Legend of a Lady – Darlington

Stretched out across a once-dusty field outside Darlington, SC, The Lady in Black beckons stock car drivers to South Carolina and leaves her mark in NASCAR history.

King Arthur stood on a hill and envisioned a place called Camelot.  Harold Brasington stood on a parcel of land outside Darlington, SC, and imagined a kingdom of a different sort.  The former dirt-track stock car racer had a dream twenty years in the making.  Fueled by a trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a hunch that stock car racing might well be a game changer for American automakers, he decided it was time to make that dream a reality.

As legend would tell it, it was over a 1949 card game that Brasington proposed the idea to Sherman Ramsey, whose tobacco and cotton fields outside the city limits lay fallow in the baking southern sun. Preoccupied by the hand in play, Ramsey is said to have distractedly agreed to the improbable idea of building a racetrack on the land, with the stipulation that it must not interfere with his minnow pond in one corner of the property. He never imagined it would actually happen.

Brasington immediately set to work.  Skeptics called it “Harold’s Folly.” They brought picnic lunches to watch the bulldozers and heavy equipment shape the landscape into NASCAR’s first paved superspeedway, often with Brasington himself at the controls.  There would be no round table in this kingdom; instead, an asphalt-topped, unsymmetrical egg-shaped oval, with curves made difficult by a purposeful design to miss the minnow pond. It would be the proving ground for fierce competitors vying for the honor of having their names inscribed in history.  

In only a year’s time, the call went out to the knights of NASCAR, challenging them to run their steel horses on the 1.25-mile track.  Concrete bleachers were built to accommodate an optimistic estimate of 7,000 race fans, but by the time engines were started on Labor Day weekend’s 1950 NASCAR Grand National Series Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, more than 20,000 fans occupied every square inch of space lining the track and the infield.

The starting lineup included a Who’s Who list of the best drivers of the day, with the likes of Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Lee Petty, and Johnny Mantz.  Though he was the slowest qualifier amongst the field of 75 drivers, when the checkered flag waved his1950 Plymouth to victory, Mantz captured the day —taking home a whopping $10,510.  It had taken him over 6 hours to drive the 400 laps, at an average speed of 75.25 mph.  Only 25 of the 75 starters finished.  

No one remembers who first referred to Darlington’s track by the feminine nickname, but those who were there for her debut were stunned their first encounter with the ribbon of blazing black asphalt.  Brasington’s kingdom had a queen—The Lady in Black had come to NASCAR. Among drivers, legend quickly spread of the capricious track, whose defiant curves sent them on a ride that left them hot, bothered, and spinning in dizzying circles at her feet.

South Carolina native Cale Yarborough won The Lady’s hand five times in his thirty-year career, but his first glimpse of the enigmatic track came when the curious young boy climbed to the top of the fence to look out on the rumbling cars beyond.  It was love at first sight, and Yarborough says he knew immediately that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. In 1957, he chose the Lady in Black to play hostess to the first race of his professional career.  Little did he know, a few years later she would send him and his car careening back over the fence during 1965’s Southern 500.

It was not a kinder, gentler time for those early drivers.  NASCAR was in its infancy, having been founded in 1948, only a year before Brasington’s bulldozers took to the cotton field outside the sleepy city of Darlington.  The men who chose the life of a driver took on a job with no glitz and very little glamour.  Instead, a never-ending cycle of putting cars together, loading them atop flatbed trucks for the drive to the track and heading to the next race awaited them.  Often, they arrived just in time to start their engines for qualifying.  Some cars came straight from the showroom floors, with ink yet to dry on titles belonging to the bank.  Sometimes they won, but more often than not, they picked up parts strewn across the raceway and headed to the garage to rebuild and start again at the next race.

Sponsorships and endorsement deals began to make the job a bit more lucrative, but many ran for pure love of the sport.  Sportswriters at Speedway Media.com summed up the drivers of NASCAR’s formative years, describing independent owner/driver #71 Dave Marcis as being, “a reflection of a time when it wasn’t all about fame and fortune—it was about accomplishing extraordinary things with little money, great determination, and tremendous ingenuity.”

Far from the high tech gear of today’s racers, little stood between these drivers and the very real dangers of the sport.  There were no 5-point safety harnesses or full face racing helmets, flame retardant suits were rudimentary at best, and communication was conducted via hand-signals between driver and pit crew.  Darlington’s Labor Day time slot also added the sultry heat of Southern summer to the mix.  

