The Best Around

CLINTON, S.C. – I was at the Goodyear tire dealership here on Wednesday, getting some minor service for my pickup truck. While in the waiting room at Clinton Tire Service, the topic of racing came up, and I matter-of-factly said that Darlington, site of Sunday’s Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, was my favorite track.

“I think ‘bout everybody feels that way,” said an old acquaintance, and that kind of surprised me. I was beginning to think I was the only person left who felt that way.

Darlington is a relic of what racing used to be. It's an anachronism, situated in a small town in a small state. Its grandstands accommodate only about 60,000 fans and, especially in the spring, tickets are usually available.

If everyone felt the same way about stock-car racing that I do, they’d have to build grandstands clear back to Florence, the slightly larger city where most of us find our lodging.

Darlington is anathema to the luxury-box crowd. Relatively few sponsors are wined and dined there. Hospitality means a cheerful “how you doin’?” and a “not bad, you?” reply. Then, “I can’t complain.” A conversation like that can go all day.

The old egg-shaped track is not so much for fans as it is for worshippers of the sport. It’s a shrine to the days when stock cars were a lot more “stock” and drivers were a lot more like blue-collar workers than beautiful people.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette once sang, “No, we’re not the jet set / We’re the old Chevrolet set,” and that lyric fits Darlington – and George and Tammy – to a tee.

I believe in the preservation of places like Darlington, not to mention Martinsville, Rockingham and, too late, North Wilkesboro. So let me give you readers some tips on how you can fully experience the simple joys of Darlington.

*** Slip out and have lunch (they call it dinner there) at the Raceway Grill. It’s right behind Turn 2. You can’t miss it. Order a hamburger-steak plate. There’s a reasonable chance you might bump into David Pearson there. All the oldtimers stop in when they’re in town for the races. Today’s drivers don’t even know it’s there.

*** It’s supposed to rain – it always seems like there's the threat of showers at Darlington in the spring – so if there is a delay of some sort, go visit the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum. It’s behind the back straight, which used to be the front straight, but it’s worth the hike. Take a look at Pearson’s Purolator Mercury Cyclone, Fireball Roberts’ Holman-Moody Ford, Bob Welborn’s old No. 49 convertible and Little Joe Weatherly’s No. 8 Mercury Marauder.

*** By all means, take a stopwatch to the track. Sometime early in the race, look back in the pack a ways and start timing laps of cars buried deep in traffic, but be careful to time them when they have a few car lengths of open track in front of them. There is an excellent chance you will be able to figure out which car will be in first place two hours later.

*** Play very close attention when cars are running side-by-side – and sometimes, for the really impetuous drivers, three abreast – down the straights. If no one yields at the entrance to either Turns 1 or 3, a crash is a distinct possibility.

*** Running away from the pack on fresh tires is interesting to watch but has little to do with winning the race. The more likely winner is the car that runs down the jackrabbit on old tires.

*** Darlington’s detractors claim it's outmoded and that it was built for the speeds of 1950. That is a lie. The track was reconfigured in the late 1960s. The accurate statement is that it was built for the speeds of 1968. Yet, even today, with all the sleek, nearly identical models that zip around at speeds that are mind-boggling for such a tight track, Darlington provides races that are usually highly entertaining. At Darlington, the cars do not need restrictor plates. If Darlington is outmoded, then it is certainly less so than the supposed space-age tracks in Daytona and Talladega.

Once upon a time, I was leaving the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport when an airline employee ascertained that I earned my living writing about stock cars.

“What do you think about our track?” he said, letting me know in no uncertain terms he was a native Texan. “Best track on the circuit?”

I stopped in the hallway leading to my plane and did an about-face. “No, sir,” I said. “The greatest stock-car racing track on the face of the earth is in a little town called Darlington, South Carolina.”

And the Texan said, “I expect you’re right.”

I’ll believe that until the day that I die.

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