The Lady in Black -Darlington South Carolina
8 May 2010
In the fall of 1949, when a crisp breeze toyed with the loose soil of an old cotton field on the westside of rural Darlington, South Carolina, Harold Brasington saw more than just dirt dancing around that patch of land. He saw the future. He saw stock cars.
Brasington, a local businessman, had a lofty vision that most of his peers dismissed as utterly ridiculous. His friends laughed at him when he returned home from the 1933 Indianapolis 500 and mentioned the idea of little ol' Darlington having a paved superspeedway, a place to hold big-time stock car events. They nearly committed him when he told them that he was going to build it. Nevertheless, believing that Bill France's fledgling NASCAR just might catch on, Brasington set out in the fall of 1949 on a project known locally as “Harold's Folly” to shape a 1-1/4 mile speedway on land that had once produced peanuts and cotton.
To the chagrin of family and friends, Brasington and his crew toiled for a year, Brasington himself often at the controls of bulldozers and grading equipment. Brasington's plan called for a true oval, but the racetrack's design had to be changed in order to satisfy Sherman Ramsey, the landowner, who did not want his nearby minnow pond disturbed. The west end of the track (Turns 3 and 4) was narrowed to accommodate the fishing hole, creating Darlington's distinctive egg-shaped design.
The first race was scheduled for Labor Day 1950, and when the day finally came the stands overflowed. Brasington expected no more than 10,000 fans, but the crowd of over 25,000 shocked him. Fans practically stood on top of each other and they scaled the fence just for a glimpse of the action.
Californian Johnny Mantz drove to victory that day in the first Southern 500®, which took over 6 hours to complete but set a precedent for a sport that would grow to be one of the largest spectator sports in the country. Many of the teams running in the Southern 500® that day ran out of tires and began buying tires from fans in the infield so they could finish the race. Mantz started dead last in the field of 75 racers, many of whom had never raced on asphalt, but roared to the checkered flag averaging a blistering 76 mph. Mantz showed the first use of a “tire strategy” by using truck tires because he knew car tires of the day would not last long enough to win the race. Over the next sixty years, names like Baker, Flock, Thomas, Pearson, Yarborough, Petty, and Earnhardt became commonplace in victory lane.
Sixty years later the Darlington Raceway is still known as the track "Too Tough to Tame."
It is still remembered as the original superspeedway and as one of the pillars of the NASCAR establishment. There is no other sporting facility in the world more steeped in history and tradition than Darlington Raceway, which has aged gracefully over the years but retained its feisty charm.
Nobody loves the feisty track more than the drivers. "You never forget your first love," said seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Dale Earnhardt, "whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition. And, if you happen to be a race car driver there's no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway."
Thanks to that charm, which has drawn fans back to the egg-shaped oval year after year, Darlington Raceway celebrated its golden anniversary in 1999 with the 50th running of the Southern 500®.
The annual event, which welcomed people from across the country, was to NASCAR what The Masters is to golf, what the Super Bowl is to football and what the World Series is to baseball. It's a battle in which drivers can spin out and become a part of the wall as quickly as they can thunder to victory lane and become a legend.
Some of NASCAR's most historic moments have unfolded at the track “Too Tough to Tame.” In 1985 Bill Elliott recorded wins in three of NASCAR's “crown jewel” races winning the season opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway and Southern 500® at Darlington Raceway and was awarded the first ever Winston Million.
The closest finish in NASCAR history also calls Darlington Raceway home. In an epic battle on March 16, 2003 Ricky Craven recorded his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory edging out Kurt Busch by only .002 thousandths of a second.
Following the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season a new tradition began at Darlington Raceway, now the thunderous roar of stock car engines can be heard each Mother's Day weekend in May as the sports top stars look to win at the track “Too Tough to Tame.” As part of the Mother's Day weekend tradition, many of the driver's mothers participate in pre-race ceremonies and give the “gentlemen, start your engines” command to get the racing underway.
As the demand for NASCAR racing grows, so to does Darlington Raceway. In 1994 Tyler Tower opened adding an additional 15,966 seats to the famed track. Following the addition of the Tyler Tower all of the track's grandstands – (Harold) Brasington, (Bob) Colvin, (Barney) Wallace and (Walter) Tyler – were named for former track presidents. Renovations continued with the completion of the Pearson Tower in 1998. Named after all-time Darlington Raceway wins leader, David Pearson, the Pearson Tower is the only grandstand not named after a former president of Darlington Raceway.
The Darlington Raceway of the 21st century remains true to Harold Brasington's ideas of what NASCAR racing should be about - fast, intense action for the fans and dedicated drivers loyal to the sport that America has come to crave.
Officials have continued to update the storied track's facilities; the first race to finish under the lights at Darlington Raceway took place in 2004. In 2005 a new Brasington Tower was constructed overlooking turn 1 with updated amenities for fans to enjoy. In late 2007 Darlington Raceway received the largest renovation in the track's 58-year history with $10 million in funding for capital projects including repaving of the racing surface and aprons, the addition of concrete pit stalls and a new infield access tunnel large enough to accommodate race car haulers and motorcoaches.
In 2009 Darlington Raceway celebrated a historic milestone – 60 years of racing – when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual stop at the famed South Carolina facility. Making the 60th celebration extra special, old and new traditions united when the Southern 500® race name returned to the track “Too Tough to Tame” on Mother's Day weekend in 2009.
The track "Too Tough to Tame" has come a long way since Harold Brasington graded the first turn. It continues to keep pace with the booming NASCAR world of the new century while standing as a monument to the drivers and loyal fans who sowed the seeds of stock car racing sixty years ago. And with its dedication to fans and its continuing physical enhancements, Darlington Raceway drives wide open toward the fulfillment of its ultimate goal – to be the best facility in motorsports.