Celebrating 60 years of racing in 2009, Darlington Raceway (1301 Harry Byrd Hwy./Hwy. 52, 843/395-8499, www.darlingtonraceway.com , dates vary, $35–150) is the granddad of all NASCAR tracks, the first ever to host a major race. While it’s not as plush as the newer, ritzier raceways built to accommodate the sport’s push to yuppify its ranks, this is still an impressive sight right on Highway 52 and a bit of living history.
Indeed, racing fans can celebrate the “return” of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Southern 500, a beloved Labor Day race which was briefly removed from the Series from 2005-2008. Now held the Saturday before Mother’s Day, the huge raceway is filled to the brim, RVs packing the infield, for the Southern 500 and its lead-in race the Friday before, the Diamond Hill Plywood 200. If you’re not in town that weekend, you can call ahead for tours ($5 per person, Mon.–Fri.). Or for a quick peek, just stop at the security guard’s hut at the museum and sign in.
Sharing a parking area with the security guard is the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum (1301 Harry Byrd Hwy./Hwy. 52, 843/395-8862, www.darlingtonraceway.com , daily 7 a.m.–5 p.m., $5 adults, 12 and under free). It has a small but interesting historical collection, and of course, a gift shop.
Darlington Raceway, the “track too tough to tame,” began as a labor of love by Harold Brasington in 1949, when he bought some peanut and cotton fields and began turning them into a racing oval. Well, almost an oval — a neighbor didn’t want his minnow pond disturbed, so what would become Turns 3 and 4 were narrowed, resulting in Darlington’s unique egg shape, pinched at one end.
Now coming in at precisely 1.366 miles, “Harold’s Folly,” as disbelieving locals first called it, is the grandfather track of stock car racing. The first race was on Labor Day 1950, and when an expected crowd of 10,000 turned out instead to number over 25,000, nobody called it a folly anymore. Now seating upwards of 65,000, Darlington is a delight for fans and a challenge for drivers, who routinely hit the wall while trying to negotiate its weird geometry at over 200 mph.
Darlington Raceway has faced a threat in the face of NASCAR’s continuing attempts to Disney-fy the sport. By holding races in more heavily populated areas near major metro areas, NASCAR has signaled its desire to draw a new generation of more moneyed, more casual fans to the sport — to the detriment of historic tracks like Darlington, set in an economically depressed area of the deep South far away from any large population center.
An extensive series of renovations in 2007 seems to have lifted its stock however. And while the marquee Southern 500 race is no longer a staple of Labor Day (it’s on Mother’s Day weekend instead), the granddaddy of them all seems to be alive and kicking.