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Hearts Racing The storied track at DARLINGTON bid farewell to its Labor Day 500--and a beloved tradition

Sept. 08, 2003
Sept. 08, 2003

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Sept. 8, 2003

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Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Si Adventure

Hearts Racing The storied track at DARLINGTON bid farewell to its Labor Day 500--and a beloved tradition

There are so many things that can be cobbled together in the
garage area at a NASCAR race, but a decent rendition of Wagner's
Bridal Chorus isn't one of them. Exhaust pipes they've got, but
pipe organs? Sorry. So for her Sunday morning walk down the
aisle--the aisle in this case being the asphalt leading into
victory lane at Darlington Raceway--Lesa Russell had to settle
for Jim Stone, the local fire chief, bellowing, "Here comes the
bride!" Russell, in a checkered-flag gown sewn by her aunt and a
white lace veil with checkered-flag trim made by her mom, was on
her way to wed Greg Norrell, and she didn't seem to mind the lack
of musical accompaniment. The couple from Troup, Texas, scrapped
plans for a Vegas wedding when they found out the track was
allowing nuptials on the morning of the Southern 500, the oldest
stock car race in the country and a Labor Day weekend fixture for
the past 53 years. "It was perfect for us," says the bride. "We
plan our Sundays around racing."

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 2003 issue Original Layout

The groom wore Wranglers, a black cowboy hat and a checkered-flag
bow tie. (He removed his Dale Earnhardt Jr. sunglasses for the
ceremony.) And he was just as excited as his bride at the
prospect of a racetrack wedding. "It's going to be special,"
Norrell said. "It's the first time they've allowed weddings here,
and it's also going to be the last Labor Day race here, so
there's a whole lot of sentimental things going on."

Really, what better setting for a wedding than a day when
sentiment was running high at NASCAR's most hallowed ground?
Daytona might be NASCAR's most high-profile track, but
Darlington, a 1.366-mile circuit in central South Carolina, is
its most revered and--because it introduced flat-out speed to the
sport--its most important. "Without Darlington we'd still be
racing on half-mile dirt tracks on Saturday night," says Richard
Petty.

The track was the brainchild of Harold Brasington, a stock car
racer from South Carolina who got the idea to build a paved
superspeedway in the land of short dirt tracks in the 1930s after
visiting the speedway in Indianapolis. The war delayed his
efforts, but in 1948 he finally acquired a tract of land from a
Darlington peanut farmer named Sherman Ramsey. The track's
quirkiness and the aura it has acquired in the 53 years since it
hosted the first Southern 500 on Labor Day of 1950 are not lost
on those who race there. Says Ricky Craven, a NASCAR driver from
Newburgh, Maine, "I take my family to Fenway Park every year.
It's part of being a New England boy. The last couple of years
I've come into Darlington, I've had the same appreciation as I
have when I walk down Yawkey Way, looking at the Green Monster.
It has that presence, and it has that history."

The track has a mean streak that belies its homey exterior. "It's
the toughest track in the world to race on," says Cale
Yarborough, who won five Southern 500s. Not only is it very
narrow, but the fastest line takes drivers up against the wall,
so virtually every one finishes the race with a "Darlington
stripe"--a streak on his right door where his car has rubbed the
wall. Not surprisingly, both Darlington's nickname (the Lady in
Black) and its slogan (Too tough to tame) are ominous. For years
rookies weren't allowed on the track until they watched a film
prepared by the veteran drivers, who apparently found their
inspiration in the gory flicks shown in drivers' ed classes. Says
Ricky Rudd, who finished 16th Sunday in his 27th Southern 500,
"They showed about a hundred wrecks."

