The Daily Gamecock

Darlington's throwback theme pays homage to southern tradition, track history

DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 06:  Chase Elliott, driver of the #25 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, pits following an on-track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 6, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 06: Chase Elliott, driver of the #25 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, pits following an on-track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 6, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)

It was hot during the 2015 Labor Day weekend in Darlington, South Carolina. Temperatures creeping toward the low '90s put NASCAR fans and drivers on edge. Cockpits reached around 130 degrees.

Despite the Bojangles’ Southern 500 racing on Sunday night, the element of heat added another variable to the weekend’s most popular question: How do you win the Southern 500? Many have solved it; a few have done it multiple times. The race’s difficulty is no accident. The various obstacles make the event one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races.

It’s a victory every driver wants to add to their resume. If you win the Southern 500, you’re a part of history. This year’s winner — Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards — endured four and a half hours of wrecks, cautions and rising in-car temperatures to claim the win. He exited his car covered in sweat, exhaustion looming behind bright eyes and a huge grin.

The South Carolina heat had no mercy for those at Darlington Raceway. Neither did the racetrack.

In the sports world, the future tends to be the main focus. NASCAR decided to embrace its past that weekend, complete with throwback paint schemes, uniforms and tires. The flashbacks commemorated the Southern 500’s return to its original race date. It only added more flare to one of the greatest weekends in racing.

The track — known by its nicknames “The Track Too Tough To Tame” and “The Lady in Black” — was built in 1950. Its shape makes it one-of-a-kind; the track — which stretches 1.3 miles — resembles an egg, with each turn different than the last. Drivers had no idea what they were in for when the first Southern 500 took place in 1950. The event lasted over six hours due to engines overheating and failing. At one point, they ran out of tires and “borrowed” some from cars in the parking lot.

It was a rough start, yet it morphed into one of NASCAR’s most notable traditions.

Darlington held two dates until 2004, when one was cut from the schedule to make room for another track. Where to put that sole date became a guessing game. They placed it in November, the spring and eventually on Mother’s Day weekend. Although the race still held significant prestige, a puzzle piece was missing.

The hole grew bigger and bigger as the years went on. The outcry grew louder and louder. Something had to be done.

NASCAR doesn’t admit mistakes, but they acknowledged one when they moved Darlington back to Labor Day weekend. Die-hard fans were thrilled to have some tradition restored. Drivers felt the same way.

Aric Almirola, who drives the historic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, took the "throwback" theme to heart. The driver sported Petty’s iconic mustache and added to the weekend’s enjoyable atmosphere.

“Well, it’s always fun to come to Darlington first and foremost, but to come on Labor Day weekend — now that it’s back to its roots and back to what everyone thinks about when they think of Darlington — it’s just really cool,” Almirola said Friday afternoon the weekend of the race. “The fact that [almost all the race teams] have really gotten involved in the throwback schemes, the sponsors have gotten involved, the crew guys, the racetrack — it’s just a really fun weekend.”

This year’s Southern 500 was special for everyone involved, but it held significant weight for Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon. The four-time NASCAR champion is retiring at the end of the 2015 season, making this his last time at Darlington.

Amid an uncharacteristic on-track slump, Gordon took time to reflect on the venue’s place in history.

“This is one of those tracks — like Bristol [Motor Speedway] — where when you hear about the track, there’s more of people trying to scare you and put this fear in you,” he said regarding the first time he came to the South Carolina venue. "You go out there, and you either like it or you don’t, and I loved it right away.”

Gordon has claimed seven victories there, the third-highest win total in the track’s history. ESPN The Magazine senior writer Ryan McGee talked about Gordon’s wins, saying, “Every driver knows that you can’t race the other cars; you race the racetrack. From 1995 to 1998, Gordon won [the Southern 500], and all the old timers shut up.”

It takes a real racer to tame this reckless track, and each victor gains a hefty amount of respect from their peers.

Former NASCAR champion, current NBC broadcaster and Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett won three Darlington races in his career.

Though he hasn’t won as many Darlington trophies as Gordon, he still understands what it takes: endurance.

“The thing about that is the Southern 500 is a tradition, and it’s always about the survival of the fittest as it is about anything else,” Jarrett said. “It’s got that honor and that mystique and that privilege of the crown jewels because of how difficult it is to navigate this track and win — and rightly so.”

The racing cliché "racing the racetrack" is acceptable in Darlington due to its validity. Unique turns are only part of the problem. Once a racer turns four ends, the wall juts out. The right side of the race car scrapes against it, leaving a gray and white streak behind. This is the famous "Darlington Stripe." At the end of this year’s event, almost every car donned the iconic damage. The Lady in Black is kind to no one.

So, if all the drivers have to do is avoid the wall and race the track, what makes it so difficult? Jarrett believes it’s all about setting up the car.

“To find a setup where a driver can manage [each individual turn] is very, very difficult,” Jarrett said.

Darlington has a specific place in history, and it’s near the top. McGee has it tied for first with another famous track: Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.

“In my mind, Martinsville is 1-A, and Darlington is 1-B,” McGee said, who has covered racing since 1994. “Martinsville has been holding races since [1949], and Darlington came around in 1950. [Darlington] is like Fenway Park and Lambeau Field — you walk in, and you feel like you’re back in time. In your mind, it feels like 1950.”

The sports writer called the return to Labor Day weekend “gigantic,” saying, “It’s finally back where it should be.”

Jarrett even put it above the more well known Daytona.

“You talk about Daytona [International Speedway, the home of the Daytona 500] and its history, and then you mix in the Southern 500. It’s very deserving of [the crown jewel status],” Jarrett said.

Darlington’s throwback weekend honored the sport’s roots and affirmed that present-day participants intend to grow them. Keeping that tradition alive is important to NASCAR. The entire industry rallied around the idea and gave fans a glimpse of the old-fashioned glamour. As vital as it is to evolve, staying true to the history is just as crucial. If you don’t know where you came from, how can you keep striving toward the future?

The 2015 Southern 500 was a phenomenal example of what the sport can do if everyone is on the same page. The track and NASCAR intend to keep the throwback theme going next year.

There’s no doubt it will be just as thrilling — and just as hot.


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