- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The old rusty fence that lined Highway 151 in front of Darlington Raceway has been replaced by a black wrought-iron one. The track surface that chewed up tires so badly that legend has it crushed seashells were mixed into the asphalt has been replaced by a slick blacktop. The entrance over the track that haulers used because the tunnels were too small has been replaced by a gaping entrance underneath Turns 3 and 4.
There are four new monuments outside Gate 16 near the main ticket office that memorialize significant people and moments in the history of the 58-year-old track.
Landscaping around the egg-shell-shaped facility -- different from any other on the Sprint Cup circuit and a big reason it is nicknamed "Too Tough To Tame" -- is immaculate.
The "Lady in Black," as the track also is known, has gotten a much-needed face-lift for Saturday night's Sprint Cup race.
More than $20 million has been spent on capital improvements over the past three years, and if track president Chris Browning has his way, more improvements will come in the next few years.
NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, which was given up for dead four years ago, appears here to stay for at least the foreseeable future.
"We're not going to forget it," said Grant Lynch, the vice president of International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility. "We're going to look to reinvest some dollars in it and make it better for the fans and more historic for the fans hopefully for years and years to come."
That wasn't the feeling when NASCAR realigned its schedule in 2003. ISC announced plans to shut down North Carolina Speedway in 2004 and gave Darlington's traditional Labor Day weekend race, the Southern 500, to California Speedway.
In 2005, Darlington was stripped of its fall date altogether, and its other date was moved to Mother's Day weekend, considered a recipe for doom and avoided since the 1986 attendance disaster at the All-Star race in Atlanta. Critics accused ISC and the governing body of setting the track up for failure so it could expand beyond the Southeast.
Instead, the track thrived, selling out every race since and giving Browning leverage to ask ISC for 3,000 more seats, lights and other capital improvements.
"We would never set up a racetrack for failure," Lynch said. "We felt like it had great potential to be a great nighttime show on Mother's Day weekend."
Perhaps, but local residents and officials of this town born of tobacco, cotton, soybean and peanut farmers were convinced they were going to lose what has been estimated as a $30 million economic impact to the area.
Browning, who as president of North Carolina Speedway shut those doors early in 2004, admittedly wasn't sure what the future held when he moved about an hour across the state line.
"I figured it was going to be either a home run or just a complete strikeout with this date because it was such an unknown," he said. "It had not been a very good date to run on."
As ESPN's Chris Berman would say, "back, back, back, back, back."
"That was a calculated risk Chris took campaigning for that date, and it paid off," said Jim Hunter, former president of Darlington Raceway and now NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications. "It wasn't a given it was going to be successful.
"We thought night racing was going to be successful, but on Mother's Day Saturday night, there were risks."
Darlington no longer is viewed as an eyesore in the middle of "Nowhere, USA." It's viewed as a historical landmark much in the same sense as Lambeau Field is in the NFL and Boston's Fenway Park is in baseball.
"It's made the transition from being NASCAR's first superspeedway to NASCAR's most unique speedway," Hunter said.
The list of winners is like a who's who in NASCAR. From David Pearson, who won a record 10 times here, to Richard Petty to Buddy Baker to Bobby Allison to Dale Earnhardt to Jeff Gordon, seldom do you find a driver not destined for the Hall of Fame in Victory Lane.
"It would be a travesty to lose a track that is arguably the most historic track in our series," said Jeff Burton, who won twice in 1999 on the 1.366-mile track. "I believe NASCAR and ISC recognize the importance of Darlington.
"It makes sense to have at least one race there. I'm not saying that they did the right thing cutting a race. I'm just saying one race there with the amount of fans that come seems to make a lot of sense. No race there would be awful. It would be a negative blow to our sport."
Most beautiful spot on earth
Hunter pulled into the Darlington infield in his 1955 Dodge DeSoto. The right front window had been knocked out and replaced by a piece of cardboard. The paint was worn and scratched.
It wasn't much, but it provided Hunter with a place to sleep the night before his first Southern 500 in 1961.
The track wasn't much, either. The infield was dirt, and most of the grandstands were nonexistent. But to Hunter, it was one of the most beautiful spots on earth.
"It still is," he said.
Hunter went on to become the track president from 1992 to 2001 before leaving for corporate NASCAR, but his heart remains in South Carolina's Pee Dee region.
You never forget your first love, whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog or a fickle racetrack in South Carolina with a contrary disposition.
-- Dale Earnhardt
"If I ever choose to retire or if somebody retires me, this is where I'll be," said Hunter, who built his retirement home not far from the track. "I love this track. I love this town. I love the people here. It's me."
In many ways, Darlington is NASCAR, maybe more than Daytona International Speedway.
It is here where Harold Brasington built the first paved and banked track in the middle of peanut and soybean fields; where superspeedway racing began on Sept. 4, 1950; where Pearson became a legend with his 10 wins; where, in 1985, Bill Elliott won the first "Winston Million"; where, in 2003, Ricky Craven won the closest race in NASCAR history by two-thousandths of a second over Kurt Busch.
