David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt — these NASCAR legends only begin to make up the extensive portfolio of racing greats who have driven countless laps around the track “Too Tough to Tame.” For 73 years and counting, this unusually shaped track at Darlington Raceway has both stumped and intrigued drivers, teams, and fans alike.
“Too Tough to Tame speaks for itself; it’s a very, very difficult track for the drivers and teams to navigate, and it’s also a track where they want to win very, very badly,” says Kerry Tharp, president of Darlington Raceway.
The NASCAR community’s relationship with this living monument is perhaps most acutely described by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who commented from the broadcast booth during the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series coverage from Darlington Raceway, “I hated this place when I ran here early in my career. I didn’t look forward to coming here. By the end of my career, I was in love with it, in love with the history but also in love with the challenge.”
History, challenge, and mystique all define The Lady in Black — yet another moniker for Darlington Raceway coined by sports journalist Benny Phillips in his coverage of the 1965 Southern 500. He wrote, “As treacherous as Mata Hari, as desirable as Hollywood’s most beautiful actress — as unpredictable as any woman — these are the virtues of ‘The Lady in Black.’”
As the name would suggest, this track harbors a storied history. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was founded just two years before Darlington Raceway hosted the first Southern 500, making the two entities practically synonymous in the history books. The track’s origins, however, predate the official inception of NASCAR in 1948. Darlington Raceway is the product of nearly 20 years of inspiration, innovation, and intention. This triple-threat combination dates back to 1933, when Darlington native Harold Brasington, a lifelong racing aficionado, attended the Indianapolis 500. In true Field of Dreams fashion, he returned to rural Darlington County, South Carolina, with an “If you build it, they will come” mentality.
Over the course of 17 years, a 70-acre plot of land alongside Highway 151 was transformed into what is now NASCAR’s oldest operating superspeedway. The land, formerly a cotton field owned by local farmer J.S. Ramsey, functioned as a blank slate to the man who dreamt of fast cars and future glory. There was a catch, though; J.S. insisted that his minnow pond, situated outside of what was then turn two, be left entirely undisturbed. But what is a minnow pond to a man with a plan? Harold adjusted the shape of the track accordingly, resulting in the peculiar egg shape it bears today.
By and large, this shape has remained unchanged since the sport’s earliest enthusiasts circled around it in the 1950s. The most significant changes to the track were made in 1952, 1997, and 2007, with additional upgrades to the fan experience in 2018. In 1952, slight reconfigurations extended the track length from 1.25 miles to 1.366 miles, allowing for higher speeds and creating a greater test of endurance. Forty-five years later, under the leadership of then-Track President Jim Hunter, the track’s orientation was flipped so that the start/finish line was now located on the back straight. This change pushed drivers into the bottom of the egg first, whereas previously, their heads and hoods pointed towards the top of the egg at the start of the race. Finally, in 2007, The Lady in Black received $10 million worth of repaving and other related renovations. However, throughout years of wear, tear, and repair, Ramsey’s minnow pond has remained intact — as has the track’s appeal to NASCAR devotees.
These diehards know the track’s twists and turns nearly as well as the drivers do. They will tell anyone willing to listen that on most tracks the widths of turns one and two equal those of turns three and four. Darlington is one of several exceptions to this rule of thumb. The varying turn radiuses present drivers with a unique complexity. Brightly painted, heavily stickered cars emblazoned with dominant identifying numbers speed through turns one and two — the bottom of the egg — before having to quickly readjust for steeper banking in turns three and four. Here, a tighter turn radius translates to a much smaller margin for error that often leaves a mark. As a result, many of the cars leaving Darlington are decorated with a badge of honor and humility that has become known as the Darlington Stripe.
The unrelenting desire to earn this stripe and a first-place ranking on the leaderboard at Darlington Raceway has motivated generations of NASCAR drivers. “I think it’s a crown jewel in the state of South Carolina,” says Kerry. “It’s a place that’s steeped in history and tradition and has become one of the more popular stops on the schedule.”
It all began in a 1950 Plymouth driven by Johnny Mantz in the inaugural Southern 500: the first race at Darlington and the first superspeedway event for the sport. Johnny averaged a whopping 75.25 mph — just over half of the average speed at the 2022 Southern 500.
From there, it was full speed ahead. By the time the 1953 Southern 500 rolled around and the track’s extension was completed, the ante was unquestionably upped for drivers zipping around this superspeedway. When Buck Baker won his first of three Southern 500s at Darlington Raceway that year, he and his competitors averaged speeds nearly 20 mph faster than that of Johnny’s winning average just three years prior. But that was just the beginning of life in the fast lane for this famed raceway.
Several ill-fated incidents in the early years at Darlington served as stimuli for new safety measures in the sport. The tragic deaths of Paul McDuffie, Charles Sweatland, and Joe Taylor at the 1960 Southern 500 are, collectively, some of the sport’s most notorious catalysts for change. The trio — a car owner, mechanic, and NASCAR official — were killed as a result of driver Bobby Johns’ 1960 Pontiac spinning uncontrollably into the pit area following a collision with Roy Tyner’s 1959 Oldsmobile. In response to this accident, retaining walls were built to separate the pit crew from the action on the track.
