Darlington: “Not too tough to change”

Published 4:00 pm Sunday, August 30, 2015

I used to ‘labor’ on Labor Day weekend, but I didn’t mind.  That’s because when I got a chance to go to Darlington, South Carolina and cover the Southern 500 NASCAR race, I was doing something I loved.

This Labor Day, I’ll just be sitting in front of my television set.  I’m a little long in the tooth now for those days of getting up at 3 a.m., loading the cooler with my ‘beverage of choice’, making sure I brought sunscreen and my headphone radio to hear Eli Gold’s broadcast, stopping in Tabor City near the state line and loading up on over 50 pieces some of the best fried chicken in America, and finally, bribing the security guards in the infield with homemade ham biscuits so they could let me get have a good parking space somewhere close to the garage.

Yep, that was my ‘Darlington routine’ twice a year – the Rebel 500 in the spring, and the Southern 500 Labor Day weekend.

For those of you not familiar, Darlington is NASCAR’s original ‘super-speedway’. When the track was finished in 1950, its 1.36 mile length made it the longest in the sport at that time.

I don’t know what NASCAR did to ‘wise up’ and re-drape the “Lady in Black” on America’s last summer holiday weekend, but seeing all the festivities return to the Palmetto State will have a familiar feel, and not just because the race has returned.

Most of the race cars will have throwback paint schemes that will recall the days when Hall-of-Fame greats like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt dominated the track “Too Tough To Tame”.

I loved how the track inspired those great nicknames and other monikers.  Even something as commonplace in racing as getting into the wall wasn’t a big deal, it was a badge of honor.

At Darlington, getting into the wall in Turn-2 means you earned your ‘Darlington Stripe’.

At most race tracks the fastest line is around the low apron, against the white line. At Darlington, it is the exact opposite: every lap run there is quickest when you’re up against the outside wall.

There’s risk and reward with such a move: if you do it right the reward is a whippy, fast lap that could put a driver at the front of the field; but the risk is getting the paint on the right door panel all scrapped off.

Everybody from the Pettys, Allisons, Earnhardts – Sr. and Jr. – to the Buschs and Loganos have earned one. In fact, in honor of the return of the Southern 500 name, track officials painted the walls the old-school red and white, making sure these young guys don’t miss out.

Wonder how much of that new wall paint is going to wind up being worn on cars?

Speaking of paint, some of the paint schemes will be a throwback to the old-school days: like the blue-yellow combo No. 17 Hall-of-Famer Pearson – the winningest driver at the track with 10 wins – ran for Holman Moody years ago and driven this time by Ricky Stenhouse.

Other drivers getting in on it include Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving a blue-and-white Valvoline scheme from the early 1980s run by Yarborough, Neil Bonnett and Buddy Baker.

David Ragan’s No. 55 will have the red-and-blue striped paint scheme his father, Ken, ran while racing Cup from 1983-90; Denny Hamlin’s Toyota will show the colors of Yarborough’s No. 11 run from 40 years ago; and Chase Elliott’s Darlington car will have a similar scheme as his father Bill’s car did in 1985 when the elder Elliott won the Southern 500 and the $1 million Winston Million Bonus.

In all, 29 teams will have a throwback design.

Yes, when I sit back in my recliner next Sunday to watch the Southern 500, it’ll look and seem almost like the old days.

I might even have to order up some ham biscuits and fried chicken.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.