The long awaited Labor Day return to Darlington for the running of the Southern 500 more than lived up to all of the hype as the entire weekend quickly turned into an event unlike any other stop on the Sprint Cup schedule. Everything about the track screams old school from the unusual egg-shaped oval racing surface to the aging grandstands so track officials began planning a throwback weekend of racing as soon as it was announced last year that Darlington’s race would return to its rightful spot on the schedule during the long Labor Day weekend.
When the track first announced its throwback weekend the thought was that a few cars would feature paint schemes of some of the former drivers but that thought soon began to snowball to what we saw the entire weekend at the track that proudly boast itself as “the track to tough to tame”. What was expected to be a few cars with throwback paint schemes quickly turned into about half the teams unloading cars with paint schemes that honored some of the greatest drivers and organizations in the history of the sport.
The throwback scheme didn’t stop with paint schemes, the track planned to honor some of the greatest individuals in the history of the sport and not just those that were behind the wheel of the race car. The track also brought back past owners, pit crew members and crew chiefs to go along with a hall of fame type roll call of drivers.
NBC also has to get some of the credit for the success of the weekend as it did a great job in the days leading up to the race running spots about the return of the Sprint Cup Series to Darlington for the running of the historic Southern 500. Old film clips from past Darlington races featuring some of the most iconic figures in the sport turned out to be a great teaser of what was in store for viewers when they turned their TV on Sunday evening.
MRN’s prerace coverage was a more like a stroll through the history of the sport than just covering another race on the schedule. MRN had its announcers all dressed up in throwback clothing that included bell bottom pants and in some cases tie-dyed shirts. It also brought back some of the most famous voices in the sport with Ken Squire and Ned Jarrett to help with the broadcast. The broadcast also included some sound clips from the vault of some great moments in the sport that featured drivers like Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt and Allison.
Maybe one of the best tributes to the early days of the sport was the uniforms being worn by some of the pit crews. The Wood Brothers brought out the white pants that they were known for and to even take it one step further they also wore the Chuck Taylor tennis shoes that were part of the original uniform. Richard Petty not only brought back his team’s old pit uniforms, he also brought back six members of his 1972 pit crew.
NASCAR may have not realized it but they also kept up the throwback theme of the weekend when it once again used the low downforce package that debuted at Kentucky earlier in the season. This time Goodyear brought a much softer tire to go with the package and the result was a tire that fell off very quickly making the cars a handful to drive.
Carl Edwards and his Joe Gibbs Racing team at the end of the night was finally able to say that it had tamed the track but the sight of those famous Darlington Stripes on the sides of so many cars once again showed that the track lived up to its reputation. The only downside to the entire night is that we have to wait a year before the series returns for what will once again be more of a party to celebrate the history of the sport than just another race.