NASCAR prepares for different Darlington

Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2005

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Jarrett shrugs his shoulders when he looks at what has become of the old country track he used to visit when his daddy went racing.

Gone is the big scoreboard and play structure at Darlington Raceway where Jarrett would climb while his father, Ned, mixed it up with NASCAR stars of the 1960s. Now, rising up around the track's perimeter is a multimillion-dollar lighting system.

And Darlington's first official night race, the Dodge Charger 500 on Saturday, is also a NASCAR departure — running on Mother's Day weekend, normally an off week in Nextel Cup.

''It's different but, you know, there's changes going on everywhere,'' Jarrett said last week before testing his Busch car. ''Why not here, too?''

Each year that goes by seems to bring another crack in Darlington's tradition. First, NASCAR leaders moved the Southern 500, a staple of Labor Day for more than half a century, to California Speedway. Then, Darlington's Nextel Cup schedule was cut in half, sliced to one race in a realignment bow to several bigger tracks that had only one date.

At first, Darlington president Chris Browning saw the switch to Mother's Day weekend — NASCAR's largest series hadn't run on that weekend since Atlanta in 1986 — as one more step toward the eventual demise of the longtime Nextel Cup venue. Then he realized demographics had changed in the past two decades.

He said studies show that NASCAR spectators have shifted in the past two decades from about 70 percent men and 30 percent women to almost 50-50. That means more families are bringing mom along to watch the race with them, Browning said.

Advance ticket sales back that up. This past Sunday, Browning got the track's first pre-race sellout since the 1997 Southern 500. He's now started a waiting list to show his corporate bosses at International Speedway Corp. that there's a demand for racing at the old country track.

''We're happy with the way it's going,'' said Browning, adding that he sold tickets to the race in 48 states — all but Hawaii and New Mexico.

Part of the excitement, Browning says, comes from fans wanting to watch a full-blown night race in the Dodge Charger 500. An exhibition under the lights last August drew a crowd of about 15,000.

''It seems more exciting under the lights,'' said Kasey Kahne, who was testing his Dodge at Darlington.

The sellout could help keep Darlington on the Nextel Cup schedule.

Browning has approval from ISC, which owns Darlington and several other Nextel Cup sites, for capital improvements on the track, including upgrading restrooms and access tunnels. He hopes the full house Saturday makes the case for expanding the track's seating capacity.

But whispers about Darlington's demise just won't go away. Most recently, track officials denied they were interested in selling out to Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc., which wants to buy Darlington and send its lone Nextel Cup date to another of its tracks.

''Looks like we're going to sell just about every ticket we got,'' Browning said. ''We were hoping for demand like this, but with a new date and everything, you don't know.''

Browning hasn't heard anything official yet about Darlington's place on the 2006 calendar.

''I feel pretty confident,'' he said, ''that there won't be any changes'' in the NASCAR schedule affecting the place called the ''Track Too Tough To Tame.''

Jarrett, a three-time Darlington winner, said the track has brought a lot of thrills to racers and fans through the years and deserves a Nextel Cup spot.

''We don't need everything the same and, obviously, there's nothing like this,'' Jarrett said. ''So I think you've got to have race tracks like this.''



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