Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Appreciating The Lady in Black

This week, the Cup circuit heads to Darlington, S.C. for what will regrettably be its only stop at the “Track Too Tough To Tame” this season. Even given the awkward eve of Mother’s Day race date that no other track ever wanted, the fact they’ll be racing there this weekend still makes my heart rejoice. For even if you’ve read my output for just a few months, it should be painfully obvious to you by now that Darlington is my favorite track on the circuit.

Some folks can’t understand my passion for this place. They tell me it’s a single-groove racetrack that’s worn out, its time has passed and it is located a million miles from nowhere. They seem to think those are “issues;” but to me, that’s part of the charm. By and large, fans who don’t “get” Darlington tend to be newer to the sport and have never made the trip to the Lady in Black. If all Arabs should visit Mecca once in their lifetime, any true stock car racing fan should go to Darlington at least once before they die. If you’ve never been there and have no plans to go, shame on you.

Others continue to insist that my dedication to Darlington is due to regionalism. One more time, folks, I was indeed born deep in the heart of the South… of Jersey, and I’ve lived in the Northeast most of my life. I’m from Chester County. Think Amish buggies, horse farms and winding sun-dappled country back roads carved out by beneficent glaciers for the enjoyment of current day Harley riders. For those of you west of the Mississippi in culturally-impoverished burgs like L.A. who might not have taken your geography studies to heart, it’s a real long ride from Lancaster to Darlington.

I don’t live there; but Lord willing, I will when I retire.

So, what lies behind my fascination and passion for this track? First off, it’s location, location, location. As you roll from Charlotte to Darlington (watching your speed, as race weekend is seen by local and South Carolina State Police as prime revenue hunting season), you’ll go back in time, through dying mill towns, cotton fields and any number of small towns that are still lost in the ’60s.

There are places small enough where, after the races, people set up lawn chairs in filling station parking lots just to watch the big NASCAR teams’ transporters roll home to Charlotte in impromptu block parties. (Hell, there are towns small enough after Sunday services for get togethers just to watch the local cops ticket out-of-towners.)

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You’ll pass stately old antebellum towns that could double as Mayberry RFD. You’ll pass through groves of scrub pines in the sandy soil of the Sand Hills. As you get closer to the track on 151, you’ll see a collection of stately old Victorian homes with gliders and rockers on their wraparound porches, stately shade trees in the backyard and gleaming American iron in the driveway. On Saturday morning, many men folk will be out there washing their trucks with a garden hose in the driveway.

For one weekend, at least, the outside world that largely ignores its existence focuses its attention on the Darlington area – and appearances must be kept up, after all.

The people in this region are among the nicest I have dealt with in my travels – almost too polite, to the point of being courtly. If you need directions or you need a hand, they will always lend one. I can’t even remember how many times I had to ask for directions on my first trip to Darlington; but in every instance, I was offered assistance with a smile. It was just a matter of breaching the language difference between those who spoke Southern and myself – who spoke Yankee and had yet to get a conceptual grasp on just how far a distance “a ways down” actually was.

When I got a flat on my motorcycle on race morning one time, I was offered capable assistance and tools by a gentleman old enough to be my grandfather, a man who went the extra mile to call a friend who owned the local parts house to open up on Sunday morning and get me the inner tube I needed. It wound up getting delivered free of charge; and even though I offered a $20 as a tip, the men inevitably turned it down.

Even the harried convenience store clerks on the main drags to the track will take the time to smile, wish you a nice day and, in most instances, address you as “sir” even if you are a long-haired Yankee kid in a tie-dye Dead tour t-shirt. Their manners don’t come across as cynical or an affectation, but rather the sort of conduct required by the faith that is the bedrock of most of their lives.

Then, there’s the track itself. You walk onto this speedway and are immediately struck by the fact you are walking on sacred ground. All the great ones, from Junior Johnson to Jimmie Johnson, from the Flock brothers to the Busch brothers, from local native Cale Yarborough to Juan Pablo Montoya, from David Pearson to David Green, from Cecil Gordon to Jeff Gordon and three generations of Pettys and Earnhardts have raced here.

They’ve raced on a track with a notoriously abrasive surface and unforgiving corners, not to mention the normal brutal heat of Labor Day weekend – a race that proved a true test of both man and machine. There’s no question every driver who has managed a win at Darlington counts it as one of the crowning achievements of their lives.

