A guided tour of the history of Darlington
By Harold Brasington III
Labor Day is almost here. It’s hotter than hot peppers on Carolina asphalt. The peanuts are in and the perfume of that boiled southern delicacy is in the air. And you locals know what else that means – you better get a ticket or get out of the way – the race is coming to town. Since the Labor Day race has been returned to its customary home here in Darlington, we feel that a sense of order has been restored in our lives. In anticipation of the big day I have been brushing up on my Darlington history for the occasion.
My grandfather, Harold Brasington Sr. built the Darlington Raceway, so it would be reasonable to think I am already an expert with respect to the venerable Lady in Black. Turns out, I still have a lot to learn. It’s hard to remember things that happened before you were born. Fortunately, some of the people that were there from the beginning have been willing to sit down with me and share their Darlington stories. Each time I come away with a deeper sense of amazement and gratitude for what a determined group of people accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. Granddad is rightly credited as the creator of Darlington Raceway, but without the dedication and skill of the team he assembled it would never have happened. NASCAR is celebrating 70 years, and that landmark anniversary is just around the corner for Darlington next Labor Day. As we reflect on our history I thought it would be fitting to acknowledge some of the individuals that worked behind the scenes and were seldom mentioned, but no less important.
The best way to inspire a mood of nostalgic rumination is to stand in the very place that history unfolded, and let your imagination take over . . . granddad would use just one word for all of that – daydreaming. With that in mind, allow me to guide you on a short walking tour of the Darlington Square. I’d like to introduce you to some of granddad’s old friends that helped make this thing we call Darlington a reality. So come along, it’s free and you will hardly break a sweat. Well, that last part is a lie but it’s worth it.
1.Park on or near the Public Square. Find the vacant lot on the corner of South Main and Orange Street facing the mural of Darlington circa 1930. You are standing on the site of the old McFall Hotel. Left of the center of the mural you can see the cupola of the old Hotel. This is where Harold Brasington called a meeting in December of 1949 to announce the plan to build the first paved speedway for stock cars. Bill France had his Streamline but Harold had his McFall. The building is long gone, lost to a fire in 1968 but you all know what it wrought. Those engines roar every Labor Day.
2.Walk South on Main Street passing the old Coggshall’s Department Store on your right. At the corner turn right on Pearl Street and walk 300 feet. Turn right onto the brick path of Liberty Lane Winston Walk of Fame and take a moment to gaze up at the raceway mural rendered by South Carolina artist Blue Sky. Make sure you take a selfie or put your hands in one of the cement handprints of the legendary drivers who have won at Darlington. Feeling the history yet? Good, now let’s walk on.
3.Proceed to the corner of Pearl and Dargan Street stopping in front of the steps of the Methodist Church. Facing Pearl Street is Tommy’s Automobile lot. Close your eyes and picture the old Brasington home place where Harold Sr. grew up. Close ‘em again…..When his father passed on, Harold tore the old house down and built a round, UFO shaped drive-in café called the Southernair. Richard Petty recounted stories for me once about going up there with his father Lee to visit with Granddad (he said they had good hotdogs). The Southernair provided all the food service for the track for about the first 15 years under the direction of Harold’s niece-in-law, Mary Ruth Hick Brasington. A few years back, her grandson, Billy provided the track some of the menus for the throwback menu items. Mary Ruth’s husband, Bill, Sr. has the distinction of attending every race at Darlington until his death is 1995 and he had the pit passes to prove it. Bill Sr. also helped out on the maintenance staff most of his life. At his funeral, the Maintenance Staff of the Racetrack were listed as honorary pallbearers. Harold’s other nephew Allen was involved in the original plan and helped out with construction on the weekends. Allen never saw Darlington International Speedway grow to it potential having been killed in service in 1952.
4.Turn yourself to face the old Post Office. Looking down Dargan Street you can see a metal building on the left side. That is owned by Todd Hardee, the Darlington County Coroner and owner of Kistler-Hardee Funeral Home. This is also the site of Drake’s Garage, where Frank Drake, Sambo Ard and Bill Garland and their friend Harold Brasington helped each other build racecars between 1930 and WWII that they raced on dirt tracks. Speaking of Kistler-Hardee Funeral Home, in those days most funeral home also ran ambulance services and the Kistler family were no exception. J.H. Kistler and his son, then 25 year-old T.C. Kistler, provided the ambulances needed should an emergency arise at the track. Kistler’s commercial fleet was also used in the 1960 movie filmed in Darlington, “Thunder in Carolina”.
5.While you’re on the square, here’s a tidbit. Harold Brasington was not just a builder of a speed plant, he regularly got hauled in for driving too fast on his every day errands for his father, racing around the town square, raising you know what like any other good ol’ Southern boy.
Here’s the thing about Darlington. Folks can tell you there was a fishpond. Folks can tell you that there was a peanut farmer (Oh boy, here they are wrong but we’ll tell that tale another day.) and all the fans can tell you that racing’s cruelest mistress is the Lady in Black. But they don’t know that Daarlington’s storied Psillos family was integral to the design of Harold Brasington’s legacy, that their engineering was priceless to creating the design of NASCAR’s most storied track. They don’t know that the perhaps Sherman Ramsey was duped into handing over his land (but not that pond!) and that the Ramsey family home still stands on Spring Street. The stories are endless, just like any good Southern legend. You can swing by the Darlington County Historical Commission if you want to do your own research, of course keep in mind that the building used to be the county jailhouse. Mind your manners and enjoy the race.
The author would like to give credit to Allen Brasington for help in editing this article and to Melissa Bleier, his co-author on his biography of Harold Brasington Sr.