By Jared Turner, Motorsports
DARLINGTON, SC - Darlington Raceway inflicts headaches on the most seasoned veterans. It notoriously punishes rookies. It crushes dreams.
A win at the 1.366-mile track is more than just a feather in the cap for most Sprint Cup Series drivers. It's a career achievement, one they'll reflect on and cherish when their racing days have long since passed.
Capturing a win at Darlington means so much more than crossing the finish line first or collecting a trophy. It means you've conquered the track "Too Tough To Tame."
And to hear drivers both past and present ruminate on the track's popular moniker, there clearly isn't a more appropriate nickname in all of motorsports.
"That's a real fitting slogan," said 1989 Cup series champion Rusty Wallace, who was denied a victory in 43 starts at Darlington. "It's one that's been around forever and ever and it was too tough for me to tame. I couldn't tame it. I fought it and played with it. A great way to describe my career there was sporadic success."
If you ask Wallace or any driver who has raced at Darlington what makes the South Carolina hardtop "Too Tough To Tame," expect a variety of answers. A recurring one is the track's tricky egg-shaped configuration and thin racing groove.
"I think the biggest thing about Darlington is it's just so narrow and so tight and there's basically one specific groove that everybody tries to race in because that's the fastest way around," said Kyle Busch, who won at Darlington in 2008. "When you get to race side-by-side, you have to pick and choose your way around them. It makes it difficult. It's been tougher with this new [Sprint Cup Series] car, with the way it's a little bit more especially difficult with just having to try to find your way around the cars in front of you because you get a little aero tight or loose depending on how your car is that day."
The quickest way around Darlington is unconventionally the longest way – if you're willing to increase the risk of multiple excursions into the nearby concrete.
"In order to run really fast nowadays you need to be right up against that wall and I was never one of the guys that wanted to take the chance that maybe if you slipped you'd hit the wall and it would put you out of the race," Wallace said. "So I tended to run a little bit lower and that might have been a little bit slower way around the race track, but that's what I did. I would always struggle all the time going to that track. … I would take off and be gang busters for 20 laps and my car would always get loose on me and I could never ever seem to get the balance exactly where I needed it. I was always adjusting on the car throughout the race, chasing it like crazy."
Lightning-fast speeds that near 200 mph at the end of the straightaways make Darlington even tougher to tame.
"I think at the end of the day it's the fact that track was built to run 80 miles an hour around or 100 miles an hour around," said four-time defending Cup series champion and two-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson. "We're far above that. The track is very narrow and odd shaped so to run the speeds that we do, it's just a really awkward line and a really awkward track to race at. With all that in mind, it makes it tough and that's where the name comes from."
Because Darlington is so difficult to navigate, drivers say it's often easy to forget that there are 42 other cars on the track as well. This kind of mental lapse is often responsible for wrecks and other encounters with the wall that produce the familiar "Darlington stripe."
Making matters even more treacherous is Darlington's proclivity for chewing up tires at an alarming rate. It typically doesn't take many laps into a green-flag run for drivers to begin slipping and sliding around. This just makes it even harder to strike the proper balance between racing other drivers and the track itself.
"When you become preoccupied with racing somebody, when you become overly occupied with the guy that's in front of you that's holding you up, the guy that should have yielded but he won't, you try to find a way to get by and then you get a little anxious and say, ‘Oh my gosh' and then the next thing is ‘Wham,' you've hit the wall," said Ricky Craven, a winner at Darlington in spring 2003. "Why? Because you forgot where you were. You forgot that you were at Darlington. And Darlington doesn't allow you to do that. Why? Because 180-185 mph corner entry speed going into turn 1 or 3 at Darlington or off turn 2 or 4, they don't allow you to not give the ultimate attention to your markers, your turning points, because the track's not wide enough for you to make a mistake."
Craven didn't win until his 12th start at Darlington, in spring 2003, but remembers other times when he believed a Darlington victory was within reach. One such occasion was the morning of the spring 1997 race.
"I just had that feeling I was gonna win that I'd never had before," said Craven, who started second that day. "I carried that confidence right into the Turn 2 wall about 100 laps into the race. Flat sided the car and had to make a green-flag stop to pull the fenders off the tires.
"It humbles you. That was a miserable ride home. Darlington like no other track makes you feel responsible for a bad day."
And that's why "Too Tough To Tame" is more than just a catchy moniker for Darlington. It's a reality.
"I think it's very important because it represents the brand and the track perfectly," said track President Chris Browning. "The cool thing about that, to me, is it's real. It's not some marketing slogan that was fabricated that doesn't really have any substance to back it up. It's real and all you have to do is ask the competitors that run here and they'll tell you without prodding that it's real."