Kerry Tharp has been involved in sports in South Carolina since 1985, when he began working as Sports Information Director at the University of South Carolina. But his interest in NASCAR and motor sports came more recently - though 30 years ago, his Gamecocks bosses, then-football coach Joe Morrison and then-athletics director Bob Marcum, tried to hook him on racing.
"Joe and Bob used to come over to Darlington all the time," Tharp, now president of historic Darlington Raceway, recalls. "I remember asking them, ‘Why are y'all going there?' and they'd say, ‘We love it.' I always knew about the importance of Darlington, but I didn't follow the sport much then."
That changed after Tharp left USC in 2005 to join NASCAR's communications department in Charlotte, working for another Darlington president, Jim Hunter. A decade later, in 2016, the native of Louisville, Ky., was named to lead the "Track Too Tough To Tame" - a job, and a sport, he's come to love.
It's fitting, then, that this year's Bojangles Southern 500 (Sept. 2-3) will feature a "Throwback Weekend" theme centered on NASCAR in the 1980s. Special events for racing fans will include An Evening Honoring Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the evening of Sept. 2; the Bojangles' Legends Breakfast on Sept. 3, featuring a number of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees; and tributes to legendary drivers Richard Petty and Bill Elliott, who will drive pace cars for the Sept. Southern 500 race.
The throwback theme is perfect for Darlington, Tharp says. "It complements the race and the track because of the history and tradition of the second-oldest track on the NASCAR circuit," he says. "We look at the track as our answer to (baseball's) Wrigley Field because of the history here.
"Having the race on Labor Day weekend, when this race was held for so long, the throwback paint schemes on the cars, seeing all the Hall of Famers, while also recognizing the current drivers and their ties to those guys from the past - it's like a big reunion, and that's something both fans and drivers have embraced."
Since returning to Labor Day weekend in 2015 after other dates the previous 12 years, the Southern 500's Throwback Weekend campaign has drawn thousands of fans to a full weekend of racing history. A study by USC associate professor Dr. Tom Regan revealed the racetrack has a $53 million economic impact, including a $50.1 million impact for the state's Pee Dee region, one of the state's largest economic contributions.
"We draw fans from all 50 states and 14 countries, which makes us the most widely attended event (for out-of-state visitors) in South Carolina," Tharp says. "The bulk of our fans come from within 100 miles, but it's not unusual, even when it's not race weekend, to go in the gift shop and find people from South Dakota, Australia, Germany, Texas, Massachusetts - if they're in this part of the country, they want to see Darlington."
This year's race honors Earnhardt Sr., who won nine NASCAR races at Darlington and was a seven-time NASCAR champion, and the Saturday night panelists discussing his career include children Dale Earnhardt Jr. - who'll drive in his final race at Darlington - Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Kerry Earnhardt, plus longtime team owner Richard Childress.
The Sunday Hall of Fame Breakfast will be moderated by Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley plus a panel of iconic drivers, including Mark Martin and Leonard Wood. Tickets to the 9:30 a.m. breakfast are free to fans with tickets to the Southern 500 while supplies/seats last.
Also scheduled for race day will be a pre-race concert featuring rock performer Bret Michaels, frontman for the 1980s band Poison as well as a solo artist. The pre-race singing of the national anthem will be performed by legendary country music group The Oak Ridge Boys - who, it turns out, are big fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Perhaps the highlight of Throwback Weekend will be appearances by Richard Petty and Bill Elliott, who'll lead out the field in their pace cars. Petty will be driving the 1967 Plymouth in which he won his only Southern 500, on the 50th anniversary of that victory. Elliott, dubbed "Million Dollar Bill" when he won NASCAR's 1985 Winston Million bonus by adding the Southern 500 to his wins at that year's Daytona 500 and Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., will drive a Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang.
A growing audience for Darlington in recent years has been college students, and the track offers a $25 ticket for the Sunday race, not to mention a tailgating atmosphere to rival any college football weekend. A year ago, students from USC, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, Francis Marion, Coker and Florence-Darlington Technical College were part of the crowds.
The weekend will feature plenty of infield celebrations and all the throwback festivities, but as always, the star will be the Southern 500 - and the "Track Too Tough To Tame."
"It's still the same old Lady in Black," Tharp says. "We think we'll have a good crowd."