Like the old saying goes, here you race the racetrack, not the other racers – and the Lady in Black is notoriously unforgiving to those who get sloppy. Even the best in the business will earn their Darlington stripes getting up off of what is now turn 2. Richard Petty won seven Daytona 500s, but just one Southern 500. You want to see that standard Petty smile turn to a thousand watts? Ask the King about his lone ’67 Southern 500 victory.

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For newer fans who might need a primer in the sport’s history, I highly recommend a trip to the Joe Weatherly Museum on the grounds of the track. There, you’ll see cars from the earliest days to more modern mounts. Take a look at those cars of yesteryear and be amazed at what you see – drivers with balls of solid brass wheeled them around Darlington at incredible speeds for the era on the circuit’s original superspeedway.

These were indeed “stock” cars, not unlike what you might find sitting on the street outside the track. The Plymouth that Johnny Mantz wheeled to victory in the first Southern 500 had, in fact, been used earlier in the week to drive around on the public roads by none other than Bill France Sr. while he was hanging posters to promote the race.

Make no mistake about it, the Lady in Black is not an entirely affectionate nickname, or it wasn’t when it was coined. Yarborough took a wild, out of the park ride into the parking lot here in 1965, back when only a flimsy guardrail separated the race track from the outside world. Petty took a terrifying tumble here in 1970 down across pit wall, just as ABC’s Wide World of Sports joined the action live.

The King’s head and arm could be seen exiting the car as it rolled, leading to the adoption of the window nets that are still standard issue in stock cars today. Even looking at Bill Elliott’s history-making 1985 Thunderbird, it’s hard not to note how relatively crude and homemade the car looks as he took the checkered flag for the Winston Million. That’s appropriate for a Darlington winner – Bill and his brothers built it in a family-owned shop that would shame even most Truck Series teams today.

Yes, there have been some terrible races at Darlington. Ned Jarrett won here by 14 laps in 1965, thanks in large part to that year’s Chrysler boycott of NASCAR. Mantz also won here by 15 laps in that first Southern 500, perhaps the only race with tire attrition worse than last year’s Brickyard 400.

But there have been some classic races at Darlington, too, too many for me to recount here in the space allotted me. (And one day, I’ll get the Frontstretch editors to allow me to rerun my seven-piece history on the Southern 500… I promise… I hope.) There was the aforementioned ’85 Southern 500, when Elliott became “Million Dollar Bill” and helped put stock car racing on the map outside of the Deep South. The single-day payday was unheard of in auto racing in the era, and might have been the most brilliant marketing campaign of the late T. Wayne Roberts’s storied career.

I remember watching in awe as Tim Richmond ran down Elliott in the fading twilight on a rain-slick track at the end of the 1987 Southern 500, sideways in every corner. To this day, that single race win has me convinced that nobody, nobody ever had the same car control that Tim did. And that’s from a guy in the grandstands wearing a Elliott t-shirt that stood up and cheered with the rest when Tim took the lead on lap 362. More recently, Ricky Craven held off Kurt Busch in a fender-banging, tire smoking drag race out of turn 4 by a mere .002 seconds in 2003, in what I remain convinced was the greatest race of the FOX TV era.

In the end, Darlington doesn’t need me to defend her. The Lady in Black has earned a spot in this sport’s history that is beyond attack or even civil debate. To paraphrase Stephen King, anyone who dare question the existence of Darlington needs to have their powers of reason called into serious question. It’s like trying to explain to non-believers the enduring legend of Harley Davidson.

There are cheaper, better-performing bikes that get better gas mileage, but until you’ve thrown your leg over an American V-twin Harley Davidson and ridden the back roads, you’re just not going to get it. There is no reason in this era of fuel mileage and global warming concerns for the Mustang GT to have endured nigh on 35 years now, but until you’ve driven one, rear tires churning away from a stoplight, you don’t know what cars are all about.

Some called it the devil’s music and called for it to be banned, but rock and roll has endured. Some of its leading purveyors including the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen might have their charms lost on folks who let their tastes be dictated by American Idol; but for decades, they have been playing to packed houses of delirious fans who are in on the secret. If you’ve never seen the Dead or the Boss perform on a good night, you’re missing out on something so pure, so real, so all-encompassing, my pity at your loss must be mixed with loathing of your abject stupidity at missing something so overwhelming that it has defined generations of fans.

Some things, like the opening notes of Thunder Road, the uneven idle of a Cobra Jet Mustang with its shaker hood rattling back and forth, the Potatoe-Potatoe-Potatoe rumble of a Harley or the racing at Darlington have survived generations and defined us as a people and indelibly marked our culture. If I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand it.

They’re racing at Darlington this weekend. Let’s rock and roll.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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