Darlington Raceway was strangely busy last spring, just a couple months after the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in earnest.
The country venue that's more than half a century old opened its gates to help NASCAR restart its engines during a hectic stretch of three races in five days. The mid-May residency was the perfect warmup for a return to two scheduled Cup Series races this season at the South Carolina track for the first time since 2004.
Darlington is hosting all three of NASCAR's national series this weekend, with the Cup Series stars celebrating Mother's Day on Sunday. NASCAR then returns in September for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.
It is something of a rebirth for a track that seemed closer to extinction during the 17 years since NASCAR stripped the "Lady In Black" of one of its coveted race dates.
"We're certainly excited with what's occurred," said Kerry Tharp, track president since 2016. "We consider ourselves like the Wrigley Field of NASCAR."
The track hosted two NASCAR weekends a year from 1960 through 2004 before the Labor Day race was moved to a larger market.
It's not that Darlington wasn't appreciated. Harold Brasington carved the 1.37-mile egg-shaped oval out of farmland, and "The Track Too Tough To Tame" is one of the most unique on the circuit. But it opened in 1950, seats fewer than 50,000 in the grandstands and sits along a four-lane highway on the way to the beach.
Simply put, NASCAR outgrew the place.
However, track officials taking for granted Darlington's status as a staple on NASCAR's schedule led to neglect and disrepair at the raceway. When Darlington lost its Labor Day weekend date after 2003, the whispers began about the track maybe shutting down.
Instead, Darlington leaders and officials at NASCAR, which now owns the track, have worked to modernize the venue by adding lights, new grandstands, suite areas and a tunnel entry to improve access for teams. Tharp understands Darlington can't make the same mistake again by sitting back content with its two races a year status, so there are other areas he and NASCAR are targeting for improvements.
The path back has been rocky. The first big step came in 2015, when Darlington regained its Labor Day date for the Southern 500. Track organizers also initiated a throwback weekend celebration at the Labor Day race six years ago. The practice has become popular among fans as drivers and teams don vintage clothing and the cars are replicated in paint schemes honoring the sport's history.
Going forward, the throwback celebration will take place during the Mother's Day weekend race. The Southern 500, set for Sept. 5, will open NASCAR's playoffs.
Tharp said the switch will help drivers and teams concentrate fully on the postseason.
Explained the track president: "It's something that made sense to us."