COLUMBIA — The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will be run in April next year after nearly a decade of racing on Mother’s Day weekend.
Track President Chip Wile said Friday the Sprint Cup event would be held Saturday, April 12. The Nationwide race will be run Friday, April 11. Both those races are run under Darlington’s lights.
It’s the second time Darlington has shifted from a holiday weekend. The track “Too Tough To Tame” ran the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend for over half a century until shifting to larger California Speedway. Atlanta Motor Speedway currently holds a Labor Day weekend race.
“We all believe in Darlington’s future,” Wile told The Associated Press by phone.
Wile said Kansas Speedway would take over Mother’s Day weekend. He said the rest of NASCAR’s schedule would come out Tuesday.
Wile, named track president in late August, said the change was in the works before he arrived. Yet, he believes this enhances the 1.366-milie country’s track’s long-term future in NASCAR. Wile said track owner International Speedway Corp. and NASCAR drivers and teams are committed to Darlington’s success. If they weren’t, he said, they wouldn’t work to improve the fan experience by moving up the date.
Wile said temperatures in mid-April are generally cooler than the second week in May. Shifting to April also lets Darlington tap into the region’s college market to attract fans.
“Usually, they’re in commencement or exams,” Wile said. “This change will let them take part in the tailgate experience and the race.”
Wile said he and his staff plan several campus visits to state schools like Francis Marion, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina.
Next year, Darlington will come the week before Easter, a traditional off week. Wile acknowledged that the race date may have to float around when Easter Sunday falls each year.
“I think this is our new date, moving forward,” Wile said. “We want to have a consistent date that people can get their minds wrapped around.”
Darlington’s fate had been up in the air a decade ago because of falling attendance and crumbling facilities. It held two Sprint Cup races each year from 1960 through 2004 and was a staple of the sport. Upheaval came the following season when the raceway was given Mother’s Day weekend, which was traditionally an off week for the sport.
But then track president Chris Browning and his staff had four straight sellouts and it turned into a modern NASCAR tradition, racer’s moms joining then at driver introductions and giving a family friendly call to begin things of “Drivers and sons, start your engines.”
Attendance suffered the past few events, however, despite major improvements to the track. ISC spent $10 million to repave the track and add a wide, modern infield access tunnel before the 2008 race. Still, Wile is confident Darlington won’t disappear from NASCAR. He’s spent his first few weeks meeting with state and local officials and found wide-ranging support for what Darlington means to South Carolina. He met with Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this month and is confident she want to do everything possible moving ahead.
“Mother’s Day did work for us,” Wile said. “But I think this will be better.”