DARLINGTON, S.C. Hamburger steaks and hand-cut fries will still be served at the Raceway Grill next year, but everyone around here admits it won't be the same.
The restaurant, as much a fixture on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as Darlington Raceway next door, has prepared meals for locals and race teams since before any of the drivers in this Sunday's Southern 500 were born. Hamburger steaks and the Southern 500 have been a Labor Day ritual at Darlington, a tradition so thick in storied reverence it seemed to be immune to the whirlwind changes in the sport for more than 50 years. Until now.
The power of television and its billion dollars worth of clout has lured NASCAR to abandon the cornerstone of its racing season. Starting next year, the sport will spend Labor Day weekend under the lights at California Speedway. Although Darlington Raceway said it would keep the Southern 500 name at its new mid-November slot in the schedule, everybody agrees the aura is lost forever.
''At least for a few years, a lot of hearts will be at Darlington that (Labor Day) weekend,'' said Kyle Petty, who has spent every Labor Day weekend at the speedway in his 43-year life. ''Things change, though. Sometimes it's for the good, sometimes not. But things change all the time.''
International Speedway Corp., which owns 11 speedways on the Winston Cup Series schedule, including Darlington, California and North Carolina Speedway, announced in June that it was stripping North Carolina of one of its two racing dates and moving it to California. The plan also called for California to get Darlington's September date and Darlington to gain North Carolina's old date.
Darlington insists it still has the Southern 500. But the new date is too much of a change for a sport that had so few traditions remaining. For many, Sunday's race (1 p.m., NBC, Ch. 26) will be the final Southern 500.
''It is without question the biggest event in the history of Darlington Raceway,'' track president Andrew Gurtis said. ''Without question, it's a bittersweet weekend. There's an emotional attachment between Darlington Raceway and Labor Day weekend. With that said, it's teed us up for a monumental event in the track's history.''
Ernest Scurry, who owns the Raceway Grill, doesn't like the change one bit.
''We hate it,'' he said. ''It's not going to be the same.''
Its new position as the next-to-last race will allow Darlington to sell the championship race in the future. Nine of the last 28 championships were decided in the next-to-last race, giving Darlington a marketing tool it's never had.
''November 2004 is going to take on a life of its own,'' Gurtis said.
For many, a new life of lost traditions.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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