Darlington ready for history making week
By PETE IACOBELLI
The Associated Press

It is without question the biggest event in the history of Darlington Raceway," president Andrew Gurtis said.

The upcoming attention and buzz for the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend - a NASCAR staple since 1950 - has left track leaders running to keep up with everyone who wants to show up. There are more than triple the number of media requests, a full slate of pre-race, Victory Lane weddings and even A-list celebrities like comedian David Spade and the band Smashmouth on hand to say goodbye.

"The stars have lined up," Gurtis said. "Everybody's recognizing that a 54-year tradition is going to change after this running."

About the only ones not biting so far are the fans. Gurtis says ticket sales have been slower than expected for the Aug. 31 race. Maybe its the economy, maybe it's longtime supporters who can't come to grips that next year's Southern 500 won't come until Nov. 14.

"I wish ticket sales were up," he says. "I think all that will play out in the next week."

Darlington spokeswoman Cathy Mock says there are between 400 and 500 credential requests, triple what she had for the track's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in March.

It's been a busy, up-and-down year so far for NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.

NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. named it as one of the circuits that could see change when the sanctioning body went through realignment for 2004. Then in March, Ricky Craven pulled off the most talked-about finish of the season when he edged out Kurt Busch by .002 seconds to win a bump-and-grind battle at the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

In June came word Darlington - home to the Southern 500 ever since Harold Brasington bulldozed some farmland to make the sport's quirkiest layout in 1950 - would send its signature Labor Day weekend to sister track California Speedway for 2004.

In July, the track rechristened its expanded museum and home to the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame.

And earlier this month, Gurtis got the go-ahead from owners International Speedway Corp. to light up Darlington in time for the November Southern 500 next year - an expense that should keep the old track relevant for some time. Gurtis says it's uncertain which race would be the first run under the lights, only that the project - Musco Lighting has staked out several of the 74 light poles necessary - will begin soon after the checkered flag drops Sunday.

There are many who'll never get used to a Southern 500 run on any weekend other than Labor Day. "If you can get bigger crowds in other places, I understand that," said Cale Yarborough, who shares the all-time mark of five Southern 500 wins with Jeff Gordon. "But Labor Day and the Southern 500 have been around almost as long as NASCAR has."

Craven doesn't understand why all stock car fans, no matter where they're from, don't make a pilgrimage to Darlington Raceway.

"This track creates some of the best racing of the year," Craven said. "It wouldn't be as good as the race in the spring, I don't think. But there's always that chance."

Gurtis says a few thousand seats remain. He's hopeful they'll be snapped up by fans eager to say so long.

"Without question, it's a bittersweet weekend," Gurtis said. "There's an emotional attachment between Darlington Raceway and Labor Day weekend. With that said, it's teed us up for a monumental event in the track's history."
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This is a track I've always wanted to go to. The Southern 500 just won't be the same not being held Labor Day Weekend.