Archive for Thursday, March 13, 2003

Taming the beast

At Darlington Raceway, every lap an adventure

March 13, 2003

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"Darlington is stock-car racing's answer to the steeplechase," Kyle Petty, the driver of the No. 45 Georgia Pacific Dodge, said. "Run hard, jump over something, dodge this or that, and get ready to go another lap ... The place is tough, but one of the things that make success such a great feeling is being able to overcome that kind of stuff. Hey, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it, right?"

While everyone won't be trying to figure out how to get his vehicle around South Carolina's Darlington Raceway in one piece (more or less) this weekend, it might seem like it.

Beginning with qualifying for the Truck and Grand National series on Thursday, NASCAR's first big track will host all three of its top series this weekend. The Craftsman 200 Truck race will be run Friday, followed by the darlingtonraceway.com 200 Grand National race Saturday and the Winston Cup Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 Sunday.

That's a lot of drivers who will be trying to figure out how to win, of course, but mostly how to survive.

Last year Bill Lester, who'll be driving one of Bobby Hamilton's Dodge trucks in Friday's race, never knew what hit him. He was just tooling along and all of a sudden he was looking at everybody else -- coming straight at him.

"I remember it well," Lester said. "I was running good and moving up from my 13th place starting spot when I let off the gas to enter the turn and -- boom! -- I got hit and slammed into the wall back-end first. I had to ask the spotter what happened."

In those top three series, drivers come from everywhere, and have experience on every kind of track you can think of. To a man, they all say Darlington is unique.

It is similar to its "sister" track in Rockingham, N.C., North Carolina Speedway, in that they are perhaps the two most abrasive tracks on the circuit, but the similarity ends there.

Darlington was built by a Darlington native, Harold Brasington, in 1950, when nobody outside of Indianapolis had ever tried to build a paved track more than a mile in length.

Brasington didn't really know what he was getting into. Then, when one of the men who owned the property told Brasington he couldn't touch the pond at one end of the course, Brasington had to adjust.

The turns at one end of the track were tightened up, and the result was perhaps the only egg-shaped track in the world. That, of course, made it extremely difficult to drive.

"Darlington is the type of track that probably requires more of what people call 'luck' than just about any of the others," Petty said, "You can't rely on being out of trouble at any time at Darlington.

"No matter who you are racing against, who you are trying to pass or who is trying to pass you, a car is liable to come off the wall or spin -- or who knows what -- at any time there."

If you look down the list of Darlington winners, and down the list of the members of the hall of fame, there are a lot of dual entries. It's not hard to figure out that you don't walk in off the street and win at the track.

And, since the great ones have won at Darlington for over a half a century, the ones who now want to lay claim to greatness feel that a win at Darlington is a must for resume building. Some, on the other hand, want to scale that mountain just because it's there.

"A lot of drivers talk about wanting to win Darlington because it's such a storied, historical racetrack," said Robby Gordon, who drives the No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet. "I'd like to win at Darlington just to prove to everyone that I do have the patience to survive there."

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