The tradition of Labor Day weekend returns to its rightful place tonight at Darlington Raceway.
Once upon a time, the NASCAR schedule was composed of dirt tracks. This all changed thanks to the vision of a man named Harold Brasington. He and Bill France Sr. attended the 1948 Indianapolis 500 and noticed just how big the crowds were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He thought that “if Tony Hulman can do it here, I can do it back home.”
Brasington purchased 70-acres of land in the small city of Darlington, South Carolina from a local farmer named Sherman Ramsey. The was one caveat to the deal. The track was not to disturb his minnow pond (the original pond is no longer there) to the west of the track. This forced him to create an egg-shaped track with the east-side turns being more sweeping and the west-side being more tight and narrow.
Harold made a deal with Bill France to run a 500-mile race on Labor Day at the newly created Darlington Raceway. The inaugural race carried a then record 25-thousand dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that’s roughly 250-thousand dollars in 2015. More than 80 cars were entered for the race. In a car owned by Bill France himself, Johnny Mantz outlasted a field of cars that failed to run the whole distance to score the victory.
From that day forward, the Southern 500 became a staple on the NASCAR schedule every Labor Day weekend. It was simply known as the Southern 500 until 1989 when it ran for three seasons as the Heinz Southern 500. Since then, it’s gone by the Mountain Dew Southern 500, the Pepsi Southern 500, the Mountain Dew Southern 500 again, the Dodge Charger, Avenger and Challenger 500, back to the Southern 500, the Showtime Southern 500 and now the Bojangles’ Southern 500.
In 2004, the race was moved from Labor Day to the penultimate race of the season in November. This was a move that as once considered unheard of and blasphemy of the highest order. The Labor Day slot was filled by a second race at Auto Club Speedway (which at the time put on horrible races). That race eventually moved to October and Labor Day was moved to Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was a little better having it in Atlanta since we were back to racing in the Southeastern United States on Labor Day weekend.
Meanwhile, the Southern 500 eventually settled into place on Mother’s Day weekend for eight years. It was fine to have it on that weekend, but it still didn’t feel right. It felt even more out of place in April for last season. Finally, in August of last year, NASCAR announced that this wrong would finally be righted and the Bojangles’ Southern 500 in 2015 would return to its rightful spot on the calendar of Labor Day weekend. It took 12 years, but this blasphemous move was finally rectified and we renew the tradition tonight.
Darlington Raceway is a 1.366 mile (2.198 km) egg-shaped oval. Turns 1 & 2 are higher banked and more wide-sweeping. Turns 3 & 4 are about as high-banked, but tighter and more narrow. Ironically, turns 3 & 4 are easier to drive and pass in than turns 1 & 2. Because in 1 & 2, the fast way around is right up against the wall. This leads to cars scraping it constantly and gives cars the famous “Darlington Stripe.” After races, the walls are covered in black marks in the turns, hence the nickname “The Lady in Black.” The old saying in NASCAR is that if you don’t have one on your car at the end of the night, you weren’t trying hard enough.
Historically, Darlington has been a track that’s incredibly rough on tires. This largely went away after a 2006 repave, but the tire fall-off is getting very close back to where it was before the repave. Back in the day, drivers could run five laps on brand new sticker tires, the caution would come out and every last driver would hit pit road for a new set of tires. In fact, teams would carry the new tires to their stalls rather than roll them because it would take a tenth off the tires. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it adds to the legend of the “Track Too Tough To Tame.”
With this being a 500-mile race, fuel management is key. Managing your car and engine is key. Keeping your temper in check is key. It’s a long, grueling race that, combined with the scorching Carolina heat and humidity, will leave drivers exhausted and drenched in sweat.
Brad Keselowski will lead the field to green flag from the pole tonight. He’ll be joined on the front row by Kurt Busch. Kevin Harvick starts third. Joey Logano starts fourth. Jeff Gordon starts fifth in his 23rd and final Southern 500 start at a track he’s won at seven times.
The action begins tonight on Premier Sports or Sky Sports in England. For those in the states, it begins tonight at 6:00 p.m. on NBC.