Darlington Raceway president Chip Wile acknowledged that he gets antsy at times watching tracks host two, three or four Sprint Cup races since the last time NASCAR showed up at his place.
The payoff this Labor Day, Wile says, is well worth the wait.
The “Lady in Black” has gone without NASCAR’s stars since April 2014, when Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag. The circuit will return in September when the Southern 500 reclaims its once sacrosanct holiday weekend.
NASCAR shook up the schedule last fall, moving Darlington from a spring slot it held the previous 10 years back to Labor Day, where the race became one of the season’s crown jewels between 1950 and 2003.
The layoff of more than 16 months is unusual, Wile said. Some tracks, like Michigan and Pocono, will have hosted four Sprint Cup weekends since NASCAR last ran at Darlington.
“I don’t want to say it’s tough,” he said. “We’ve kept ourselves busy.”
The free time has given Darlington’s staff a chance to put on a celebration of the sport’s history, Wile said. Harvick and other Stewart-Haas Racing teams have announced throwback paint schemes to honor Darlington’s return to Labor Day. Food stands will offer old favorites such as pimento cheese sandwiches, fried green tomatoes and sausage perlo, a sausage and rice dish.
The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval recently has hosted a marathon, several movie nights, blood drives and a concert to benefit the Darlington Education Foundation.
Darlington has been a staple of the NASCAR community since Harold Brasington carved the track out of cotton and peanut fields in 1949. The next year, the Southern 500 was born and became one of NASCAR’s most coveted trophies, won by many of the sport’s greatest drivers.
In the age of super-sized race arenas, though, there wasn’t as much call for a smallish (60,000 seats) country track. Darlington lost one of its two NASCAR weekends to realignment in the early 2000s, then saw its Labor Day date shifted first to California and then Atlanta.
Darlington was given Mother’s Day weekend, a previous off date for NASCAR that seemed to signal the track’s eventual path to being padlocked for good.
But Darlington turned Mother’s Day into a success, honoring drivers’ moms while racing under the lights on Saturday nights.
Last August, though, came word that Darlington would again be on Labor Day. It gave track staff the chance to tap into NASCAR history for the return.
“We’re the Wrigley Field of NASCAR,” Wile said. “And a race everybody wanted to win. Now, we’re back to the weekend where everyone remembers us.”
Wile would not commit to Darlington remaining on Labor Day — “That’s not something that’s up to us,” he says — but believed whenever NASCAR races here, it connects racing’s past to its future.
Darlington took steps in that direction at its April 2014 race when it tapped Bill Elliott and his son, Chase, as part of its campaign about the track’s history.
“We want to make this the weekend to celebrate the history and the heritage” of NASCAR, he said. “We also want to celebrate where we’re going.”