This is one NASCAR schedule shakeup Darlington Raceway president Chris Browning is not sweating out.
With NASCAR tracks all around him losing races and shifting dates, Browning continues to go full throttle to keep the old country track viable in the sport's modern age.
The latest burst of life? Saturday night's Camping World Truck Series event, the Too Tough To Tame 200, which marks the first time in six years the circuit's oldest superspeedway has unlocked its gates for more than one NASCAR weekend.
"So many people had put us on the endangered list," Browning said. "It's a great feeling where we are to where we were six years ago."
And that was clearly on the verge of extinction.
The signs were all there. In 2003, NASCAR's late leader, Bill France Jr., had called out Darlington as one of the sport's underperforming tracks. Then later that year, the event on Labor Day weekend, a tradition at the track since 1950, was pulled from
Darlington and shipped off to California. Even worse, the track's lone date was Mother's Day weekend, considered an unsellable dark hole by promoters, so much so that NASCAR's top series had taken the day off the previous 18 years. There were aging grandstands, old bathrooms and a foreboding sense the best days for the 'Lady in Black' were in the rearview mirror.
Since then, though, it's been a bona fide Southern revival for the historic track. On Wednesday, track spokesman Jake Harris said Darlington received its 2011 dates for Mother's Day weekend: the Nationwide race on May 6 and the Sprint Cup event on May 7.
'There's a whole lot of comfort in that,' Browning says.
The turnaround began when Darlington added $3.5 million in improvements, including a light system in 2004 that allowed the track to race at night for first time in its storied history. That led to a sellout in 2005, then three more the next three seasons. Darlington's owners, International Speedway Corp. (ISC), took notice and gave Browning's team about $10 million for capital projects, including repaving the track and adding a modern tunnel for infield access.
Browning remembers a turning point after the sellout in 2006, the second time the track ran on Mother's Day weekend. 'I didn't hear anyone ask me if I thought we were going to be on next year's schedule,' he said. 'That was big.'
He has kept pushing to find events that fit one of the region's staunchest fan bases. The track ran a U.S. Auto Club race during its NASCAR weekend in 2007, the first time in more than a half century that open-wheel racers cruised the egg-shaped oval.
In 2008, the track introduced a Historic Racing Festival that played into Darlington's role as a cradle of the sport. Racing greats like David Pearson and Cale Yarborough met with fans, who could also drive the layout with their car clubs. The third edition of the event is Sept. 24-26 and Browning says the response is growing. 'We think when we look back 10 years from now, we'll see this as something good,' he said.
Darlington leaders hope to say the same thing about the trucks. The series ran at Darlington from 2001-04, but scheduling problems — along with balancing three races over one weekend on an infield tight for space — ended that run.
When truck organizers asked if Darlington could hold a midsummer's night race, Browning jumped at the chance and hopes it stays for some time to come.
Todd Bodine, the truck series' points leader, is one of the few drivers on the circuit with significant Darlington experience. He has 38 starts at the track in NASCAR's top three series, including a 2003 victory in a Nationwide race where he slid across the finish line after hitting Jamie McMurray.
'Every corner is different. It's fast, it's aggressive, it's Darlington,' Bodine said. 'I love it.'
Bringing the trucks here also exposes a new generation of drivers to the track. Timothy Peters' truck team came in for a March tire test and could not believe how quickly the track can grab you.
'I got my Darlington stripe early,' he said after hitting the wall.
For Trucks racer Austin Dillon, the 20-year-old grandson of owner Richard Childress, the biggest memory of Darlington came in 1997 when the late Dale Earnhardt was carried from his car after hitting the wall twice during the first two laps of the Southern 500 on Labor Day. Dillon's father, Mike, had to jump in the No. 3 Chevrolet to take over.
Austin Dillon's glad for the chance to drive the matchless track and looks forward to returning for years to come.
'It's a historical place where many NASCAR memories have been made,' he said. 'This being NASCAR, you got to go there. You've got to go to Darlington.'