COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile likes where his old, country track stands in NASCAR, even if it’s no longer the sports’ backdrop for honoring mothers this week.
The 65-year-old facility had spent the previous nine years building the formerly off weekend of Mother’s Day into a can’t-miss race for NASCAR moms, who walked across the stage with their sons or daughters during driver introductions and combined for the combined for the unique call of “Drivers and sons, start your engines!”
But Wile believes that the switch in is Darlington’s best interest long term and will keep NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway relevant with a new generation of race fans.
“Look, it’s an old place, but there’s lots of things going on,” Wile said Thursday.
Wile said he’s heard little except raves from NASCAR leaders and officials at Darlington’s parent company, International Speedway Corp. The compliments about the strong crowd and the good show continued last week at Talladega where Wile was in attendance.
The racing didn’t hurt either. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out front near the end until he was passed by Kevin Harvick with two laps left to win the Southern 500.
“Harvick kept texting me since saying, ‘We’ve got to do this or that at your track,'” Wile said. “So drivers understand this place is important.”
After a few weeks to review numbers and catch their breaths, Wile says track leaders have started plans to make things even better in 2015. He’s confident the April race weekend will stick and give fans something to count on each season.
That was certainly the case for more than a half century when the Southern 500, one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, capped the summer season with its Labor Day weekend running. The tradition ended after 2003 when the event shifted to California. After the 2004 season, Darlington was reduced to just one Sprint Cup weekend each season. Night racing began the next year with the first of the “Lady in Black’s” first Mother’s Day runnings.
The track had sold out its first four Mother’s Day weekend races, but attendance had fallen off in recent years. Wile said the track came close to a full house a month ago, although he would not provide details about attendance, citing track policy
A month ago, NASCAR President Mike Helton was on hand as Darlington unveiled plans to tie its long, successful past to its future. Helton was asked if Darlington could once again regain its Labor Day date, now at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and would not rule it out.
“I have seen a lot of things in this sport that I was surprised by,” Helton said. “And that led me to believe that the future of the sport can have things happen that people say won’t happen again. So you never know.”
For now, Wile’s busy to make sure next April brings another strong crowd.
There will be some facility tweaks next time around, Wile said, similar to projects completed for this year such as adding more reliable hot-water sources for infield shower stalls.
Darlington plans to build on its past and connect with a younger crowd, using NASCAR great Bill Elliott and his son, rising star Chase Elliott, as faces of a continuing campaign. The elder Elliott, who earned the nickname “Million Dollar Bill” when he claimed the 1985 Winston Million bonus at Darlington, is glad there’s a place for Darlington on NASCAR’s schedule.
“To me, this race track represents so much history in the sport, I don’t people realize it,” Bill Elliott said.
Wile hopes to make that happen the next 11 months. He’ll expects to roll out details about Darlington’s throwback 2015 race weekend throughout the year. He’ll open the track for a free Fourth of July celebration with fireworks and concert acts, part of tying the track to the community year round.
“I think we hit a home run” with the Southern 500, Wile said. “There’s a lot of passion for this place.”