One mean mother
Darlington, NASCAR's nastiest track, sounds off
This story appears in the May 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The Mag asked Darlington -- NASCAR's nastiest track -- how she feels about hosting her only Cup race on Mother's Day weekend. Man, did we get an earful.
I am a bitch. No doubt about it. Always have been, always will be. Ask any NASCAR driver, young or old or dead. "You seen her slap me, didn't you?" That's what Dale Earnhardt said when somebody asked him if he really thought of me as the Lady in Black, the nickname drivers gave me decades ago. I roughed that boy up something ugly, but I also turned him loose and let him win nine times.
I am the mama who raised NASCAR -- ungrateful little bastards. My given name is Darlington Raceway. And I was a darlin', all right, in my prime. I was born in a peanut field in 1950, out here in the boondocks of northeastern South Carolina, and I grew up to be NASCAR's first big track, dragging that half-baked league off the half-mile dirt tracks. Now I'm old, warped, worn and forlorn. My boys have run off to Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles; run off every which way in those private jets they wouldn't own if not for me. But I ain't gonna die. I'm too damn mean, and I've got too many lovers. Those NASCAR honchos spit in my face in 2004, taking my Labor Day weekend race -- the one I was born with! -- and moving it to California. They got their comeuppance: Folks in LA didn't care, didn't show. Now that race will run in Atlanta, and the suits think the hardcore fans will be glad just to have it back in the South. They won't be. You can't fool my people.
I've been stripped down to one Cup race a year, so now I pine for 362 days, feeling forgotten, while all that traffic hurtles past town on I-95. Worse still, my race is on Mother's Day weekend. Everybody knows there's only one person who can keep a diehard fan away from the track: Mama. NASCAR went 19 years without racing on that weekend, before sticking it to the old Lady in Black. Well guess what? They can kiss my ass. I've sold out all four times they've run me on those Saturday nights. And even in this god-awful economy, I just might sell out again. So what if those big, fancy tracks have twice as many seats? At least I know in my heart that 63,000 fans don't mind going hungover to see their mamas.
Two devoted sons
The Lady in Black is ornery, for sure, but she has a right to take a few potshots at the good folks down in Daytona. Jim Hunter, now VP of communications for NASCAR, managed Darlington Raceway from 1992 to 2000 and loves The Lady as much as anyone -- yet even he must place economics above emotions. "If you were going to build a racetrack today, Darlington would not even be a consideration," he says, noting the lure of glitzier locales like LA and Vegas.
Chris Browning, Darlington's current president, puts it like this: "We're almost a victim of our sport's success. This track helped build NASCAR, but in order to grow, you have to meet the demands of sponsors and TV. And they focus on bigger markets." Mother's Day sellouts -- unheard of at other tracks in the past -- happen at Darlington because traditional fans "know they have only one shot a year to see a race there," Browning says.
So what are the chances of the track's earning back a second Cup race, or at least a return to Labor Day? "Slim to none," Hunter admits. "But there'll always be a place for Darlington."
And she's not about to let us forget it.
And the drivers, they still love me. The young 'uns give me as much respect as the old ones do and the dead ones did. They say I'm their toughest track, their biggest challenge. "You race the racetrack" is the advice passed down from generation to generation. Deal with me first, then worry about the 42 other cars. Last year they put a new dress on me, black asphalt, and it's already torn to tatters. So, I am back to chewing up tires. Ain't nobody dances as wild as me and my boys.
I am NASCAR's only true oval, a real bad egg, with one end blatantly smaller than the other. You think there were engineers and computers around when I was put on this earth? Ha! Richard Petty was right: "They just took bulldozers and piled up dirt for the banking, then said, 'That looks pretty good.' " My small end is practically a high-banked U-turn, but I'll bite you even harder on the wide end. That Earnhardt boy, rest his soul, used to complain to management about "where the wall jumps out in front of your car."
They can't change me. Now I like dancing with that California kid Jeff Gordon -- seven wins I've given him, more than any driver racing today -- but I've skinned him up, too, backhanded him with that same spot on my wall that Earnhardt used to howl about. I got my eye on that Busch boy this year, the young 'un, Kyle, the one they call Wild Thing.
I let him win last spring, but I might pop him a good one this time around, just like I did with Fireball Roberts and Little Joe Weatherly. Hell, I once threw Cale Yarborough clear out into the parking lot.
Those NASCAR suits can run off to their younger tracks, but they can't take my pride. I've always been a bitch -- and I always will be.
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