The whole thing can leave a driver looking for something to
steady his nerves. In the first Southern 500, one driver pulled
into the pits in a panic because the cigarette lighter in his car
was on the fritz. At Darlington, though, one has never had to
look too far for a vice. For the past 50 years South Carolinians
have celebrated the end of summer by going to the beach on Labor
Day weekend, then stopping at the track--Darlington is 80 miles
inland from Myrtle Beach--on their way home. Partying is as much
a part of the Darlington experience as watching cars and
suffering in the stifling heat. (Ah, the heat. One year it was so
bad that Bobby Allison chiseled a makeshift air flap into his
roof during a race.) "In the old days if you went in the infield
here on Sunday night," says Barney Hall, who has called NASCAR
races on radio for 44 years, "you'd better be prepared to get
into a fistfight or a card game or a drinking contest."

The infield carousing sometimes benefited competitors. Darlington
is notoriously brutal on tires. In the days when drivers raced
the family car, blowouts would force the crew to prowl the
infield looking for the same make of tire. When they found it,
there was a chance its owner was passed out, so they'd jack the
car up and "borrow" what they needed. Legendary owner Junie
Donlavey was once busted mid-theft by the car's dazed owner, but
when he found out who Donlavey was he gladly surrendered the
tire. Says Hall, "Things like that are how stock car racing got
its character. It all started here at Darlington."

That character was on full display on Sunday. In addition to the
eight couples who were married before the race, the crowd was
full of fans sporting homemade tattoos--drawn with
Sharpies--honoring their favorite drivers. On the track,
countless cars banged into the wall, making the race, as usual, a
battle of attrition. When it was over, Terry Labonte, a
46-year-old Texan who won his first Southern 500 in 1980, had
finally won his second. "I think this is the biggest [win of my
career]," he said. "It's a thrill for me to win the last Southern
500 on Labor Day."

Ironically, Darlington ushered in an era of change in the sport,
but the track has hardly evolved. Sure, it's been reconfigured
and repaved a few times, and more seats were added, but the
stands on the backstretch are rickety and covered with a
corrugated metal roof, making the whole thing look as if it were
built on Junkyard Wars. There are just under 60,000 seats, a
piddling number by NASCAR standards. The plush amenities, like
luxury suites, that dot new tracks are conspicuously absent.
"It's like playing football on a sandlot," says Petty.

But lately NASCAR has been distancing itself from its sandlot
days. In June--three months after the track's annual spring race
produced the closest finish in NASCAR history (Craven beat Kurt
Busch by .002 of a second), the organization announced that next
year's Labor Day race would be held at California Speedway, a
bland, modern tri-oval an hour east of Los Angeles owned, as is
Darlington, by International Speedway Corporation. (ISC is in
turn owned by the France family, the clan that has run NASCAR
since its inception.) Darlington's fall race will be in November.
Beyond Turn 1 last Saturday, fans Brian Hankins and Jeff Morris
sat outside a motor home painted like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car,
"cocktailing." They had two signs, one suggesting that ISC stands
for I Screwed Carolina, and another that read california sucks.
"It's one of the greatest family traditions of the South," said
Hankins. "You heard 'Southern 500,' and you knew it was Labor Day
weekend." Hankins said he'll spend next Labor Day with his
family, but he definitely won't watch the race.

While most competitors are similarly bummed to see the race move,
they understand the importance of expanding their sport beyond
the Southeast. Still, one couldn't help thinking that Yarborough
might have been on to something when he suggested a compromise.
Said Yarborough, "I guess we'll just have to move Labor Day to
November."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY BOGDON CHECKERED FUTURE Lesa and Greg were thrilled about getting married at the track.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY BOGDON THRILL RIDE Rudd (21), who was 16th on Sunday, remembered seeing a film of "about a hundred wrecks" on the quirky, dangerous Darlington track.B/W PHOTO: HO, ISC PUBLICATIONS, INC./AP (CAR) THE PITS The Southern 500 has been a fixture since 1950 (above), but NASCAR will run out west next Labor Day.COLOR PHOTO [See caption above]

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Daytona might be NASCAR's most high-profile track, but Darlington
is its most revered, and it introduced flat-out speed to the
sport.