Darlington, Baby! The Southern 500

Fourth Estate/Billy Ferguson


The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is not what it used to be. NASCAR (see what they did there?) used to be a sport for Southerners, by Southerners. In 1965 when Tom Wolfe pronounced driver Junior Johnson “the last American hero,” nearly all the best drivers were from Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, or the Carolinas. The 1965 season of the (unsponsored) Grand National Series comprised of 55 races, mostly Southern and rarely televised.

The modern 36-race season of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series features races from California to New Hampshire, and you better believe it’s all televised — the rights are worth about $8 billion. The top ten in the standings includes drivers hailing from Nevada, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, and California, in addition to Virginia and Georgia.

And, unlike Junior Johnson, none of them have been arrested for running moonshine. (Though President Reagan pardoned him — like it never even happened!)

What the sport (yes, it is a sport, there will be no debate) has lost in mystique and legend it has gained in quality and competitiveness. The cars are on the cutting edge of engineering and safety, and the days of one driver like Richard Petty (“The King,” long may he reign) winning 10 or more races in a season (which he did eight times, peaking at 27 victories in 1967) are long gone.

But one weekend per year, NASCAR throws it back. One weekend per year, the teams plaster on new advertising that blankets the cars to allow for throwback paint schemes, and NASCAR reverts to old branding in its promotional materials. One weekend per year, they go back to the track that started it all, to the first superspeedway, nicknamed The Lady in Black and The Track Too Tough to Tame, to a 6,000-person town in the middle of nowhere in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

Darlington, baby! The Southern 500!

The first Southern 500 was held on Labor Day weekend in 1950, after the track was built in a strange oval shape to accommodate a minnow pond on a farmer’s property. The minnow pond is gone, but that strange oval shape persists to this day, much to drivers’ chagrin. The difficulty of Darlington Raceway is unparalleled and drivers often finish the race with “Darlington stripes” — streaks on the sides of their cars where they grazed the wall at over 150 miles per hour. 

They aren’t “just driving around in a circle” — it’s hard work keeping a 3,600-pound car going stupid fast for over three hours with 39 other sweaty drivers trying to do the same thing, hearts pounding, on the same narrow track. Oh yeah, and everyone really, really wants to finish those 500 miles first. They’re willing to push and beat and bang and ram their way to the top, and you’d best be ready for anything. There’s only one response to those who say anyone can do it: I’d like to see you try.

The naysayers almost won too. In 2003, the Southern 500 was moved from Labor Day weekend, attendance suffered, the track deteriorated, and the race weekend was on life support. However, in 2012, the good folks at Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits said, “By golly, that name ain’t Southern enough!” and ponied up the money to christen it the Bojangles’ Southern 500. 

Then, in one of the greatest successes in sports promotion history, NASCAR moved the race back to Labor Day weekend and turned it into a throwback race in 2015. Finally, three hours before this year’s race, the track announced, like an ancient messenger with good news from the battlefield, that they sold it out. That’s right, the Southern 500 sold out just like old times, but with the twenty-first century twist that it trended on Twitter all night long.

At a time when it seems like incompetence is ruling the day everywhere we look, it’s enlivening to see the Southern 500 flourish again. It’s a good old-fashioned success story, as was this year’s feel-good winner, a struggling Erik Jones. The Almighty made us earn it — the race was delayed four hours and didn’t finish until 2:00 a.m. — but nothing beats seeing The Lady in Black shine in a way that only she can.

Darlington, baby! The Southern 500!