Yarborough remembers, “I don’t know how we did it.  It would get so hot you could barely breathe.  Your shoes would melt and stick to the floor.”

It was at Darlington Raceway that, tired of the relentless blisters that formed on his heels from the weekly races, Dave Marcis first took to wearing thick-heeled wingtip shoes to combat the searing heat of the floorboards.  The iconic shoes would become his trademark, finding their way into The Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum, NMPA Hall of Fame.

Despite the hazards, they raced on.  As new tracks were added to the circuit, drivers crisscrossed the country.  Still, the treacherous Lady in Black called like a siren, and they returned each year to woo her.  Like many a Southern lady, she revealed a fiery will when they attempted to charm her into submission; requiring them to travel high up the narrow track to kiss the wall, then marking their fenders with “the Darlington stripe,” a black smudge that would come to be a badge of honor.

A nine-time winner at Darlington, Dale Earnhardt once described his love-hate relationship with the race course, “You never forget your first love—whether it is a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle racetrack in South Carolina with a contrary disposition.”

Traveling in a caravan from race to race, many in the NASCAR family became lifelong friends on and off the track.  The drivers were fiercely competitive, but stories abound of their shenanigans at the Florence/Darlington area hotels and motels where they often stayed after the race.  Marcis and Earnhardt frequently hunted and fished together.  Marcis speaks emotionally of his late friend, “In some of them ponds down at Darlington, after a race we’d slip out and go fishing and catch bass.  It was a whole lot more fun back then.”

NASCAR saw tremendous changes through the years, and at times, The Lady in Black struggled to keep up.  Deemed “Too Tough to Tame,” the track was re-measured, repaved and reconfigured to 1.366 miles, and literally flipped to reverse the turns.   Grandstands were added, and lights offered the flexibility of night races.  

Despite best efforts to keep her relevant, a slap in the face rocked both the legendary superspeedway queen and the racing world, when NASCAR gave the Southern 500’s Labor Day weekend slot to California’s Auto Club Speedway in 2003.  It was a move that flew in the face of history and dealt a devastating blow to the Darlington area.  

Harold Brasington, III, grandson of Darlington’s visionary builder, says of the move, “Though he sold his interest in the raceway, and went on to build Rockingham’s track and several others, my grandfather took enormous pride in how Darlington Raceway helped build NASCAR.  The Labor Day slot made it the event marking the transition from summer to fall for fans and drivers. I know he would have been disappointed with NASCAR’s decision.”

As a major contributor to South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, annually generating over $54 million in economic impact for the area, the notion of their raceway suffering the fate of other shuttered tracks was unimaginable for the community.  It was also a matter of tradition and pride for the Palmetto State.

Ricky Craven, the 2003 race winner and ESPN sports analyst, spoke for thousands when he said, “Few things are more powerful in sports than the power of tradition. This race is synonymous with Labor Day weekend.  Moving it to a spring race feels like inviting Santa Claus to Halloween.”

Kyle Petty echoed the sentiment, saying “In a throwaway society, I think we need traditions to live, and this was a tradition.  It was a tradition of this sport. It was part of the cornerstone of this sport.”

It took a dozen years, but NASCAR got the message, restoring the September slot to Darlington Raceway for the 2015 Bojangles’ Southern 500.  The track announced the implementation of a new five-year strategy, to honor each era of its storied past, while celebrating the future.  Harold Brasington was posthumously named recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR, and inducted to the NASCR Hall of Fame.  

The September 2016 Bojangles’ Southern 500 offered a tribute to the mid-70’s and early 80’s, with retro paint schemes harkening back to that time, historic moments replayed for fans, and visits from the drivers that made those moments happen.  When Martin Truex, Jr. took the checkered flag by .606 seconds, he told reporters, “I have always loved this racetrack.  I’ve been wanting to win here for a long time.”

It is a new day for NASCAR, but Harold Brasington’s unlikely kingdom in the dusty soil outside Darlington has stood the test of time, and his queen, The Lady in Black, proved her allegiance to him and the sport he loved. With her legendary black stripe, she reminds those who would cross her that she is not to be trifled with.  Call her ‘Too Tough to Tame’ and she will stretch out in the summer sun to properly introduce herself.   She is South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway—she is The Lady in Black.