Commentary

Darlington should be like Augusta

Updated: May 15, 2009, 2:28 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

The Sprint Cup Series has Easter weekend off every year, and therefore so do I. As a result the NASCAR bubble that is my habitat takes a welcome hiatus, leaving me three or four seconds to sit on the couch with a cold beer and turn on the television. That, of course, means the Masters Tournament.

I marvel at that golf tournament, specifically the manner in which the tournament organizers, the media, fans and, above all else, the players, embrace and appreciate its tradition and lofty position in the hierarchy of international golf relevancy. And every single one of them helps promote the heck out of it.

Every year, whether you're at Amen Corner or the corner bar, the emotion invoked at Augusta is palpable. Without fail. And the reason is simple: tradition.

From Nicklaus' hair-raising triumph at age 46 (in the worst pants ever sewn) to The Shark's crushing collapse in 1996, to Tiger's changing-of-the-guard victory by an unfathomable margin at age 21 in 1997, the aura is invariably captivating.

This year that concept prompted me to ponder NASCAR, and how the sanctioning body and International Speedway Corp. had that very opportunity.

And they blew it.

Darlington Raceway is NASCAR's Augusta National.

Both have what every other venue wants but can't buy -- optimum respect, authenticity and a distinct, transcendent historical brand in a diluted market. Like Augusta, Darlington is revered by competitors, fans and media.

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As with Augusta, you know what Darlington is -- even if you don't know where it is.

The distinct difference between them, of course, is what can be bought.

Augusta has all the amenities of a respected, preserved institution. It is immaculate.

Darlington is Little Orphan Annie.

And don't give me the small-market excuse, either. It's crap. Darlington is part of the Myrtle Beach market, considered the 104th largest in America. Augusta, a fine parallel, has big-time golf but one week per year. It is the 115th-largest media market.

It's high time ISC wakes up and plays Daddy Warbucks.

Twenty-five years ago Darlington was one of the undisputed majors. NASCAR was Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte, the crown jewels of American stock car racing. Even before that, in the late '50s before Big Bill France built Daytona, the Southern 500 stood beside the Indianapolis 500 as the only major league automobile races in the country.

Some now argue that Indy has supplanted Darlington on the NASCAR majors list. It's debatable. Indy is a big deal. But Darlington still stands alone.

"No disrespect intended to any other racetrack -- Daytona is the centerpiece of our sport -- but Darlington has the most historic meaning of anywhere we go," Jeff Burton said. "Darlington has changed. It is not the way it was 40 years ago, thank god. But, it is the way it was 30 years ago. It still has that character.

"It is the same racetrack. I know the suites and all that is cool stuff, but to me going there is like stepping back in time and you don't have all that stuff. It is just a racetrack that was built around a pond that is the same way it was then. I think that has some special meaning to it."

That's right, Mayor. Preach it. Skyboxes and sushi bars are all well and good, but are anything but necessary. Darlington doesn't need sushi. (No track does. I love a salmon-avocado roll and good red wine as much as the next guy, but NASCAR is big ol' fat turkey legs and neon pink hot dogs and Bud Heavy, not cabernet and California rolls.)

Other than the facility -- a fiscal responsibility that falls squarely on ISC -- Darlington is still premier in every way. Win there, you've done something.

"Some of the racetracks we race on, you are a rider more than a driver," Burton said. "[Darlington], I don't care if you have the best car on the racetrack or the worst car on the racetrack, you can make a difference in the car.

"When I go there, I look at it as a huge challenge because I know that if I operate at 100 percent of my capability and my car's capability, we'll get the best we can, whatever that is. If I am at 97 percent then we're not.

"That extra 3 percent at that place gets you something. By the way, it did for Cale Yarborough and it did for Richard Petty and it did for Bobby Allison and that generation that made it so we could do this."

Fact is, to keep up with the competition these days Darlington needs attention. To its credit ISC finally allocated funding last year to repave the track surface and put a new tunnel in the place. Both moves are excellent, a fine start.

But just a start.

If NASCAR is truly thinking intelligently about the extended future, it will embrace Darlington. Fans care about the place. And NASCAR needs to care about the fans. They grasp the prestige. They care that Pearson and Petty and Yarborough and Earnhardt and Gordon made it so special.

