There are so many things that can be cobbled together in the garage area at a NASCAR race, but a decent rendition of Wagner's Bridal Chorus isn't one of them. Exhaust pipes they've got, but pipe organs? Sorry. So for her Sunday morning walk down the aisle—the aisle in this case being the asphalt leading into Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway—Lesa Russell had to settle for Jim Stone, the local fire chief, bellowing, "Here comes the bride!" Russell, in a checkered-flag gown sewn by her aunt and a white lace veil with checkered-flag trim made by her mom, was on her way to wed Greg Norrell, and she didn't seem to mind the lack of musical accompaniment. The couple from Troup, Texas, scrapped plans for a Vegas wedding when they found out the track was allowing nuptials on the morning of the Southern 500, the oldest stock car race in the country and a Labor Day weekend fixture for the past 53 years. "It was perfect for us," says the bride. "We plan our Sundays around racing."
The groom wore Wranglers, a black cowboy hat and a checkered-flag bow tie. (He removed his Dale Earnhardt Jr. sunglasses for the ceremony.) And he was just as excited as his bride at the prospect of a racetrack wedding. "It's going to be special," Norrell said. "It's the first time they've allowed weddings here, and it's also going to be the last Labor Day race here, so there's a whole lot of sentimental things going on."
Really, what better setting for a wedding than a day when sentiment was running high at NASCAR's most hallowed ground? Daytona might be NASCAR's most high-profile track, but Darlington, a 1.366-mile circuit in central South Carolina, is its most revered and—because it introduced flat-out speed to the sport—its most important. "Without Darlington we'd still be racing on half-mile dirt tracks on Saturday night," says Richard Petty.
The track was the brainchild of Harold Brasington, a stock car racer from South Carolina who got the idea to build a paved superspeedway in the land of short dirt tracks in the 1930s after visiting the speedway in Indianapolis. The war delayed his efforts, but in 1948 he finally acquired a tract of land from a Darlington peanut farmer named Sherman Ramsey. The track's quirkiness and the aura it has acquired in the 53 years since it hosted the first Southern 500 on Labor Day of 1950 are not lost on those who race there. Says Ricky Craven, a NASCAR driver from Newburgh, Maine, "I take my family to Fenway Park every year. It's part of being a New England boy. The last couple of years I've come into Darlington, I've had the same appreciation as I have when I walk down Yawkey Way, looking at the Green Monster. It has that presence, and it has that history."
The track has a mean streak that belies its homey exterior. "It's the toughest track in the world to race on," says Cale Yarborough, who won five Southern 500s. Not only is it very narrow, but the fastest line takes drivers up against the wall, so virtually every one finishes the race with a " Darlington stripe"—a streak on his right door where his car has rubbed the wall. Not surprisingly, both Darlington's nickname (the Lady in Black) and its slogan (Too tough to tame) are ominous. For years rookies weren't allowed on the track until they watched a film prepared by the veteran drivers, who apparently found their inspiration in the gory flicks shown in drivers' ed classes. Says Ricky Rudd, who finished 16th Sunday in his 27th Southern 500, "They showed about a hundred wrecks."
The whole thing can leave a driver looking for something to steady his nerves. In the first Southern 500, one driver pulled into the pits in a panic because the cigarette lighter in his car was on the fritz. At Darlington, though, one has never had to look too far for a vice. For the past 50 years South Carolinians have celebrated the end of summer by going to the beach on Labor Day weekend, then stopping at the track—Darlington is 80 miles inland from Myrtle Beach—on their way home. Partying is as much a part of the Darlington experience as watching cars and suffering in the stifling heat. (Ah, the heat. One year it was so bad that Bobby Allison chiseled a makeshift air flap into his roof during a race.) "In the old days if you went in the infield here on Sunday night," says Barney Hall, who has called NASCAR races on radio for 44 years, "you'd better be prepared to get into a fist-fight or a card game or a drinking contest."
The infield carousing sometimes benefited competitors. Darlington is notoriously brutal on tires. In the days when drivers raced the family car, blowouts would force the crew to prowl the infield looking for the same make of tire. When they found it, there was a chance its owner was passed out, so they'd jack the car up and "borrow" what they needed. Legendary owner Junie Donlavey was once busted mid-theft by the car's dazed owner, but when he found out who Donlavey was he gladly surrendered the tire. Says Hall, "Things like that are how stock ear racing got its character. It all started here at Darlington."
That character was on full display on Sunday. In addition to the eight couples who were married before the race, the crowd was full of fans sporting homemade tattoos—drawn with Sharpies—honoring their favorite drivers. On the track, countless cars banged into the wall, making the race, as usual, a battle of attrition. When it was over, Terry Labonte, a 46-year-old Texan who won his first Southern 500 in 1980, had finally won his second. "I think this is the biggest fwin of my career]," he said. "It's a thrill for me to win the last Southern 500 on Labor Day."
Ironically, Darlington ushered in an era of change in the sport, but the track has hardly evolved. Sure, it's been reconfigured and repaved a few times, and more seats were added, but the stands on the back-stretch are rickety and covered with a corrugated metal roof, making the whole thing look as if it were built on Junkyard Wars. There are just under 60,000 seats, a piddling number by NASCAR standards. The plush amenities, like luxury suites, that dot new tracks are conspicuously absent. "It's like playing football on a sandlot," says Petty.
But lately NASCAR has been distancing itself from its sandlot days. In June—three months after the track's annual spring race produced the closest finish in NASCAR history (Craven beat Kurt Busch by .002 of a second), the organization announced that next year's Labor Day race would be held at California Speedway, a bland, modern tri-oval an hour east of Los Angeles owned, as is Darlington, by International Speedway Corporation. (ISC is in turn owned by the France family, the clan that has run NASCAR since its inception.) Darlington's fall race will be in November. Beyond Turn 1 last Saturday, fans Brian Hankins and Jeff Morris sat outside a motor home painted like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car, "cocktailing." They had two signs, one suggesting that ISC stands for I Screwed Carolina, and another that read CALIFORNIA SUCKS. "It's one of the greatest family traditions of the South," said Hankins. "You heard 'Southern 500,' and you knew it was Labor Day weekend." Hankins said he'll spend next Labor Day with his family, but he definitely won't watch the race.