Originally created 05/15/04

NASCAR takes one race from Darlington



DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The math is simple, convenience store clerk Kay Dixon says. NASCAR is taking one of Darlington Raceway's two Nextel Cup races away next year. So her most profitable time just got cut in half.

Dixon's Sav-Way store about a mile from the track can bring in $12,000 or more a day on race weekends as fans buy beer, cigarettes and gas. That's double the average daily take.

"Oh boy, this is going to hurt. I just never thought they would do something like this to Darlington," Dixon said Friday.

She was speaking just hours after NASCAR announced it was taking a date from Darlington and the only date from the North Carolina Speedway in nearby Rockingham and giving them to tracks in Arizona and Texas.

Darlington has run two races a year on NASCAR's elite circuit since 1960 and was the sport's first superspeedway.

Supporters lobbied for years to keep both races, but most people in the area figured it was inevitable that the new, glitzier tracks with more seats and amenities would take a date from the raceway, which rose up from the sandy fields just west of town more than 50 years ago.

"There's a lot of talk down here about this was the birthplace of NASCAR and they shouldn't do this," Darlington County Economic Director Dave Bailey said. "But when you look at the hard law of economics, Texas Motor Speedway has 120,000 seats, Darlington has 67 (thousand)."

In 2005, the track's only race will be under the lights on Saturday, May 7 as NASCAR ends its long tradition of taking the week off for Mother's Day. It won't be called the Southern 500 because of sponsor obligations.

Track president Andrew Gurtis said Friday's announcement wasn't too painful because he has known for several weeks the track was losing a date.

He chose to focus on the positive, concentrating on the new lights, the SAFER "soft-wall" barriers and expanded trackside museum.

Darlington also will continue to emphasize its place in NACSAR history. The first event under the lights will be a legends race in August, bringing together past champions like Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, whose 10 victories are the most ever at the track.

"I think 'The Track Too Tough To Tame' has a lot to offer the sport," Gurtis said.

Outside the raceway, some people in Darlington were angry about the news, but most seemed resigned the track was going to lose a date, especially after NASCAR moved the Southern 500 from its traditional Labor Day weekend to November for this season.

"It's like an old friend died, but not completely unexpectedly," said Joe Norris, who owns Darlington Hardware on the town square.

Everyone in town sees a boost on race week. Norris sells camping supplies like bug spray, batteries and bulbs like crazy as the race traffic slowly snakes past his store.

Businesses aren't the only people stung by losing the race. Plenty of people rented out rooms, allowed people to park in their yards or took a temporary job at the track to make some extra money, Bailey said.

A University of South Carolina study estimated in 2002 that the two NASCAR racing weekends at Darlington pumped $50 million into the state's economy, with most of it staying in the Pee Dee - which faces more economic problems than any other area of the state.

It's been a bad week for Darlington County. On Monday, Sara Lee announced it was closing its plant, laying off 120 workers.

Four of the 10 counties with the highest unemployment rates in South Carolina are in the Pee Dee. And the races at Darlington are truly regional events.

Hotels in Florence about 10 miles away could lose up to 10 percent of their business when losing one race is combined with a shortened race weekend after a Saturday night race, said Mike Alexander, a former president of the Florence Hotel/Motel Association.

"It would be like Augusta, (Ga.), losing the Masters," Alexander said.

But some people see good news. South Carolina tourism officials point out that with the North Carolina Speedway losing its only race, Darlington is the only Nextel Cup track in the area.

There used to be four races in a very rural 50-mile area and now there is only one, Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism spokesman Marion Edmonds said.

Gurtis said as long as fans keep coming out, Darlington can make its one race weekend "a blockbuster event."

But that's small consolation to a community so entwined with NASCAR that back in the 1970s when the second race was called the Rebel 400 or 500, the local police dressed like Confederate soldiers and race fans were allowed to camp out on the lawn of the county courthouse.

"I think it's a matter of pride more than anything else," Norris said. "I think we feel like we are being robbed."

But people like Bailey, who are trying to keep Darlington County on the right track economically, think the track can find a niche by appealing to NASCAR history just like baseball fans revere Wrigley Field in Chicago.

"I foresee Darlington keeping one race probably forever, simply because it is the birthplace of NASCAR," Bailey said. "I'd hate to think they'd give that up. They'd lose a lot of their fan base if they did."