Darlington Is Difficult Daunting

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – To hear some NASCAR Winston Cup drivers talk, Darlington Raceway is a living thing, capable of reaching out and grabbing you. The old race track used to be called “The Lady in Black,” a fitting nickname representing a difficult and recalcitrant track.

Darlington is 1.366 miles around, but because of an old minnow pond and the sandy area from where was born, Darlington Raceway is perhaps the most difficult oval on the planet.

Built in 1950, it was NASCAR’s answer to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But quite unlike Indy, Darlington is nowhere near a uniform track. Turns 3 and 4 are tighter than Turns 1 and 2, thanks to the aforementioned minnow pond a landowner didn’t want to move.

The banking at opposite ends of the track are different, too, perhaps a testament to inaccurate construction. Because of the different banking and radius of the turns, the groove is different in each corner. And when you throw in aging asphalt that some claim consists of tire-eating seashells, it just might come alive.

That was what Johnny Benson faced when he first drove Darlington in the 1980s in a Busch Series car.

“I went out and started making laps, and all of a sudden my crew chief at the time, Steve Bird, came over the radio and was yelling, ‘Get off the track right now,’ ” Benson said. “He was mad. I didn’t know what was wrong. When I got back to the pits I asked one of our guys if we were slow he said we were at the top of the sheet. So I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

“I finally saw Birdie and asked him what in the world could be wrong. He looked at me and said, ‘You are way too fast, and if you keep driving that line you’ll crash the car.’ I’d never been yelled at by a crew chief for being too fast.

“But looking back on it Birdie was right. You will see guys go out in practice or qualifying and be really fast, then – bam! – they are in the wall and come back with a wrecked race car wondering what happened. That’s Darlington.”

Tony Stewart said Darlington was “one of the tracks where we seem to work the hardest.” Overdriving the car there is easy to do but certainly not advisable since the groove is so close to the wall.

“I’ve always had a hard time at Darlington – in both the Busch car and Cup car,” Casey Atwood admitted. “It’s one of the most difficult tracks to go to and to learn. You’ve got to race right up against the wall. You’re 2 inches from hitting and a lot of times you do hit it. You gotta run right against the wall all the way around it. You don’t use the bottom of track like we do everywhere else. You just gotta get more experience at it, and when you do, you’ll run better at it.”

Most of the experience comes in learning to manage the tires. Because of the rough surface, tires are chewed up quickly. When they go away, so does grip.

“The tires go away so quickly, and then you actually do feel like you are at Maple Leafs Garden, sliding around on the ice,” Jerry Nadeau said “In fact, I almost have to go back to my days when I drove a go-kart on ice over in Russia. The track is so abrasive, if you can get two dozen laps with good rubber and good grip, you go home and count your blessings at night.”

Being patient and ignoring the urge to drive as hard as you is paramount to success.

“You hear ‘Race the race track, race the race track,’ and that is pretty much the case a lot of the time,” Kyle Petty said. “But it goes further than that. You’re not only racing the race track, you have to race and dodge all of the guys who forgot to race the race track. When everybody is working hard and concentrating and not losing focus, there is a pretty good race there.

“But all it takes is one guy ‘tuning out’ for just a second, and next thing you know, there are a pile of cars sitting somewhere with a lot of mad drivers in them. There always seems to be somebody who gets ‘slapped’ by the place sometime during the race – at least once, sometimes more. Shoot, where else have you seen cars wreck under caution?”

Racing the race track has it’s limits, said Jeff Burton, a two-time Darlington winner.

“The thing about Darlington that I think is misunderstood is that to be successful at Darlington, you have to attack the race track,” Burton said. “You can’t be afraid of the race track. Through all of the hype and all the discussion about how difficult it is and how hard it is, you can’t think about it. You’ve got to go and you’ve got to say, ‘I’m gonna kick your butt, race track.’ You’ve just got to attack it. You’ve got to not be afraid of it. You’ve got stand in that gas and run hard.

“I heard Darrell Waltrip say on TV that he couldn’t understand how the younger drivers just came here and didn’t respect the place. You have to have respect for it, but you’ve got to attack it. You’ve got to be aggressive, and you’ve just got to go after that race track as if it’s any other race track. It’s hard, but if you treat it like it’s hard, you won’t have any success there.”

Because the track is so old and so difficult, winning there is special.

“Darlington is and always will be a part of NASCAR’s tradition,” Nadeau said. “It’s not the most state-of-the-art track and it’s not in the biggest market area, but its tradition is one that is unmatched in NASCAR Winston Cup. You look at baseball, and there is Yankee Stadium, basketball has the Boston Garden, hockey has Maple Leafs Garden, and Darlington is the track where NASCAR hangs its ‘tradition hat.’

“History is the path to the future, and at the time when Darlington was built, the track was the superspeedway, and was the pathway for what we see today. There was no Daytona or Talladega at that time – they came later. Before that, speed, and the allure of speed, was defined at Darlington. It doesn’t matter your personal racing background, or how you got to NASCAR Winston Cup, you just know that Darlington was the steppingstone for superspeedways and speed.

“The Southern 500 is a race that everyone wants to win. Open-wheel drivers want to win at Indianapolis and Long Beach. NASCAR drivers want to win at Daytona and Darlington. To be a part of the history, and to be talked about as being a winner of the Southern 500, is worth just as much as the trophy itself.”

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