By Jerry Bonkowski
There’s a song by the rock group Cinderella that immediately comes to mind whenever I think of Darlington Raceway.
The title of the song, which was released nearly 34 years ago on May 21, 1988, is as close to a valuable life lesson as any other song you’ll ever hear, namely, “Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Till It’s Gone.”
I spent the better part of the late 1990s and into the mid 2000s watching as Darlington Raceway devolved into near-extinction. The oldest superspeedway in the sport was definitely showing its age, including an infield with garages that were probably at least 40-50 years old … or at least it seemed.
And many of the seats in the grandstands also seemed equally as old. Frankly, if Darlington hadn't been a favorite place for folks like Bill France Jr., NASCAR PR great Jim Hunter and others, the Lady In Black would likely have been put out to pasture many years ago.
Then a funny thing happened – not funny as in ha-ha, but rather funny as in ironic and how Darlington came full circle over a decade later.
To paraphrase the first line from the theme song of the Beverly Hillbillies, “Come and listen to a story from a man named Jerry:”
For as quaint as it was and how it was a direct link back to NASCAR’s beginning, opening its doors in 1950, Darlington had become a pit, a dive – and those are the nice adjectives I could use.
Yet like clockwork, you could always count on the Track Too Tough To Tame having two Cup races per year. But after 2004, NASCAR took away one of Darlington’s prized dates and shipped it roughly 2,400 miles west to what is now known as Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
You remember the old saying, “Go West, young man”, right? Well, NASCAR felt that taking away Darlington’s prized Labor Day date and its iconic Southern 500 was what the sport needed if it was to continue its growth nationally.
Unfortunately, it was one of the few rare moves Bill France Jr. made that turned out to be a huge mistake. California race fans never did accept the second date, particularly around Labor Day, as did all the millions of folks who made it almost a national racing holiday at Darlington for over five decades.
Californians didn’t want to be baked in the sun and 95-degree heat, even if it was early September. They also didn’t want to spend a holiday weekend at the racetrack. They had other things to keep them occupied, including frolicking in the ocean or beach.
Ironically, three years after Darlington lost half of its Cup races, NASCAR – which owns the track – decided to put nearly $20 million in capital improvements into the place, led by late track GM Chris Browning, who tragically passed away recently and who, in my opinion, never got the credit he deserved for saving Darlington from total extinction.
The Fontana experiment of two annual races dragged on for just eight years until NASCAR finally got smart and put the second annual event out of its memory (and fan’s misery). It ultimately took nearly another decade for the sport to return the Labor Day date back to Darlington. And in turn, Darlington built another new tradition with its highly popular “Throwback Weekend,” which we will once again see this coming weekend at the Track Too Tough to Tame, when cars carry paint themes that memorialize some of NASCAR’s greatest cars, drivers and eras.
And then in 2020, due almost exclusively to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darlington became a go-to track that produced huge crowds at three races that season (two due to other races being canceled due to Covid restrictions in their host states).
In a crazy kind of way, Covid was the best thing to happen to Darlington, as NASCAR was finally convinced that the Lady In Black deserved to go back to two races per year.
And hopefully, it will stay that way forever.
When you visit Darlington, you definitely are taking a step back in time, although much of the previously-mentioned old and decrepit facilities have been modernized and fans that could go to the Atlantic Ocean beach themselves if they wanted to, but rather would come watch NASCAR at Big D.
NASCAR almost made the same mistake with Martinsville, the oldest track on the circuit. France Jr. wanted to take away one of its two races – or at least keep both races out of the playoffs – but eventually capitulated and kept things the way they are.
Martinsville has gone through its own retinue of changes and improvements, but it remains the closest connection the sport has to its first years of operation.
I must confess that at the time France Jr. was considering Darlington-like changes to Martinsville, I favored such a move. I felt it was prudent to not only take NASCAR’s shortest track on the circuit – as I now fondly call “the little short track that could” – out of the playoffs, but also to take one of its two valued race dates away, as well.
NASCAR was dying in places like Martinsville, I thought. It was out in the middle of nowhere and most reporters and fans had to stay usually 50 miles or more away in places like Greensboro or Raleigh.
But not wanting to make the same mistake it ultimately proved to have done with Darlington – and I heard from several sources close to France before he passed away in 2007 that he always regretted taking away the race from Darlington – NASCAR kept Martinsville the way it was.
I may not have always seen eye to eye with some of France’s decisions over the years, but he was smart enough to know when he made a mistake like he did with Darlington. That was one of the main reasons why Martinsville didn’t become Darlington Part 2.
Yes, France was a man who rarely made a mistake, but when he did, he was bound and determined not to make another similar mistake.
He was wise enough to learn that sometimes you really don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone, but his brother Jim France was also smart enough to reboot things and Darlington has once again assumed its spot as one of the best tracks in the sport.
And hopefully it’ll stay that way for a long, long time.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski