Have you ever experienced a place that felt like it was alive? It's like when you walk into an empty stadium or sports arena and imagine it filled with people, screaming and cheering. Though you’re standing completely alone, your brain can almost pick up on the energy of the fans and victories of the past, bringing them to life in your mind. Darlington Raceway has that kind of power.
The second-oldest track on the NASCAR circuit, Darlington Raceway is a storied place. It’s unique in its egg-shaped design—the result of the owner honoring his agreement with the original landholder not to disturb a minnow pond on the property. When it was built, it also was somewhat longer than the other tracks of its time, allowing drivers to achieve much greater speeds in their stock cars. In the early days, fresh asphalt sealant would be laid before the races, earning Darlington one of its infamous nicknames, “The Lady in Black.”
I had the opportunity to visit this famed track for the first time on a stunning summer day, just a few weeks prior to its largest event of the season, the Southern 500. I had been looking forward to my visit, not just because it’s one of South Carolina's most popular attractions, but because my dad has always loved cars. When I told him I was visiting Darlington to take a few laps in the pace car, I could almost hear him smiling through the phone.
I had a smile myself pretty much the entire day. Just stepping foot on the track was awesome. Looking up into the empty stands, with the wind blowing all around me, I had that powerful sense of the memories and the history that have been made here time and again. It was really something special, and I just spent a few minutes looking around and taking it all in.
After meeting - now retired - President Kerry Tharp and talking about what makes Darlington Raceway such a standout, he drove me around in the pace car, a bright red Camaro. I immediately snapped a picture to send to my dad because I knew he would be drooling!
As we took a first slow lap, Kerry pointed out the skid marks on the walls—evidence of Darlington’s other nickname, the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” Drivers have often taken several laps successfully, only to run into the wall unexpectedly and leave a stripe of paint in their wake. They call this "earning their Darlington Stripes," and many drivers believe racing at Darlington is less about beating the competition than beating the track itself.
Though we never went more than 90 mph, it felt much faster, and I couldn't even begin to imagine the adrenaline rush professional drivers experience when they take those turns at racing speed. I may not ever earn my Darlington stripes, but even a NASCAR novice like myself can respect the nerve and skill it takes to succeed in this sport.
Darlington hosts several races each year, including Labor Day weekend's Southern 500, which they call the Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR. In addition, there's an incredible stock car museum on-site showcasing both the history of the sport of NASCAR and the track itself. I made sure to take a photo with a few of the car racing legends.
Darlington was such a unique experience, both because NASCAR is so new to me and it’s located off the beaten path in a rural part of the state. But once again, I was rewarded for trying something different—I had a fantastic day and I made my dad proud. Darlington Raceway is an iconic tradition in South Carolina and it should absolutely be a stop on your next road trip in the Palmetto State.
Filming for this show was done in part prior to Covid-19 and SCPRT recommends following local guidelines for social distancing and your personal protection. Some of the activities depicted in the “Go For It’ series might be affected, or even unavailable, due to Covid-19. Please check with the local provider or attraction for the latest schedules and hours of operation.