According to SIRIUS XM Jim Noble’s report, NASCAR will take a small step back in time next year, moving Darlington Raceway’s lone Sprint Cup race to Labor Day weekend, the date of what was once the sport’s oldest race.
The Southern 500 predated the Daytona 500 and along with the Great American race was one trophy that racers coveted most. More prestigious than even Indianapolis and Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600, the Southern 500 was known as a test of man and machine. To win it once was every racer’s dream. To win it more than once was the stuff of legends.
When NASCAR restructured in the early 2000s with a shiny new television deal and hoards of new fans who wanted to see what the big trend at the water cooler was, Darlington was one of the longtime tracks to have a date cut and the remaining date, the former Labor Day weekend race, moved first to the end of the season and then to the spring. Darlington renamed the spring race the Southern 500, but that never felt right. That race was never the Southern 500 (longtime fans will know that Darlington’s spring race was the Rebel 300/400/450 etc.) and fans were not fooled.
In retrospect, Darlington and its fans got off comparatively easily. North Wilkesboro Speedway was already closed by the change of the millennium and North Carolina Speedway didn’t last much longer. The old tracks were replaced by shiny new facilities with plenty of amenities but little character. At the same time, the Nationwide and Truck series also abandoned the tracks that had given them autonomy in favor of the bigger, faster speedways whose owners lobbied for those races to make their tracks a destination for race fans. At least the Lady in Black still had a place on the dance card.
Moving the race back to what many fans have always considered its rightful place on the schedule is, in the grand scheme of things, a small move. It doesn’t bring back the NASCAR many older fans long for, it doesn’t erase the problems the sport has brought upon itself with the Chase and the current state of racing. It won’t fix much in the big picture.
But while it may be a small move, should it occur, it will be the right move. It’s a token gift to the old school fans, but it’s also a gift to the newer fans, the ones who don’t know a NASCAR without a Chase or one with feeder series that ran Saturdays at short tracks instead of the superspeedways they race at now. The Southern 500 is a piece of the sport’s past – and, if NASCAR markets it well, a piece of its future as well.
What makes a sport exciting is the action on the track or the playing field in front of fans’ eyes. But what makes a sport memorable is understanding that there is much more to it than what is right in front of our eyes. Racing is about Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, but it’s also about Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and the hundreds of others who carved a niche within the sport. Some of those people are still a part of NASCAR, and fans and competitors can talk to them, learn what things used to be.
In order to fully understand and appreciate NASCAR today, you need to understand and appreciate what it was like in years past. In some ways, things are very similar. There are dominant teams and underdogs, and fans always think NASCAR favors this team or that team. There are races that become instant classics and races that are duds. That has always been a part of it.
In other ways, the sport was very different. Championships were calculated differently in the early days, which allowed teams to cherry pick races and avoid the heaviest competition. Today, there are no weeks where a team can choose to race at an out-of-the-way track where they know some other big names won’t be there in order to gain points. But then there was no Chase, so the champion had to sustain a level of excellence all year long. In between those eras, there was a season-long championship with a shorter season, too. To know how different each era truly is is to realize it’s impossible to compare some things.
On the other hand, one must understand history to understand when history is being made. Jeff Gordon‘s 91 wins are approaching numbers once thought impossible to reach in the sport’s modern era. In more than 60 years, against all kinds of competition and all kinds of factors, only two men have amassed more than 100 wins at the sport’s top level. It’s never been done entirely in the modern era. If it happens, it will be something to savor, because it’s something fans may never see again.
A few fans have expressed disappointment about the report of Darlington’s new (and old) date. If they have made Labor Day weekend in Atlanta a destination, that’s understandable, but what fans should take away from this is that there is a long and storied history in NASCAR, and it goes deeper than what’s become a fun weekend for the last few years. It’s not about Atlanta, though it can be argued that Atlanta has a long history of closing the season and the right thing to do would be to restore that date as well.
When then-series sponsor Winston introduced a million-dollar bonus for winning three of the four most important races in the sport, the Southern 500 was the culmination of it. To win the Winston Million, drivers had to go through the oldest race (Southern 500), the longest (Coca-Cola 600), the fastest (the summer race at Talladega) and the most famous (Daytona 500). The bonus was only claimed twice, and both times, it was won by conquering the Lady in Black at her fighting best. The first Southern 500, with 75 cars on the track, is the stuff of legend. Fans should know these stories and the countless more in order to understand why NASCAR is doing the right thing with this reported date chance.
If it happens, it isn’t about moving Atlanta. It isn’t about one track at all. It’s about everything that the sport has been and should be. It’s about a storied past even in the face of an uncertain future. It’s about the longtime fans. It’s about doing what’s right for the sport in any era.
It’s about bringing the Lady in Black home at long last.