With all the talk this spring and summer about 2011 race schedules and all the nervous suggestions about which tracks might lose a date or maybe even disappear from the Sprint Cup schedule, Chris Browning was thrilled to not be a part of the discussions.
Browning is president of Darlington Raceway, a storied but aging track where the employees know what it’s like to be on death row. Darlington lost the Southern 500, one of NASCAR’s landmark races, in a previous realignment shuffle, and there was fear among racing traditionalists that that move was simply the start of a domino sequence that eventually would shutter the 60-year-old track.
Instead, Browning and his people took the Mother’s Day weekend date they were given and turned lemons into lemonade. A weekend that NASCAR had avoided for years because of the simple-minded thinking that fans would have to pick between Mom and Cale Yarborough has become a plus on the schedule, and Darlington appears to have cemented its place in Cup racing for the foreseeable future.
“I think everybody realizes we’ve made this Mother’s Day thing work,” Browning said Saturday as his track hosted the Camping World Truck Series for a one-day show. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t be successful somewhere else, but it seems to be a good fit for us.
“And this year was a great feeling. I’m not going to say we were completely out of the mix [in talk of 2011 changes], but, for the most part, we were. And that’s a great feeling. I was really tickled when they said, ‘You guys are set. You’re on the same date.’ It’s a great deal for us.”
The uncertainty surrounding NASCAR tracks and their futures and how all that shakes out in the real world was underlined this week with the surprise replacement of Robin Braig as president of Darlington’s sister track, Daytona International Speedway.
Darlington is a much different place than it was 10 years ago. The track has been polished – but not too much. It doesn’t want too much polish. It will never be Las Vegas or Chicagoland or Homestead. And it shouldn’t be. It’s NASCAR’s Fenway Park, and it should retain some of the flavor attached to being NASCAR’s oldest and most tradition-draped superspeedway.
“We want to continue to improve the place,” Browning said. “It’s 62 years old. But you have to do it with a balance because we still want to maintain the feel of Darlington.
“We’re not marble and gold, and we’re not going to be. But we can still provide the amenities and improvements that the media and fans and competitors want and wrap it in a way that feels like Darlington.”
In tough economic times, Darlington must compete with the rest of International Speedway Corp.’s tracks for a limited capital improvement fund. If he can get his hands on enough dollars, Browning hopes to redo the history-laden Darlington infield to add a fanzone element, giving spectators the opportunity to get closer to the garage area and the drivers, a concept that has been very successful at other locations, particularly Daytona and Las Vegas.
“Our fans crave that ability to get right there in what you might call the middle of the locker room,” Browning said. “I think that would go over in a huge way here.”
Some or all of that planning is likely to bear fruit soon. In the meantime, people who love Darlington and the unique flavor of racing here are simply grateful that NASCAR’s Fenway Park doesn’t have a lock on the gate.
As veteran driver Ken Schrader put it, “There’s too much history here to not be here.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.