Losing one of its Sprint Cup races signaled the first sign of trouble for Darlington Raceway. Then, the dominoes really started to fall.
The parent company sent its traditional date elsewhere. Its iconic name disappeared from stock-car racing’s oldest super-speedway event. Sponsorship became spotty. Its remaining race received a kiss-of-death weekend on the calendar.
But through a decade of challenges, Darlington Raceway persevered, and Thursday’s announcement that Bojangles’ would attach its name to the Southern 500 for five years suggests that the rattlesnake-mean track in the Pee Dee is stronger than ever.
Darlington and Bojangles’ officials announced the deal at NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, unveiled the pace car with the new logo for this year’s May 12 race and looked at the partnership with great expectations.
“Fantastic” is the word Darlington track president Chris Browning used frequently in discussing the deal that came together in 12 days.
Randy Kibler, Bojangles’ president and CEO, echoed Browning’s “win-win” comments of the deal that allows the company to sell its products at five tracks owned by International Speedway Corp.: Darlington, Daytona, Talladega, Martinsville and Richmond.
“To know the sponsorship is secure for five years is huge for us,” Browning said.
“We went into the negotiations with the idea of a three-year deal, and the Bojangles’ people suggested five years. I think the sellouts we have had in recent years” — on the supposedly tough-to-sell Mother’s Day weekend — “and the fact that our customer demographics are very similar to theirs made Darlington an attractive partner.”
Three track presidents — the late Jim Hunter, Andrew Gurtis and Browning — have led the improvement efforts to make sure Darlington remains a viable part of the NASCAR schedule.
But the poor economy torpedoed sponsorship efforts.
Dodge pulled out after several years, then the track found GoDaddy (one year) and Showtime (two years) for stopgap measures.
“The length of this sponsorship is extremely important,” Browning said.
The corporation’s marketing officials made first contact with Bojangles’ to explore sponsorship opportunities, and the availability of Darlington appealed to the restaurant chain’s officials.
“The Bojangles’ Southern 500 ... we like the sound of that,” Kibler said. “Some things just go together, and we have no doubt this is a winning combination.”
Regan Smith, who outdueled Carl Edwards in a typical bang-bang Darlington finish to win the 2011 Southern 500, flew in from Denver for the announcement with a message from his wife.
“She told me, ‘You had better bring me some of (Bojangles’) seasoned fries,’ ” he said.
“Getting name recognition like that is huge.”