In the 70 years since it opened, there has never been another top-of-the-sport track that mirrored Darlington Raceway, and therefore there aren’t races elsewhere like there are at Darlington. No two turns are the same. The walls, they come up on you quick. The car can win at some tracks. The driver must win at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”
Yet Darlington, like so much about NASCAR’s unique and colorful roots, has been disrespected and disregarded by its top decision-makers — until those decision-makers needed old standbys to come through. The original 2020 NASCAR schedule had one race in the elite Cup Series at “The Lady in Black,” which is one more than at the similarly historic tracks abandoned years ago in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, N.C.
Somewhere along the road to becoming a chic mainstream sport, NASCAR lost its soul. Maybe a pandemic could help NASCAR rediscover it.
NASCAR became the first major U.S. sport to hold a regular season, this-really-counts event in two months when it staged a 400-mile race at Darlington on Sunday. It’ll follow with another Darlington race Wednesday night, doubling the number of Cup races the track was scheduled to host this year in a matter of four days.
Study the revised and still-evolving schedule — altered, of course, by the novel coronavirus pandemic that has changed every aspect of our lives — and note the tracks that are hosting seven Cup races between now and June 10: Darlington, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. That right there is the heart of NASCAR’s old footprint. That right there is where any post-pandemic schedule should be based.
I’m not going to pretend I follow the inner workings of NASCAR on a week-by-week — or, at this point, even a season-by-season — basis. But for most of two seasons, I covered this traveling circus for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. They weren’t just any two seasons, either. They were 1999 and 2000, right when NASCAR was rocketing into widespread mainstream popularity, right when it was spreading to markets in every region of the nation, right when NBC and Fox combined to grant it a massive national television contract, right when it was losing its way before it could realize what was happening.
The rejiggered NASCAR schedule for this season is designed completely around the pandemic. These first seven Cup races are within easy driving distance of the headquarters for the vast majority of race teams, which is the Concord, N.C., area, just north of Charlotte. The idea is to limit competition to one day — no qualifying, no practice, just racin’ — and eliminate air travel and hotel stays.
In photos: NASCAR fires back up with nobody in the stands
There’s an opportunity within: What if, in the aftermath of all this, we relearn that — at least from a sports perspective — geography and the culture associated with it matter?
NASCAR originally grew from the rural South, where clever and resourceful mechanics souped up cars for bootleggers so they could outrun the law in dry counties. There was a creative rebelliousness about it all, and the cunning that went into speeding away from Smokey to deliver moonshine ended up in the NASCAR garage, where real American ingenuity took the shape of bent — and outright broken — rules, all in the name of making a car go fast. How original. How fun.
Just before the turn of this century, more people started to sense that originality and that fun. NASCAR pounced. What once was a regional sport with its headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., and its heart in the Carolinas expanded — quickly — into a national brand. The advertisers in New York wanted a piece and, in turn, NASCAR wanted a piece of Hollywood. New offices developed in Manhattan and Los Angeles. New sponsors elbowed each other out of the way. Disney made “Cars.” Will Ferrell made “Talladega Nights.” NASCAR knew no bounds.
With more demand came more supply, and the race calendar bulged. New markets percolated from coast to coast. There was money! There was attention! There was growth! In 1993, what was then known as the Winston Cup Series held 20 points races in seven southeastern states and 10 more spread among seven states, with just two races west of the Mississippi. NASCAR knew where its biscuits were buttered.
By 2005, by which time the top series had been renamed the Nextel Cup, regional loyalty and identity had been abandoned. A bursting-at-the-seams 36-race schedule featured 16 points races in those seven southeastern states — Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina — and the remaining 20 spread across a dozen states, with nine races west of the Mississippi.
And it wasn’t just the new markets that seemed like a cash grab. It was the construction of new tracks, so many of them nearly identical “tri-ovals” that served to maximize more expensive seating on long frontstretches, with the requisite corporate and sponsor boxes above the masses. No minnow pond would ever get in the way again.
What’s clear now was only predictable by pessimists back when I covered NASCAR: It ended up with a watered-down product on boring tracks spread across the country in front of fan bases that didn’t care as much, if they cared at all. By 2018, television ratings hit an all-time low. NASCAR stopped announcing in-person attendance. Many tracks removed grandstands. In pursuing new fans, NASCAR alienated its base.
Maybe the restructuring forced by the pandemic could win it back.
There’s really no way to tell what any specific sport will look like assuming we get to the other side of all this, but it just seems foolish to assume it’ll be precisely as it was when 2020 dawned. In a sense, the pandemic should force leagues to consider not only what’s best for the rest of this year but how they might improve well beyond.
After Wednesday night, the next two races on the Cup schedule are at Charlotte, which might not be the most interesting layout but at least is at the sport’s geographic epicenter and cultural core. Beyond, there’s the variety of the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville. In late June comes the monstrous superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., as fast as the sport can go. Embrace it.
Why not grow by shrinking? Race at Richmond and Atlanta, Daytona and Bristol, even Darlington again. Even without fans in the stands, pander to the base in hopes of recapturing it again, especially when there are precious few sporting alternatives on which to focus.
Every sport is facing harsh realities right now. NASCAR might have an opportunity to use this pared-down schedule without fans in the stands to its advantage. Consider what it was when it was at its best. Try to get back there. It’s likely to be a short drive.