By Jared Turner, Motorsports
DARLINGTON, SC – "Lady in Black" might be the lesser known of the two nicknames for Darlington Raceway but that doesn't mean it's any less fitting.
While "Lady in Black" doesn't get as much publicity as Darlington's other moniker – the track "Too Tough To Tame," it boasts an equally rich history with 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval.
Darlington, which opened in 1950 with the running of the first SHOWTIME Southern 500 for what is now the Sprint Cup Series, initially acquired the "Lady in Black" label because it was the first paved track in NASCAR and the sport's original superspeedway.
As the South Carolina venue prepares to host its 61st year of racing in 2010 with the running of the SHOWTIME Southern 500, "Lady in Black" has taken on a much bigger meaning for the egg-shaped facility.
In addition to signifying its place as the first paved NASCAR track, "Lady in Black" has a broader connotation: It's a reminder of Darlington's rough, tough, hard-to-conquer characteristics.
Those characteristics include a preferred groove that is right up next to the wall rather than along the bottom like most other tracks. Making Darlington particularly narrow and difficult to navigate is the unique egg-shaped configuration, which came about when Darlington's original design was altered to accommodate the resident landowner who didn't want his nearby minnow pond disturbed by the encroaching house of speed.
Through numerous changes - moving the start-finish line to the opposite end of the track in the 90's, a repaving job in 2008 and the addition of lights in 2004 - Darlington has continued to live up its billing as the "Lady in Black."
From the black stripes on the walls from where drivers have made contact to the black doughnuts on the cars, Darlington perfectly epitomizes the "Lady in Black" profile that it has so long carried.
"I think it's fitting because so many drivers have been affected by the track and so many team members have been affected by the track, or car owners, and what I love about the track is that it's a pillar to our sport," said Ricky Craven, whose lone Darlington win by .002 seconds in 2003 represents the closest margin of victory in NASCAR history.
"When you think of the legacy of NASCAR or the history of NASCAR, Darlington is firmly established as the earliest part of it. So when I go there, any time I go there, I feel that sort of nostalgic feeling that Darlington represents start to finish. Over the years, there's been reference to the ‘Lady in Black' or the ‘Widow Maker' or ‘Too Tough To Tame' and they all register. I think that they register with the fans because they see it from somebody every race. It might be a rookie or it might be a veteran or it could be a champion battling for the lead, but the track will take its toll on somebody every race. And from a driver's perspective, you've been that guy."
Craven, who endured his share of bumps at Darlington before triumphing in his 12th try, certainly knows a thing or two about the hazards the "Lady in Black" presents.
"If you've raced there maybe once or twice maybe you've avoided it," Craven said of the familiar excursions into the outside wall. "But by and large, if you've raced there enough, if you've raced there any length of time, you've been ‘that guy.' So it has without question created a character that, I guess, is very, very unique but fitting. And it's fun to talk about. I don't know that I could say it would be as much fun to talk about if I were sitting here today having never won there. … From a driver's perspective, nothing brings out the best in you – or the worst – than Darlington. It will challenge you in ways that other tracks don't even consider."
Rusty Wallace, who went winless in 43 starts at the "Lady in Black" concurs with Craven's about what makes Darlington so daunting. He's not as big a fan of the "Lady in Black" nickname, however.
While Darlington may have been the first paved track, all but two tracks where the Sprint Cup Series currently competes are asphalt. The other two – Bristol Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway – are concrete.
"Hell, they're all ‘Lady in Black,'" Wallace said. "They're all black except for Bristol, with concrete, and Dover. You could call them all ‘Lady in Black.' I like the one, ‘Too Tough To Tame.' I'll go with that one. ‘Lady in Black' doesn't do anything for me."
But not everyone sees it that way. Craven, for one, insists that Darlington Raceway is "a she."
The late Dale Earnhardt, a nine-time winner at Darlington, often referred to the track as a "lady" as well.
Does four-time defending series champion and two-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson buy into the "Lady in Black" nickname? According to him, "Lady in Black" served Darlington well in its earlier days and continues to do so now.
"I guess it's both past and present," Johnson said. "It's the only way that I have known the track. It's so well used, that phrase, that's I guess it's a little of both."
In keeping with Darlington's identity as a "lady," Earnhardt once described the facility in almost romantic terms.
"You never forget your first love whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition," said the seven-time Cup champion, who scored his last Darlington win in 1994.
While Darlington might have originally been given the "Lady in Black" title for its pavement, the nickname has evolved to mean so much more.
"It can punish a more experienced driver certainly as much because sometimes you have this urgency to want to get to the front, you might feel like you have the car to get to the front but you haven't demonstrated the discipline that you need at Darlington to get to the front," Craven said. "I've got to tell you: Losing races at Darlington, and some of them painfully, absolutely helped in my being able to win there."