Bill Elliott helped Darlington Raceway on Saturday kick off a nostalgia-tinged campaign for next year – the 30th anniversary of his famous Winston Million win at the track.
Elliott’s historic victory came on Labor Day weekend – the choice date of Darlington’s Southern 500 for a half century. Like a lot of fans, he’d like to see that tradition return.
“For me, it’s just a part of what I’ve seen and the heritage that I grew up around,” Elliott said standing next to the No. 9 Ford that he drove to the $1 million payday.
Some wonder, however, if Darlington – which has not sold out in six years and is on its second weekend move in a decade – will have a race at all.
NASCAR president Mike Helton called the idea of the NASCAR’s Wrigley Field not being on the schedule next year “far fetched. … I think there is a spot for Darlington going into the future.”
Still the boss added, “I have seen a lot of things that surprised me, and I have seen things that have taught me not to be shocked what happens next.”
The Southern 500 shifted from Labor Day weekend after 2003 and spent close to a decade on Mother’s Day weekend. South Carolina’s only top series NASCAR race moved to the weekend before Easter this year – the track’s first around tax time since 1991. (Helton joked how past track operators had hated the April date: “Everybody had to pay their taxes, and they could not afford a ticket.”)
While the weather was near perfect Saturday, Darlington fans ache for a race at summer’s end.
“NASCAR talks and talks about tradition,” said Bill Kern, a Charleston handyman who has camped in the Pee Dee track’s infield for 30 racing seasons. “They don’t seem to follow through. The tradition is Labor Day.”
Asked about a switch to Labor Day, Helton shrugged his shoulders and said, “You just never know.”
Darlington president Chip Wile, running his first race since arriving last year, said he is happy with the new date but is open to discussions about a new one.
“You talk to race fans here and everybody says, ‘We want Labor Day back,’ but to be honest, Labor Day is hot,” Wile said. “We’re confident whatever race day we land on, we’re going to make work.”
The Southern 500 found a lot of competition this weekend with the Masters golf tournament and the University of South Carolina football spring game. No time is perfect, Helton said.
“This time of year, we’re always challenged with Easter, the NCAAs (basketball tournament) and the Masters,” he said. “We always had to try to figure out how that all blends in together.”
Darlington must stay relevant by “being a destination for fans in the grandstands as well as fans on television,” Helton said.
Attracting younger fans became a key part of that effort.
Wile worked with a class at the University of South Carolina to promote the race and sell tickets. College student sales at the egg-shaped track are up 300 percent over last year.
“Our date in May we did not have that opportunity, because they had finals or graduating,” said Wile, a 34-year-old Georgia graduate. “Now we have to execute. We showed them about the place, and now we have got to show them a great time.”
The track turned a large grassy field right behind Turn 2 into a tailgating zone with a disc jockey and a bar. About 200 USC students, broken into several small groups, milled around the field and threw footballs three hours before the race. At least another 200 were expected on buses chartered by a fraternity.
The track pitched the race to fraternities with $25 tickets on the backstretch. Harris Dudley, a senior who went to races in his hometown of Charlotte, made his first trip to Darlington on Saturday.
“I never thought about coming,” he said. “It always when we had formals and tests. But then I heard what they were doing. We all like to tailgate.”
Several students compared the track gathering as a dressed down version of the Carolina Cup steeplechase horse race in Camden that’s an annual draw for the USC crowd.
That would please Wile since, as he put it, staying relevant for Darlington really means “getting butts in seats.” Overall ticket sales were better than a year ago, he said.
“I don’t have any concerns about us losing out date,” Wile said. “Gov. (Nikki) Haley is behind the raceway. Jim France and the France family and (track owner International Speedway Corp.) are all behind what we’re doing here. There’s a lot of new energy. We’re working toward doing a lot of things that will cement us in the NASCAR schedule.”