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Waid’s World: ‘Throwback Darlington’ Has Evolved From Crusty to Spectacular

There was a time when Darlington Raceway, the notorious “Lady in Black,” was more like “The Old Lady Wheezing on Her Death Bed.”

Given that the track is hale and hearty today, and still plays host to the Goodyear 400 with its popular “Throwback” theme and the legendary Southern 500 in front of thousands of enthusiastic fans, that seems hard to believe.

But it is true. From the year it was built, 1950, through the next two decades very few improvements were made to the track’s facilities and amenities. That was largely due to the “thriftiness” of upper management. I’m being polite here.

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I started covering Darlington races in 1975 when I was a sportswriter in Roanoke. The speedway had long since acquired the reputation as the toughest in NASCAR and a track on which every driver wanted to win. 

 But year after year Darlington remained the same. Same grandstands, same garage area, same press box. The grass may have been cut but it didn’t look like it. The concrete walls were so soft you could dig a hole in them with a simple screwdriver. Didn’t appear anyone had ever used a paint brush, either.

I was one member of the media who called the track “crusty old Darlington” just to be nice.

No one outwardly blamed anyone for this condition but was widely speculated that management’s unwillingness to spend money was at the root of it.

Darlington’s president was Barney Wallace who, it can fairly be said, was a totally colorless man. It was also said that he didn’t care to spend a dime unless it was absolutely necessary.

Wallace’s right-hand man, “Red” Tyler, was his complete opposite. Tyler was friendly, outgoing, blessed with a sense of humor and a deep Southern drawl. As much as Wallace avoided the media, Tyler courted it.

Tyler knew exactly what was happening to Darlington. And he knew why.

“I remember one time, a driver on a low budget went to Barney after a race,” Tyler recalled. “He wanted some money to help him get home. He said, ‘Barney, can you help me get home?’

“Barney took out a map and said, ‘Sure, you just take a right on Highway 52 and ….’”

At one race I was with Tyler in the infield. We entered the cafeteria and he stopped. He looked at a big tear in the cafeteria’s screen door. I knew it had been there for years.

Tyler spoke into his two-way radio. “Barney, we got to fix this tear in the screen door,” he said. “The flies are carrying off the food.”

Wallace’s reply: “Red, let’s wait until we count ticket receipts before we do that.”

Not only did that torn screen door reflect Darlington’s malaise, but there was also plenty of evidence of it in the men’s “locker room.”

That “locker room” consisted of a small open area with benches, a couple of sinks, mirrors and stalls. However, it was air conditioned.

The number of graffiti that covered the white walls in the bathroom area increased year after year. I found it remarkable that not a single coat of new white paint had been applied.

Some of the graffiti was very funny — so funny that I thought I could make a very entertaining column out of it. So, I went into the stalls and peered up and down the walls, writing down every clever message I could.

Suddenly, future Hall of Fame team owner Bud Moore crept up behind me.

“Look at this!” he bellowed. “Here’s a writer taking notes on what’s written on the outhouse walls. No wonder what you print is a bunch of —–!”

Then he laughed.

Needless to say, I never wrote the column. Couldn’t get most of the words written on the walls published, anyway.

None of this is to put any blame on a single individual. Even Tyler knew Darlington did not have the resources to invest in improvements. It could not match other tracks in ticket sales nor could make any real effort to establish any type of large-scale marketing program.

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So many thought Darlington would plod along until it didn’t have the financial strength to plod any longer.

But by 1980, rumors surfaced that Darlington was going to be sold. And in 1982 it was – to the ever-growing International Speedway Corporation, parent to Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, among others.

It was exactly what Darlington needed. And, over the years, the track has been embellished in appearance and enhanced in functionality. 

For example, lights were added in 2013, which was also the year the venerated Southern 500 was moved from Labor Day weekend to Mother’s Day to become Darlington’s first event staged at night.

In the years since Darlington has seen its Labor Day date shifted to Fontana, Calif., and Atlanta. But in recent years the Southern 500 and Labor Day weekend have been reunited – spectacularly so, I might add. And this year’s Goodyear 400 has become the signature Throwback event.

Certainly, the track changed — but tradition did not. 

As for “The Lady in Black”, well, she is hardly crusty anymore.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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