An exclusive club will hold its annual dinner meeting Friday night as part of the Southern 500 weekend activities at Darlington Raceway.
How exclusive is this club? Jeff Burton isn't a member yet. Neither is Mark Martin, nor Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon is just getting in this year.
The club is the Darlington Record Club, and its membership consists of the 74 drivers who have been the fastest qualifiers in their particular make of car for any of the Southern 500s run since the club's inception in 1959. Three new members earned entry with their qualifying efforts in 1999 Gordon in a Chevrolet, Ward Burton in a Pontiac and Kenny Irwin in a Ford.
Irwin, who died in a crash in practice at New Hampshire International Speedway on July 7, was to become the 17th driver to receive a white blazer identifying him as the fastest ever qualifier for the Labor Day weekend race. Irwin set the race record last year at 170.97 mph.
Friday night's banquet notwithstanding, the Darlington Record Club's most important function in Winston Cup racing is that its president is responsible for conducting weekly meetings for rookie drivers at each of the circuit's racetracks.
Ricky Rudd is the current president, so this year he has been meeting with Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Scott Pruett, Stacy Compton and the other members of this year's stellar rookie class. Rudd's role is to clue the rookies into idiosyncrasies of each track, providing some very practical information.
"At certain tracks you come in off the banking to enter pit road," Rudd says. "At other tracks you start driving into pit road on the backstretch. It's more of an informative thing and putting them in the driver's seat on what to look out for and the hazards of all the different racetracks."
Rudd will tell the rookies where they should drive to go into and out of the garage area during practices, and which turns are particularly treacherous and where on the tracks it's not a good idea to go two- or three-wide.
"Things like that have sped up my learning curve and kept me from doing something stupid," said Compton, driver of the No. 9 Fords owned by Melling Racing.
Rudd was president of the Record Club back in 1981, too, and things have changed a lot since then.
"In '81 you had guys that were seeing a superspeedway for the first time, so it was a lot different and it was more of an instructor role," Rudd says.
"This day and time most everybody who gets here were either champions in the Grand National circuit or champions in another form of racing, so when they get here they're already experienced they just need to know the flow of how things work in the Winston Cup area.
"It's really more of an informative thing, not to go out and tell them how to run the racetrack," Rudd says. "But every race track has got its own peculiarities that are common only to those tracks. We kind of brief them on what to watch out for at different racetracks."
Rudd works with Winston Cup series director Gary Nelson in conducting the rookie meetings.
"It's real informal and I kind of just wing it," Rudd said. "We talk about things as simple as working with your spotter, how to pull out onto pit road to make an attempt at a qualifying lap, how not to trust your spotter and how to look over your shoulder.
"I tell them that they've got the final responsibility to clear traffic and not to always trust their spotter on when to pull out. The Winston Cup format is different than other forms of racing, so once you get your run in during practice, I tell them how to come off Turn 2 and to be alert that other guys are on the hammer, and you don't want to mess their attempt up."