Darlington festival on former Southern 500 weekend

Published 2:43 pm Wednesday, August 27, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Like most NASCAR fans, Darrell Waltrip thought Darlington Raceway’s goose was cooked.

The former champion and current TV broadcaster saw the expansive new tracks on the circuit with their spacious parking, gleaming seats and fan-friendly touches. Darlington, meanwhile, looked about the same as when Waltrip first raced it three decades earlier. So when NASCAR put the country track on its endangered list a few seasons back, Waltrip figured it wouldn’t be long before Darlington became extinct like iconic Southern racing layouts before it in Rockingham, N.C., and North Wilkesboro, N.C.

“There had not been a lot of growing” at Darlington, Waltrip said earlier this month. “That worried me.”

But five years later, the longtime home of the Southern 500 has become the track “Too Tough To Kill.”

This week, Waltrip takes part in what track leaders hope becomes another enduring tradition when Darlington hosts its first historic racing festival. Raceway president Chris Browning says the two-day event could draw as many as 20,000 people on a holiday weekend long connected to stock car racing at Darlington.

“You can hear the enthusiasm when they tell you, ‘Yeah, I’m coming'” to the festival, Browning says.

It’s part of Browning’s strategy to keep Darlington relevant and thriving despite the loss of half of its old economic clout.

Back when Browning arrived at Darlington in 2004, his fight was to keep any Sprint Cup races at “The Lady in Black.” Prospects seemed dim.

In 2003, Darlington saw a 53-year tradition of hosting NASCAR on Labor Day weekend come to end, the race date shipped to California Speedway for 2004. Soon after, Darlington’s Sprint Cup schedule was cut in half after it had hosted two races each year from 1960-2004. And for Darlington’s lone remaining date? Mother’s Day weekend, which had been kept off NASCAR for nearly two decades.

But Browning and his staff kept pushing. The track added lights to accommodate Saturday night racing. It added a 6,300-seat Brasington Tower in turn one and upgraded several other fan areas. The result has been four straight sellouts on a weekend previously considered unpromotable.

Browning had kicked around ideas the past couple of years about expanding Darlington’s footprint and settled on the festival. He says other such gatherings center on road racing. No other track has done a racing festival that concentrates on oval track, NASCAR-style racing to this extent.

“It makes perfect sense when you think about who we are,” Browning says. “It’s a perfect fit.”

For those attending, it’s similar to a living history lesson. Greats like Waltrip, “Silver Fox” David Pearson, Ned Jarrett and Bobby Allison will take fan questions and sign autographs.

There will be five classes of autos entered: Stock cars, Indy roadsters, modifieds, sprint cars and midgets. Each group will get track time twice a day for the two days on the 1.366-mile layout created by Harold Brasington in the late 1940s.

“It’s really a historical landmark,” Waltrip says.

Besides reuniting driving greats with one of NASCAR’s founding tracks, a successful festival could add to Darlington’s bottom line.

The track’s last economic study in 2000 estimated an impact of $60 million a year on the region and state, Darlington spokesman Jake Harris said. An analysis of sales tax receipts done by The (Florence) Morning News after Darlington’s first two Mother’s Day weekend races showed increases of 21 percent or better from 2004 to 2005 in Florence and Darlington counties.

Browning doesn’t expect the festival crowd to make up for meals that would have been eaten, hotel rooms that would have been rented and souvenirs that would have been bought if NASCAR still ran here on Labor Day. Still, “I think this is very vital,” he says. “We can’t really sit here and be comfortable with hosting one event a year.”

Gradually, Darlington has melded its history and its future. Last year, the track repaved its surface and constructed a new tunnel to the infield with $10 million from owner International Speedway Corp. Earlier this month, the track announced the return of its Southern 500 race name for next May’s Sprint Cup event.

The festival, Waltrip says, showcases Darlington’s history.

Waltrip won five times at Darlington, including the last of his 84 Sprint Cup victories in the 1992 Southern 500. He’s looking forward to swapping stories with some of his old rivals this week and at festivals to come.

He’s not so worried about Darlington’s NASCAR future anymore. “I think everybody’s come to the conclusion that it’s found its little niche,” Waltrip says.