied the Writing on the Wall" (NY Times) and "Beauty of old Darlington lies within its simplicity" (NASCAR.com)
(The master list of NASCAR tracks)
Darlington Cup winners