Let there be light: Darlington switches on
Updated: Tuesday August 24, 2004 9:54PM
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- Darlington Raceway's half-century of tradition changed in a flash Tuesday night with the debut of its multimillion dollar lighting system.
Just before twilight, officials threw the seven switches that lit up exterior lights at "The Lady in Black," NASCAR's oldest superspeedway that debuted in 1950.
Jeff Gordon, the Nextel Cup points leader and a six-time Darlington winner, headlined an exhibition program that also featured truck series points leader Bobby Hamilton and all-time racing greats David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.
Each driver was to cruise 10 laps around Darlington in front an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 fans -- much larger than the usual crowds for Friday qualifying and Saturday Busch races -- who got in free for the night show.
"I'd never thought we'd race here under the lights," Gordon said. "I think we're going to love it."
And the additions just may save Darlington's spot on the Nextel Cup schedule.
The track, cut out of some Pee Dee farmland in 1949, has hosted two races a year since 1960 and held the prestigious Southern 500 each Labor Day weekend. But traditions began to change a year ago when NASCAR officials moved the Labor Day event to California Speedway and shuffled Darlington's second race to this November.
Then in May came another body blow -- Darlington was sliced to one race for 2005 and that would come on Mother's Day weekend, a traditional off week for the series. The saving grace was that race would take place at night.
That has officials excited about what's to come.
"Darlington's got a couple of strands of diamonds around it. It feels like there's a buzz around this place," said Andrew Gurtis, Darlington's former president who was promoted to the headquarters of International Speedway Corp., the track's owner.
The roof was torn off the Brasington Grandstands in turn 2 to make way for the lights. There'll be 47 poles at heights between 90 and 120 feet outside the track, 27 poles above the grandstand and 212 poles, ranging from 10 to 24 feet high, inside the facility. They are expected to generate 180 million lumens of light to give drivers the same view of the tire-chewing, ornery surface as they might have on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
"During the day, you have to deal with shadows," Hamilton said. "There are no shadows at night. And racing at night just looks faster."
Fans came from throughout the region to watch Darlington light up. Bill Elliott of Durham, N.C., -- his driver's license name is William Thomas Elliott -- said he wanted to be part of history. "We didn't want to miss something like this," he said.
Chris Browning, the track's recently named president, said the crowd sent a message to stock car leaders who might think to take away Darlington's remaining event. "This is why NASCAR needs to stay in South Carolina," he said.
Pearson is the track's all-time champ with 10 Darlington victories. He was driving a vintage No. 21 Mercury Cougar. Yarborough, who's tied with Gordon with a record five Southern 500 victories, was in a 1977 Oldsmobile borrowed from a Tennessee collector Bob McNabb.
Pearson went first and hugged the track's outside wall through his 10-lap set. Yarborough, wearing his 1976 Winston Cup championship belt buckle, came out sweating. "I wish I had worn my old suit and helmet," he said. "That thing moved pretty good."
When Hamilton finished he performed the track's first night burnout, smoking the tires along the frontstretch grandstands to loud cheers.
"I've raced trucks here twice and won them both and did it," Hamilton said, smiling. "It's a habit."
Hamilton gets another shot Nov. 12 when the Craftsman Truck Series is the Darlington's first NASCAR night race.
Gordon turned his short set into a full-out night test. He went three laps, then rolled into the garage so his No. 24 crew could swap out setups and change tire pressure. After three more laps, Gordon came in again before finishing with four more circuits on the egg-shaped track.
Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis, said Gordon was seeking any knowledge he could about night conditions at Darlington. Loomis said Gordon told him riding over to the track this afternoon he might discover how the setting sun affected glare in the cockpit. "Those are things people don't realize about Jeff Gordon," Loomis said. "He's always looking to get something out of it."
Gordon expected fans would enjoy the Darlington lights for years to come.
"You can see how avid these fans are," he said. "This race track is so rich in history, they want to keep it around here a long time."