Living With the Ghosts of Racing

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Darlington Raceway (photo courtesy of Caitlin Siem)

The sun climbs high in the sky as the humidity creeps above the mercury, shadows shrink and grow again as teams work on their cars. Men and women gather around mighty machines, some have computers, some have tablets, and some have an old notebook with a pen. Hand tools are still pulled from the box and the same old cuss words are uttered a thousand times. This is Darlington; one of the last great citadels of racing that stands the test of time.

This 1.366 mile oval opened in 1950 and has been a legend since the start. The two ends are different in radius due to a farmer’s minnow pond, it’s banks were once used to pull onto when there was an issue because the cars raced on the flat surface. The old surface was once said to be so coarse that just pushing the car onto the grid took the “good” off the tires. Darlington is the only place that not touching the wall will have your car owner asking, “Why didn’t you try harder?” Yes, this is a place of legend.

Once again we return to the Southern 500, the end of summer classic, the true throwback weekend. Cars will take to the track with paint schemes and colors made famous 25+ years ago. Paint schemes that harken back to an era when there really was a chrome horn to use and it wasn’t just an old adage used by men moved by nostalgia. This was an era of legendary drivers. Earnhardt. Allison. Petty. Pearson. Gant. Wallace. The names go on forever.

As these history inspired cars take to the track you can feel the drivers of the past rise up to watch their battle wagons take to the banks one more time. The old men today stand up and remember being a child, dust on their cheeks, the smell of bias-ply rubber in their nose, fingers wrapped around the chicken wire fencing as the original cars drove by. Long before the corporations opened wallets, the blue collar workers traveled to this site to open their’s. This is the history of NASCAR. Family, friends, coworkers, racers. Everyone gathered to celebrate the last days of summer, together.

As the red, white, and blue flies high overhead and the national anthem plays again; drivers will prepare to do what so many have done before on this track. Each will sit in their cars alone, strapped in and they must make a choice… Race the competition or race the track? The track is the ultimate competitor and those who learn from the past will know that you don’t need to beat everyone, you just need to beat the ancient one, “The Lady in Black.”

As I watch Austin Dillon pull his 1987 Dale Earnhardt, Wrangler Chevrolet inspired SS onto the speedway I can’t help but think of the years I watched this race with my grandfather and my parents or listened to it on the AM radio. It is history, a history so recent and yet so long ago. It was a time before splitters, before wings, before universal bodies. That was when a manufacturer could make the difference between dominating a race season and merely watching from the sidelines.

I often wonder what those drivers back then would think of the sport today. A sport that has blown up and come back down. A sport that looks for heroes and still needs a villain. These ghosts of racing past surely still race down these historic straights, still slide through these ancient corners. These ghosts live on in every memory, every legend, every inch of this track.

The old saying is, “Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it.” While many call for those days past, I like to think that we are writing history of our own. Who will be the next legend to win here? Who will be the next driver people only remember winning? Who will be the next driver that people love to curse? I don’t know the answer to any of that, but I do know that Darlington will still be here when they take their place in myths and legend.

This is Darlington. This is where the ghosts of yesterday meet the drivers of today, who write tomorrow’s past. This is Labor Day weekend. This is where we remember days gone by.

Enjoy the show.

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