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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The Drive to Darlington


The road to Darlington.

Travelling is a pain in the butt. Planes, rental cars, racetrack traffic, layovers, bad hotels, worse food … we all know the drill. But there is one trip each year that I don't mind. In fact, I love it. It's the winding country drive from my home in Charlotte to the Darlington Raceway. It's the drive I took last Saturday afternoon en route to and from the Southern 500.

From my driveway to the infield tunnel at the Track Too Tough To Tame is precisely 100 miles. That's a century mark of rolling two-lane roads, roadside fruit stands and memories.

As I ride along, I can't help but think about the race teams that have made that same trek over the last six decades. Cotton Owens and David Pearson heading east out of Spartanburg on Highway 9. The monstrous Holman-Moody machines of Fast Freddy Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts meandering south on Old Charlotte Highway. The Petty family -- Lee, Richard, and preteen Kyle -- cruising down the Bobo Newsom Highway.

I'm not a roll-down-the-window kind of driver. I'm an air conditioning guy. But as I ease through Carolina crossroads such as Catarrh and Antioch I can't help but roll 'em down and smell the honeysuckle vines and grill smoke.

Do NOT speed in McBee. We warned you.

Residents of those small towns turn their front yards into one long countryside Wal-Mart. A woman just east of Lancaster sells secondhand baby toys. A civic group at the intersection of Highways 903 and 151 sells hamburgers and cold cans of RC Cola. And a full eight miles north of the racetrack, a man in overalls holds up two signs. His left hand says "FRESH PEACHES" while his right says "I NEED TICKETS."

Speaking of peaches, I love to stop at McLeod Farms and buy exactly two, one for the drive in and one for the drive home. If I have an extra minute, I like to swerve into Hartsville, SC, just 15 minutes north of the track, and grab lunch at the Take Out or Westwood Barbecue (I don't normally like that wretched mustard-based stuff they make down in South Carolina, but it does set the mood).

If I'm down for a more leisurely non-race event such as a test session, press conference, or the Darlington Historic Racing Festival, I'll stop in at the Captain of the Seven Seas Restaurant, the Country Barn Restaurant and Buffet, or the legendary Raceway Grill, where race winners from Darrell Waltrip to Dale Earnhardt have celebrated by chowing down on hamburger steaks and hand-cut fries.

I always stop in the town of McBee, in theory to grab a cold drink. But in reality it is a habit formed in an effort to slow down. There aren't many rules to worry about on a slow southern drive, but on this route there is one.

DO NOT SPEED IN MCBEE.

The most notorious dragnet in South Carolina has earned its own spot on speedtrap.org. There are even gigantic signs mounted on either end of town with a menacing, gigantic hand that points at you and screams "WATCH YOUR SPEED."

I have stood in the parking lot of The Markette, a gas station in the middle of town, and in the time it took me to drink a 12-ounce Diet Mountain Dew, I've watched four cars get pulled over by McBee's finest. During one of those stops, I watched a drunken buffoon drive his Crown Victoria through the parking lot and slam it into the parking lot ice machine.

As I drew nearer to the track this past Saturday I passed the "Welcome to Darlington County" sign and instinctively dialed up Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" on my iPod and played track number three -- "Darlington County." I've done it every time.During one of those stops I watched a drunken buffoon drive his Crown Victoria through the parking lot and slam it into the parking lot ice machine.

Every bend in the road dusts off an old memory.

• I pass the Darlington International Dragway, where I once stood in the parking lot and had a 20-minute conversation with Harry Gant about hanging drywall. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I think I kept him fooled.

• I pass an old farm pond that has miraculously survived the widening of Highway 151 over the last decade. For whatever reason the water is perpetually still and amazingly black, resembling a giant mirror that lies in the tall grass between a pair of old tobacco barns. Good thing you can't see the bottom, because in 1998 I became so disgusted trying to listen to the newly-released Van Halen III -- the one with Gary Cherone on lead vocals -- that I flung it out the window of my truck and directly into said pond.

Once I arrived at the track I paused to take in the palmetto trees that line the Harry Byrd Highway and the old turn three press box that used to be painted Winston red but is now more of a taupe brownish sort of hue. The retaining walls were painted in red and white checkers and sported "DARLINGTON RACEWAY" in a classic font straight out of the 1950's.

Inside I rubbed shoulders with Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and David Pearson. (Figuratively, of course. Had I actually tried to rub shoulders with Yarborough he would have turned me into a soft pretzel.) Even the Jeremy Mayfield suspension announcement failed to ruin the mood.

That night, I slipped out while the race was still in progress, for no reason other than I like to look into my rearview mirror and see the lights of the track off in the distance, literally rising up out of a cornfield like Ray Kinsella's ballpark in Field of Dreams. I rolled down the windows, dug out that second peach and headed off into the night, listening to the remainder of the race on the radio via old school play-by-play man Barney Hall.

Lancaster Motor Speedway.

Every time I make my getaway I think about a tale from former Charlotte Observer writer and the greatest NASCAR scribe who ever addressed a keyboard, Tom Higgins. Pappy was driving this very route late one night with the top down on his convertible, taking in a lazy full moon, when suddenly a hand grabbed him by the back of the neck. It was Earnhardt. His car owner and buddy Richard Childress had shut off their headlights and stealthily pulled alongside Higgins. The Intimidator hung waist-up out of the passenger's side window and reached over to frighten his daydreaming friend.

The only scare I had was swerving to avoid a gigantic red fox.

An hour or so after leaving the track, I pulled through Lancaster, SC, only about 10 miles south of home. The race had only 10 laps remaining, and off in the distance I saw another set of track lights. It was the 55-year old Lancaster Motor Speedway, a legendary half-mile high-banked dirt track. In 1957 it hosted two NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) events.

I pulled up outside the front gate just in time to see a guy named Brandy Baker win the Super Street Division main event, a race I watched through a chain link fence and a cloud of red clay dust, standing alongside a sign that read: "THROUGH THESE GATES WALK THE GREATEST RACE FANS IN THE COUNTRY."

As Baker took his cool down lap, the track public address announcer asked for the crowd's attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you're going to love this one. Mark Martin has just won the Southern 500 down at Darlington!"

They went nuts and so did I.

I climbed back into my truck, windows down and headed for home. Next year I will do it again. And I will not speed in McBee.