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The Southern 500: Musings


   Remember when: Ned Jarrett (11) beating Buck Baker in the 1965 Southern 500. Margin of victory: two car lengths...and 14 laps (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Corn is already knee-high in the fields, next to the soybean sprouts and cotton seedlings, the other side of the life cycle here in the Sandhills -- spring in the Pee Dee River basin.
   No, it's not a Labor Day weekend, with all the summer gnats and sand flies that float in with the brutal waves of coastal humidity to dog NASCAR's finest, as it was for so many years. But it's still Southern 500 weekend at legendary Darlington Raceway, which has really changed not all that much since it first opened for stock car racing back in 1950…back when race cars were real cars and when drivers and crews literally risked their lives every day at the track.

   Indeed there is something timeless about this area. There may be a few new homes here and there, new fencing, bigger farms. But the farm fields are just about where they've been for ages.
   Now the Darlington infield may be a bit more civilized than the days when rowdies hauled down in those beer-filled one-ton rental trucks and made the first turn bog a legend in its own right.
   And the grandstands are more sophisticated, and filled with much better traffic control than used to be the case here, even though the feeder system of country roads around this track, leading over to U.S. 52 and I-20/I-95, hasn't really changed a lick.

     Ah, back when NASCAR stockers looked like real street cars....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The stands may not hold 100,000-plus like some other NASCAR tracks. And the supporting infrastructure in nearby Florence may not be quite what it is elsewhere on the tour.
   But this place was once NASCAR's heart…before Daytona's high-banks, or Talladega, or Charlotte or Atlanta.
   And if you walk the grounds, these hallowed grounds, you can still feel the heartbeat. If you go over to the Piggly Wiggly for groceries, you can hear the voices of people who understand just what this place once meant in this sport.
   Now this place has never been quite what you could call a showcase of engineering for the sport. It wasn't that long ago, really, that the old tin roof was finally torn off the fourth turn grandstands…now the second turn grandstands, with the start-finish line having been moved over to the old backstretch, because there's a lot of good farmland on that side of the place, and the old frontstretch backs right onto Hartsville Highway.


    Legendary Darlington Raceway: the lady in black...too tough to tame...and, at 200 mph now, way too fast (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But Darlington Raceway isn't about having all those amenities. It's about racing, and camping. The farms surrounding here have been filled with campers for days, waiting for Saturday night's Southern 500.
   Yes, some purists may still bemoan the loss of Darlington's Labor Day weekend, which went first to Los Angeles (in an ill-fated move to an even hotter clime), and now plays in south Atlanta.
   But Darlington Raceway is still Darlington Raceway….though if you haven't seen this place lately, you might not believe your eyes: drivers, on the new asphalt, running into these tight corners at more than 200 mph is breath-taking.
   For years NASCAR played a large part of its season around here, with four Cup events, two here, two more just up the road at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, precisely 60 miles north, gate to gate. (Good rural farmland too, up there, though peach growing is increasingly problematic.)
    Two great race tracks, arguably two of the best tracks on the stock car tour, from a drivers' standpoint.
   Heck, even Formula 1 legend Jim Clark once raced NASCAR at Rockingham. And the late Benny Parson called nearby Ellerbe, N.C., home for so many years, in deference to his first benefactor, trucking magnate L. G. DeWitt, who owned the nearby track, a track so close to Richard Petty's Level Cross shop that no wonder he won 11 times on the tire-eating one-mile.
    But things change, time marches on, and now the sport is down to just this one race.



Now this would be quite a Darlington starting grid. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





   Ageless James Hylton, who at 76 is older than some of the men being inducted this month into NASCAR's new Charlotte Hall of Fame, raced only two laps in Friday night's Nationwide race. But that's enough to make another NASCAR record – for the oldest driver to run in major NASCAR event.
   The record he broke – his own.
   Hylton, once a tour regular, ran his first NASCAR tour race in 1964, at Watkins Glen. And his first Darlington race was in 1966, when Richard Petty won by three laps.
   Hylton wound up his 27-year Cup career in 1993; he's now an ARCA regular. But he says he plans to try to qualify next spring for the Daytona 500.


  James Hylton: still going strong....well, still going at least (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Jeff Gordon's hard hit at Richmond last weekend begs a serious question: Why aren't drivers themselves more pro-active on this soft walls issue. The spot Gordon hit at Richmond was not protected by a Safer barrier, one of the most amazing safety devices ever introduced in this sport.
   Gordon's Richmond hit was brutal. That track has a reputation for some of the hardest hits in the sport.
   "I'm not the threshold is, but I know we exceeded the threshold," Gordon said.
    "I knew it was a hard hit. My head hurt a little, but other than that I was feeling pretty good. (Then) I was walking out of the medical center and I happened to see a TV and caught a glance at what happened, and I was shocked -- I couldn't believe there wasn't a Safer barrier there."
   Gordon has responded by saying loudly that every NASCAR track that doesn't have the soft-walls everywhere needs to add them.
   "I had several drivers saying 'Thank you for helping to make the tracks safer,'" Gordon said.
   Gordon's car itself "did a great job" in the crash, he said. "The door-bars moved in several inches, and the window nets still stayed intact.
   "The structure of the car held up incredibly well."
   However in post-crash analysis of the driver-side hit, Gordon says he and crew chief Alan Gustafson found some things they want to improve: "We call it a 'knee-knocker,' a padded piece we put on the steering column between our knees. The way that piece rotated in the impact, we want to change how we mount it.
   "My foot hit the clutch pedal really hard. We're going to box out and curve the edges on that."
   Gordon also wants to tweak his head padding.
    "I like a lot of 'gap' there, because I lean a lot with my head, so I don't like to be touching anything. But in an impact like that you don't want a gap. You want to make sure when your head hits it doesn't move."



Jeff Gordon (24) is on his way into the wall, driver's side, hard. And no soft walls? NASCAR needs to get that fixed (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Tony Stewart and Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton will swap race cars for a few laps at Watkins Glen International Tuesday June 14th, in one of the stranger marketing promotions.
   It is similar to what Jeff Gordon and then-F1 Juan Pablo Montoya did at Indianapolis in 2003.
   However Gordon and Montoya had a real F1 course to run on. The Watkins Glen course, though once home to the U.S. Grand Prix, is probably not up to F1 safety standards of the day.
   The swap comes two days after the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, six hours north, and also site of NASCAR's own annual August Nationwide race.
   The Stewart-Hamilton runs should also help promote NASCAR's Cup stop August 14th.

   The Goodyear blimp has become one of American sports' most recognizable features. And the tire maker, as its current roster of airships reaches the end of useful life cycle, has signed a deal with German zeppelin manufacturer ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik to build a new generation – of bigger, faster, quieter airships. The first of the new blimps is planned to fly in 2014.



     Smoke at the Glen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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