They appreciate it for the same reason they appreciate Cameron Diaz and Reese Witherspoon -- its quirkiness is its beauty.

The track and its old-school feel are wonderful, but the garage area is dilapidated. Competitor amenities should be upgraded to modern-day standards. I was in diapers the last time the garage was redone. Corporate suites -- again, more luxury than necessity -- would help grow business-to-business relationships, which have become crucial in the industry.

I could be dead wrong -- I want to think I am -- but I can't help but wonder whether ISC presumed Darlington would fail miserably on Mother's Day weekend, thereby giving it grounds to fold the place up on the merit that it struggled to sell tickets. Again, I hope I'm wrong, but it's a theory I have as to why more money hasn't been pumped into the place.

And they'd never say it in Daytona, but the big-eyed expansion was shortsighted. They looked at immediate earning potential, not sustained earning potential.

I've written this before -- Darlington five years ago was struggling to sell tickets to two events, so NASCAR looked west. It looked at the bottom line and said, "We'll sell more seats at a higher price out West." Makes sense. In the short term.

Ultimately this is a business. It's about making money by providing an entertaining product.

That's the kicker -- the product out West isn't nearly as entertaining as the product in the Pee Dee. Gov. Schwarzenegger would tell you that.

Fans down South have been around awhile. It's part of the fabric of the region. It was never about luster. It was about fast cars and the boys who drove the hell out of them. Did Darlington struggle to sell tickets? Yep. Is it still a struggle? Yep. But it is most everywhere else, too.

Fundamentally it shouldn't be about that.

Last year I snuck up behind the outside wall in Turn 1 and watched the first 100 laps or so. When I left, my shirt, yellow to start, was gray. It was amazing to watch the drivers negotiate each dance step. The slightest mental lapse and they're in the fence.

Darlington is old and cranky and crotchety and worn.

It's like a bulldog -- so ugly it's gorgeous.

"It's really a crown jewel in our sport," said Kurt Busch, whose 2003 duel with Ricky Craven is among the greatest finishes in NASCAR's 60-plus years. "It reminds me that if you go to a ballpark, whether it's Wrigley Field or Fenway [Park], it has that old nostalgic feel, that, 'This is a cool place.' That's what makes it fun.

"The greats are able to come out on top at Darlington, and it's just a place where greatness meets greatness. It's a tough, tough place."

You can't buy respect. It's not fabricated. It's earned and maintained.

Darlington has it. Has for 60 years, and should for 60 more.

It's time to put a dress on the bulldog, ISC.

The Six ...

Marty,

The recent swapping of crew chiefs and teams between Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears was kinda shocking to me, while making lots of sense at the same time. I can understand it on the Mears side, but Harvick and [Todd] Berrier have some real history.

Any inside knowledge on how and why this all went down? Also, just how much time goes into a decision like this, and who besides the owner is involved (drivers, crew chiefs, sponsors, team members, etc.)? This story seems huge to me, and I just haven't seen much media attention given to it. Hoping for The Six ...

-- Mark Wilson, Portland, Ore.

Performance and chemistry had deteriorated to the point that something had to be done, Mark. In the competitive arena, those two variables are symbiotic. The 29 was stagnant and the 07 wasn't so much as sniffing competitiveness. At the time of the switch, Mears was 22nd in points and Harvick was 16th.

This change was necessary. NASCAR, and especially Cup, is a performance-based business. Teams are trying to appease current sponsors and entice future ones. Mediocrity doesn't cut it, and RCR, just then, was mediocre. It still has a long way to go.

Aside from that, the relationships between the drivers and their respective teams weren't great, and progressively worsened. Team owner Richard Childress made this decision. The drivers were not consulted.

Childress began contemplating the switch in Bristol, and spent Easter in Montana debating it. It didn't take him long to pull the trigger. He returned to North Carolina and consulted RCR competition executives Mike Dillon and Will Lind. It was a no-brainer.

Yes, Harvick and Berrier enjoyed great success together. They won eight Cup races since 2002, including the 2007 Daytona 500. Only the best have won that many races during that time -- Johnson/Knaus, Gordon/Letarte, Stewart/Zipadelli, Edwards/Osbourne, Kyle Busch/Addington, Kahne/Francis, Newman/Borland.

