Television sports analysts can differ in opinion, and the banter is entertaining.
There was no argument Tuesday, though, as the NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast team made one opinion clear concerning the Southern 500’s return to Labor Day Weekend at Darlington Raceway for the first time since 2003:
Welcome back. What took you so long?
“Yeah, I’ll say this: Honestly, from my perspective, and I remember when they moved it, and honestly I was ticked, and that’s putting that politely,” said Kyle Petty, who will be part of the team that will broadcast the 7 p.m. race Sunday, along with former Winston Cup points champion Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte and legendary NASCAR broadcaster Ken Squier.
After the Southern 500 was at Darlington – NASCAR’s first superspeedway – from 1950-2003, the Labor Day weekend race was held from 2004-08 at what is now known as the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in an effort to grow the sport.
It moved after that to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the Labor Day weekend race was held from 2009-14.
“Just from the standpoint that I think you can move forward in any business, in any industry and grow and flourish and prosper, but in a day in time when so many things we buy and so many things we do are just in a throwaway society, I think we need traditions to live, and this was a tradition,” said Petty, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time Cup points champion Richard Petty. “It was a tradition of this sport.”
Now that this race is back on Labor Day weekend at Darlington, so are the memories. So much so that 29 Sprint Cup cars will don paint schemes paying tribute to the great drivers of yesteryear, such as Timmonsville’s Cale Yarborough and Florence’s Buddy Baker, as well as David Pearson, Richard Childress, Mark Martin and Bobby Allison.
There is even a car that is a throwback tribute to Bill Elliott, who won NASCAR’s first Winston Million 30 years ago at Darlington, that will be driven by his son, 2014 Xfinity Series points champion Chase Elliott. Chase Elliott will use an angled red strip toward the rear end of his car for the race in tribute to his dad’s 1985 feat.
Even NBC, which will telecast a Sprint Cup event for the first time this year since the July 5 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, will undergo some throwback elements that evoke the look, sound and style of the 1970s.
Yes, there could even be bellbottoms.
Perhaps the Southern 500’s return to Labor Day weekend is celebrated because it is steeped in tradition.
“It was part of the cornerstone of this sport, being at Darlington, being there Labor Day, first Superspeedway,” Petty said. “We go back to the very beginning of the sport when they first broke ground and said we’re going to have a racing series called NASCAR. Then Darlington was there closely after that.”
Petty’s voice and tone grew more passionate as he continued to talk about the race’s return to Darlington.
“So I think for me it hurt, and it hurt the sport, and it hurt us in a lot of ways, because we just threw away a tradition, it seemed like,” he said. “But to realize that we need that and that people want that and fans want that, I think NASCAR has done a tremendous job of correcting and righting that boat and bringing it back to where it needs to be.”
Sunday night will also be special for Jarrett for other reasons. He will broadcast part of the race with his Hall of Fame father, Ned Jarrett, and Squier.
Squier was the first announcer to give lap-by-lap commentary for the Daytona 500 in 1979, the first 500-mile race to be broadcast in its entirety live on national television in the United States.
“Yeah, certainly it’s something that I’m looking extremely forward to on Sunday night, to be there and have a chance to call some of the race with my dad and Ken Squier, two people that really helped put our sport on the map once we were able to get the TV on a regular basis there, and certainly my memories go back to those early days at Darlington,” said Dale Jarrett, who won the 1999 Winston Cup points title.
While members of the NBC crew broadcast Sunday, they’ll be going down memory lanes of their own. Burton remembered the first Southern 500 he raced during the 1994 season.
“Well, I think for me, I think the first time I went there, and going to the rookie meeting, the goal of the rookie meeting was to scare the hell out of you, and they basically told in so many words, they told you if you did it wrong, you were going to die,” Burton said, laughing.
To say that left an impression upon Burton is an understatement.
“Actually, very few times in my life have I been scared,” he continued. “I actually left that rookie meeting, like, scared. They just intentionally scared you. I was a young kid, thought I was afraid of nothing except for snakes, and I left that meeting realizing, ‘Well, there’s something else I’m afraid of,’ and it was really intimidating. That rookie meeting just will always stand out to me. …”
But there is plenty of nostalgia associated with Darlington. And perhaps no one put Darlington’s place in NASCAR more eloquently than Squier.
“I just feel that this track is truly like no other,” Squier said. “None. In its imperfections when Harold Brasington built it, it’s the perfect competitive place for NASCAR. Those stock cars were built as stock cars. They came off the highway, and they had to go through whatever it was, and so we really have brought it home.
“You really don’t have to look back. It’s here. It’s Darlington, and nothing else runs like it.”