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Darlington's final days?
It might be, it could be - but will it be?
The entire NASCAR nation will be watching this weekend's Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington Raceway with heightened scrutiny and interest.
The reason is simple: if the venerable Lady in Black does not attract enough fans to Saturday night's main event, or if the souvenir and concession cash registers don't keep ringing, it very well could mean the last NASCAR event ever held at the gritty, 55-year-old concrete stock-car mecca.
And quite frankly, its prospects don't look good.
In the last two years, Darlington has been a linchpin of change within NASCAR. Unfortunately for the high-banked, 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, that change hasn't been kind.
First, one of its two annual events was taken away and awarded to Phoenix International Raceway for this season.
Second, in a move that occurred last season even before Darlington lost a race, its annual Labor Day date on the racing schedule was moved to California Speedway, with Darlington getting a less-prestigious date later in the fall for its famous Southern 500 (an event that isn't even on the Cup schedule this year).
Third, waiting in the shadows is Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. Smith is all but licking his chops, having made his intentions known that he's ready to purchase the entire property, lock, stock and barrel.
Though Darlington is known as "The Track Too Tough to Tame," its charm and tradition have made it a driver favorite. Even though they've taken a few licks there, some of today's young guns profess devotion to the Lady in Black.
"I love this place," Jamie McMurray says.
Adds reigning Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch: "I love coming here. I hope there will always be a Darlington on the schedule."
A lot of people hope so, too. But will tradition and history be enough to save the Lady in Black?
Only time will tell.
Harold Brasington, a local Darlington businessman, returned home from the 1933 Indianapolis 500 with the idea of little ol' Darlington having a paved superspeedway, a place to hold big-time stock car events. He believed that Bill France's fledgling NASCAR just might catch on, and in the fall of 1949, he set out to shape a 1.25 mile speedway on land that had once produced peanuts and cotton.
Brasington and his crew toiled for a year to build the Darlington Raceway, with Brasington himself often at the controls of bulldozers and grading equipment. Brasington's plan called for a true oval, but the racetrack's design had to be changed in order to satisfy Mr. Ramsey, the landowner, who did not want his nearby minnow pond disturbed. The west end of the track (Turns 3 and 4) was narrowed to accommodate the fishing hole, creating Darlington's distinctive egg-shaped design.
The first race was scheduled for Labor Day 1950, and when the day finally came the stands overflowed with a shocking crowd of over 25,000 fans. Fans practically stood on top of each other and they scaled the fence just for a glimpse of the action.
Californian Johnny Mantz drove to victory that day in the first Southern 500, which took over 6 hours to complete but set a precedent for a sport that would grow to be one of the largest spectator sports in the country. Mantz started dead last in the field of 75 racers, many of whom had never raced on asphalt, but roared to the checkered flag averaging a blistering 76 mph. Over the next fifty years, names like Baker, Flock, Thomas, Pearson, Yarborough, Petty, and Earnhardt became commonplace in Victory Lane.
Remembered today as the original superspeedway and as one of the pillars of the NASCAR establishment, Darlington Raceway is known as the track "Too Tough to Tame."