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My Brain on NASCAR - Sept. 5, 2017

Posted: September 4, 2017 10:18 a.m.
Updated: September 5, 2017 1:00 a.m.

I’m not even going to pretend to be unbiased on the subject of Darlington Raceway. “The Lady in Black” is simultaneously NASCAR’s greatest and most flawed structural achievement, a lop-sided Southern belle with a mean streak 1.366 miles long.

Like a doomed and dramatic high-school romance, she regularly and with great relish demoralizes would-be suitors, perhaps as some sort of payback for those who over the years have called the fabled egg-shaped oval everything from a dinosaur to a dump.

Ah, the sweet taste of revenge. A rash of improvements over the past couple of decades has the track “Too Tough To Tame” looking anything but prehistoric. Gone are the wooden bleachers of her early years, replaced by gleaming, high-rise grandstands. The former press box -- an elevated platform enclosed by chicken wire where sportswriters were treated to “gourmet” lunches of pimiento cheese sandwiches (still a Darlington meal-time tradition) with a side order of flying rubber, has been replaced by a state-of-the-art media center and catering services.

Just outside of the Turn 3 retaining wall, rows of graceful palmettos -- South Carolina’s state tree -- line the hospitality village, where the movers and shakers of the corporate world entertain their customers and employees prior to the races.

Drivers, crew members and fans requiring medical attention are treated by a team of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals in a modern infield care center, similar to a small trauma hospital, including 24-hour helicopter transport service if it is needed. 

I have worked at Darlington Raceway, and I lived in Darlington for years, so I can tell you from personal experience that most of the time, things around the old girl are pretty uneventful. Folks passing through town on their way to or from Myrtle Beach sometimes stop to take a look at the place, maybe spend an hour or so checking out the stock car museum and the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame before having some lunch at the neighboring Raceway Grill or Jewel’s Deluxe downtown.

In recent years, Darlington has really stepped up its efforts to make the track a more “happening” place. There’s a well-attended BBQ festival and car show in the fall, the “Taste of Darlington” food-sampling community event in the spring, and outdoor movies and a July 4th celebration in the summer. The track has hosted bike rallies and non-motorized marathons. Driver testing sessions are usually open to the public and are very popular.

Still, famous old sayings about sleeping dragons and still waters could be reasonably applied to NASCAR’s original superspeedway for most of the year. In the summer months, the air is still and humid, heavy with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. The famous black “Darlington stripes” between Turns 3 and 4 remind visitors of the legendary drivers whose contact with the concrete retaining wall during the course of nearly 70 years has created these unique pieces of “wall art,” so famous that the track once featured them on a commemorative ticket.

The wind may have cried Mary for Jimi Hendrix, but at Darlington, it whispers other names: Earnhardt. Pearson. Yarborough. Petty. Gordon.

Those privileged (or lucky) enough to have the opportunity to spend some quality time with her in the early morning hours will see a place that’s calm and peaceful. She appears tame and relatively harmless, but as Labor Day weekend approaches, she takes on the aspect of a woman getting ready for a party.

Her apparel combines the bright colors of M&Ms candies and a Skittles rainbow; she becomes Target’s infamous “Lady in Red,” and cinches the safety belt on Monster Energy’s little black dress. The perfume she dabs behind her ears and on her wrists carries the aroma of oil, exhaust fumes and Sunoco race fuel.

She is the most beautiful woman in all the world and she will hypnotize you and make you court her and fall in love with her. And if you don’t? That’s when things might get ugly. She’ll chew you up and spit you back out. She is, indeed, a tough old broad.

Most people have a true success story that they never get tired of, that serves as a constant source of inspiration. They can range from teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton’s return to the water after losing an arm in a shark attack, to Jackie Robinson’s journey to becoming a Brooklyn Dodger, to Capt. Sully Sullenberger, the American pilot who became a hero after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew.

Here’s my favorite. People scoffed at the construction of Darlington Raceway; they laughed and called it “Harold’s Folly.” Stock car racing’s first superspeedway was the original Rodney Dangerfield of sports venues, getting no respect, but she has been instrumental to NASCAR’s success.

She ushered in stock car racing’s new era in 1950 with a unique design and a layer of asphalt, and she has carried the standard for every NASCAR Cup Series track constructed since, large or small. She’s odd-shaped, and a little nutty at times, but that seems appropriate, considering where she came from.

When you think about it, perhaps Harold Brasington stumbled across the story of a fellow by the name of Jack and what he managed to accomplish, and had an interesting idea of his own, something like, “If that kid could make it to the stratosphere with just one bean, imagine what I might be able to do with a whole field full of peanuts…”

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