All these moments will be remembered with the monuments that one day will line the walk behind Gate 16.
"It's the benchmark to me for the history and tradition of the sport," Hunter said.
"We had not taken advantage of or promoted our history to the depth we really should have," he said. "We took a lot of it for granted. There are so many people that are new to our sport. They've heard about the tradition and history of this place, but they don't really understand it.
"The monuments are a way to help them understand what this place has meant to the sport and past legends and other people that have competed here."
Nobody liked coming to Darlington more than Earnhardt, who won here nine times from 1982 to '94.
"You never forget your first love, whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog or a fickle racetrack in South Carolina with a contrary disposition," the seven-time Cup champion once said.
"And if you happen to be a race car driver, there's no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway."
More solid than The Rock
Browning was almost in tears as he pulled away from North Carolina Speedway four years ago. He'd spent much of his 12 years in Rockingham trying to save the place, but failed.
Now he was being sent to another track many feared faced the fame fate.
But Browning believes Darlington is in a much better position to survive. He pointed out that most of the money spent to improve North Carolina Speedway came when the track was privately owned, that ISC owned the track for a short time before shutting it down because many believed the Southeast was too saturated with races.
He views ISC's decision to spend money at Darlington as a sign it is here to stay.
"We certainly think it's got a lot of value right now," Lynch said. "We'll reinvest in Darlington for the company going forward."
Browning already has signed a new 25-year lease on 130 acres between the track property and Rogers Road that will allow him to relocate the hospitality village and set up a larger campground next to the minnow pond Brasington chose to build around, giving the track its odd shape.
In a few years, Browning would like to redo the garage, possibly create a fan zone similar to the ones in Daytona and Las Vegas. If the demand for tickets holds steady, he'd like to increase seating. Darlington is one of the smallest venues, with 61,730 grandstand seats and room for another 4,000 in the infield.
"I'm certainly pleased that Darlington is one that is surviving and that they obviously have confidence in and they are putting money back into it," said Gordon, who is looking for his eighth win here.
Mark Martin wishes they still raced here twice a year.
"That didn't seem like a racetrack that needed to lose a date," he said. "I think there are some, but I don't think Darlington is one of them."
Traditionalists would like to see the Southern 500 return here on Labor Day weekend. They emphasize that California Speedway has struggled with attendance on that date and opine that NASCAR compromised the history of the sport by moving the race.
"We're not out politicking for it because we've been fortunate with this weekend," Browning said. "But if it ever did move, it certainly needs to come back here."
Lynch said the topic does come up from time to time and didn't rule out such a move. Hunter doesn't believe it'll ever happen.
"Who said you can't go home?" he asked, rhetorically. "You can't go back, and there's no need to go back. They have something they can build on now and can become even more special."
A new lady
Pearson maneuvered around the new surface in the red and white No. 21 Purolator Mercury, the same one he drove to Victory Lane here in 1973, during a recent promotion.
It was like a blast from the past watching him duel with rising star Carl Edwards on tires that were older than the 28-year-old in the Roush Fenway Ford.
Old surface. New surface. Pearson didn't care. Give him good equipment and he believed he could make a run at an 11th Darlington win.
"I don't see why I couldn't," the 73-year-old legend said with a laugh.
The average speed when Pearson won his first race at Darlington in 1970 was 129.668 mph. He went about that fast against Edwards, who was driving one of his show cars.
Speeds were about 200 mph entering the treacherous corners where the white walls soon will be covered in black tire marks -- thus the famous Darlington Stripe -- in the first of two tire tests.
Kyle Busch's top speed (175.278 mph) in Thursday's first practice was almost 12 mph faster than the top speed in the first practice a year ago. Thirty-one drivers were faster than the track record (173.797 mph) established by Ward Burton in 1996.
Pearson wishes he were young enough to test the surface for real. Those who have to race Saturday night are anxious, though, to say the least.
"I don't have any answers," Jeff Burton said. "I just feel like I have all questions."
NASCAR gave drivers extra time on the track to help answer those questions. The governing body scheduled two practices on Thursday, normally a travel day, and two more for Friday.
Hunter said that the same drivers who liked the track before are going to like it now and that the ones who hated it will still hate it.
"I drove around the track the other day, and Turn 2 still jumps out at you," he said. "You run out of room like you always have. There are no bumps anymore, but within a couple of years, when the track settles, it's going to be the same old Darlington. You're going to see the stripe."
Browning can't wait for fans to see the new surface and all the other improvements that make the place look like "night and day" from the day he first arrived.
"When everyone comes back, they're going to see a dramatic new Darlington than they saw a year ago," he said. "I hope next year when they come back it'll be the same kind of wow factor."
And for many years after that.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.