But it wasn't working anymore. Other than this season's Budweiser Shootout, that victory in the 500 was their last together. Over at the 07, Mears was a disappointment. Gil Martin, the crew chief on that team, has a reputation for expecting a lot from his drivers, and being hard on them when they don't deliver. That's his prerogative and his leadership style. Drivers make a lot of money.

Mears is a driver who needs affirmation -- as opposed to criticism -- to reach his potential. Berrier's easy demeanor should fit Mears well, and Harvick and Martin have worked successfully together in the past. RCR driver Jeff Burton said Childress' decision speaks well to the talent at the company.

That the big boss believes enough in his current personnel to reshuffle the deck with the same people, rather than seeking outside help is, in itself, a statement: Childress knows he has quality people, but it was time to rip it up and start over.

In describing his philosophy, Childress uttered a quote-of-the-year candidate.

"You know, sometimes it's kind of like a divorce, when a man and woman are getting a divorce and they think they're both giving 100 percent -- then the first thing she wants to do is get in the tanning bed and lose 30 pounds, and he goes and gets rid of his gut and [buys] a sports car," Childress said. "We don't have an option. It has to work. There's no option."

Song of the week: "Brothers" by Dean Brody. Amazing writing. Bring your Kleenexes. I was complaining to myself recently about spending a gorgeous, warm spring evening painting sealer on my porch furniture. Then this song came on the radio and reminded me how blessed I am to be able to paint sealer on my porch furniture. Remember to thank our boys in the Middle East, folks.

Hey Marty,

Love the "The Six," man. Gotta question: NASCAR drivers are required to visit the infield care center after a wreck, right? What about if the car is still drivable? If a driver wrecks, but continues racing, does he have to go to the care center after the race is over?

-- David Green, Fresno, Calif.

Negative, David. If the driver is able to pull the car away, even if it's simply to the garage to park it, he is exempt from going to the care center.

Random: Really wish I'd taken a photo of the girls -- er, young ladies -- at Talladega who made T-shirts professing their membership in The Six. I was speechless. They even had numeral 6s on the back. Very impressive.

Marty,

I thought Ron Bouchard passed Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip (without flipping them) to win his first race?

-- Tommy Schirnhofer, hometown unknown

Indeed, Bouchard did earn his first -- and only -- career win at Talladega as a rookie in 1981, Tommy, albeit in his 11th start. And he led six laps in that race, not just one -- the last one -- as Brad Keselowski did this year. Keselowski is the only driver in the modern era, and likely the only in history, to have led just one lap in his career and won.

Marty,

You often hear drivers talk about hitting their marks. How do they know what their mark is? Is it a light pole, a spot on the wall, or something else?

-- Ben, Tulsa, Okla.

Interesting question, Ben. I asked around for you and am told "hitting your marks" means finding the fastest line around the racetrack, and hitting that line consistently every lap. A driver's "marks" are simply reference points that assist in that endeavor. They can be anything -- a mark on the wall or the racetrack. I'm also told these marks have a tendency to change throughout a run, as the car's handling changes.

Marty,

In your early years reporting (with brand X) you dressed VERY casual (loose). Now, with ESPN, you appear in jacket and TIE (tight). Do you think a little negative camber or a wedge adjustment might improve your performance?

-- R. Stokes, Vista, Calif.

I could use a lot of things, Stokes. Like a tan.

Marty,

First, congratulations on your "other important engagement." They showed her picture on "NASCAR Now" and she's adorable. Now my question -- how does Goodyear charge the teams for tires?

Is it per tire, or per set? That is, do you save any money by taking right sides only, or do you still pay for a set of four and just not use the left sides? I hope your son's taking well to being a big brother!

-- Tammy, Cincinnati, Ohio

First, Tammy, thank you for the note about my daughter. She is perfect. As for tires, my pit crew buddies tell me a set of tires costs $1,808.67. They tell me a team can buy just right-sides if it so desires, but that typically happens only at Daytona and Talladega. One tire specialist for a top-15 team told me his team's tire bill at Richmond was nearly $34,000.

That's my time this go-round. See y'all in the Pee Dee. I'll be the pale guy in the tie.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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