Ten years later, during the spring NASCAR Cup Series event, racing royalty Richard Petty was spotted hanging out of the window of his No. 43 Plymouth after enduring a series of flips in a race at Darlington. “The King” was knocked unconscious but lived to log many more miles during his racing tenure. This nonetheless prompted NASCAR to require the use of window nets to help keep drivers and their appendages inside the car.
Regardless of the inevitable threats of the track, Darlington continues to draw drivers, fans, and crews inside its walls year after year. “Darlington is kind of like the Wrigley Field of NASCAR,” Kerry says.
Both sites have seen their fair share of Kodak moments. Bill Elliott’s stellar season in 1985, which culminated with a win at Darlington that September, was one of them. “Million-Dollar Bill,” as he was known thereafter, was the first to win the sport’s first Winston Million, a promotion that launched the same year. The promotion paralleled the Triple Crown of horse racing: drivers who won three of the four major races that year would win a $1 million bonus, courtesy of the NASCAR Winston Cup series. After winning two of the three races earlier that year and missing out on his first opportunity to secure the prize money, Bill’s high stakes performance at the annual Labor Day weekend race yielded an even higher pay day. He remained the sole driver to have won the Winston Million at Darlington until 1997, when Jeff Gordon took home the winnings in the promotion’s final year.
The 2000s have continued to deliver highlights in the history of NASCAR. In the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch produced a photo finish after pingponging back and forth during the last leg of the race. Ricky, driving his No. 32 Tide car, beat out Kurt’s No. 97 Rubbermaid car by a narrow margin of .002 seconds. Ricky has remarked of this photo finish, “We took each other as far as you can,” to which Kurt has added, “at a track that you’re not supposed to be doing that on.” This record still stands as the closest finish in NASCAR Cup Series history and has been tied only once when Jimmie Johnson barely beat out Clint Bowyer at Talladega Superspeedway in 2011.
The following year, renowned NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick hit a career milestone at Darlington when Jimmie Johnson of the Hendrick Motorsports team wheeled under the waving checkered flag in his No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet Impala. This marked Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th team win. Moments like this serve as supporting evidence to Kerry’s summation that, at Darlington Raceway, “We may not be the fanciest track or the track with all the bells and whistles, but as far as having a cool factor, I think we rank right there near the top.”
Hometown heroes are strewn throughout the list of drivers who have won at Darlington over the years. During his 27-year tenure, David Pearson, a native of upstate South Carolina and 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, is one of them. David won 10 of his 47 races at Darlington, making him the winningest driver at the track Too Tough to Tame in NASCAR Cup Series history.
Cale Yarborough, who grew up roughly 20 miles from Darlington Raceway, is yet another local legend whose professional accolades are inextricable with this particular plot of asphalt. Over the course of his career, he amassed five wins at Darlington — and one infamous flight path over the guardrail during the 1965 spring race. In the years to come, The Lady in Black would reveal that she was only trying to measure him up, not scare him away. The 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee went on to win at Darlington in September of 1968, 1973, 1974, 1978, and 1982. The 1979 Oldsmobile that he drove in the tail end of his peak seasons is displayed at the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum, located adjacent to the track.
At 73 years old, The Lady in Black has reached the delicate age at which she is old enough to tell some of the oldest tales in NASCAR, yet young enough that many of the sport’s original spectators are still around to attest to details of Darlington’s first races. According to Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, “Anybody who’s a fan, whether avid or casual, if they haven’t been to Darlington, they want to go. If they have been, they want to go back,” adding, “It feels like a flashback, which is a compliment.”
The COVID-19 outbreak revealed that NASCAR is as much about the fans as it is the drivers, cars, and crews, even if extenuating circumstances force fandom to a virtual platform. Fortunately for the racing community, COVID-19 did not keep the track cleared for long. In May of 2020, televised racing sped back onto the scene after several weeks of stagnancy — live from none other than Darlington Raceway. Within a span of four days, NASCAR, Kerry, and the crew at Darlington hosted a 200-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race and two NASCAR Cup Series races. “There was a three to four day period when the eyes of the nation of the sport were on Darlington,” says Kerry.
The impact of Darlington’s ability to operate during this time was twofold. First, it afforded an opportunity for live competition when the majority of the sports world had come to a screeching halt. Secondly, Kerry insists that the raceway’s pivotal role in the resurgence of racing contributed to the return of the Mother’s Day weekend race in 2021. This addition to Darlington’s schedule meant that the track Too Tough to Tame would once again host two NASCAR Cup Series races annually.
Since then, Darlington Raceway has continued to reap the benefits of NASCAR’s increasing popularity based on attendance, TV ratings, and the level of competition. “Nothing’s off the table for NASCAR as far as going into different markets and trying different things,” says Kerry, citing the addition of an upcoming street race in Chicago and the second consecutive year of a preseason exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
For those who favor familiarity to novelty, Darlington Raceway will continue to be the comfort food of NASCAR. Last year’s Southern 500 was a sold-out spectacle. This year, in addition to the highly anticipated Throwback Weekend (May 12-14) commemorating NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, Darlington will entertain fans with a slew of additional events and activities, ranging from Track Laps for Charity to community gatherings.