Originally created 08/07/03

Darlington's switched on: Lights on the way



DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Darlington Raceway's long-term prospects just got brighter.

Track officials say they've gotten go-ahead to install a lighting system that would be ready for testing by early fall 2004. An official announcement is expected Thursday.

"This just adds to the long list of exciting announcements made by Darlington this summer," track president Andrew Gurtis told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday.

Two months ago, the "Track Too Tough To Tame," found out it was losing its Labor Day weekend date for the Southern 500 in realignment to California Speedway. But the 53-year-old facility retained two NASCAR race weekends on next year's schedule.

Last month, the track rechristened its expanded its museum and National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.

"It's been a busy summer," Gurtis said. "But all of them are just a testament to Darlington's position in NASCAR" in the future.

Gurtis would not say if the 2004's fall race, scheduled for Nov. 14, would be the old country track's first night event. He would not talk about how much lighting the track now might cost or other details of the project.

"For about 12 months we're going to have a lot of construction workers running around, he said.

The idea for night racing at Darlington was first discussed publicly by NASCAR's chief spokesman - and then the raceway's president - Jim Hunter way back in 1999.

Hunter put a $2.9 million plan before track owner International Speedway Corp. to light up NASCAR's oldest speedway.

Hunter is thrilled his idea will finally see the light. He said from his Daytona Beach, Fla., office Wednesday evening that he told former NASCAR star David Pearson that one of his favorite tracks - Pearson is Darlington's all-time winner with 10 victories - was getting lights.

"Boy," Pearson told Hunter, "that's going to be something."

That's an understatement.

Darlington's 1.366-mile oval is one of the trickiest and nastiest on the circuit. It's misshapen corner coming out of turn two has long separated the best racers from the rest of the pack. It's no accident its biggest winners - Pearson, the late Dale Earnhardt (9 wins), Jeff Gordon (6) - have dominated the sport.

"As tough as it is in the daytime, it's going to be even tougher at night," Hunter said. "The whole atmosphere will change. It will really make a difference and make the races more exciting."

Darlington was called out by NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. as a track whose two-race-a-year future was in question because of its troubled history of selling seats. Despite NASCAR's two stops there in 2004, there was no guarantee for anything beyond.

Could lights keep the track glowing two years from now?

"I don't think (International Speedway Corp.) would invest in the lights if they didn't think there was a future at Darlington," Hunter said. "I just hope the fans come out and support it."