Raceway still crucial in starting Darlington’s engines

An early aerial view of the Darlington Raceway before officials built grandstands surrounding the track. BRIAN GANDY/DARLINGTON COUNTY HISTORICAL COMMISSION AND MUSEUM

An undated photo (possibly from the 1950s), one of the racecars shows damage inflicted during a race. BRIAN GANDY/DARLINGTON COUNTY HISTORICAL COMMISSION AND MUSEUM

The Race brought many big-name celebrities to our small town. Here is James Arness (back row, second from right), the actor who played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” standing with a group of local residents. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN GANDY/DARLINGTON HISTORICAL COMMISSION

By Bobby Bryant, Editor

Q. What’s not physically IN Darlington, but is still a major part OF Darlington?
A. The Darlington Raceway, of course.
Since the 1950s, the Raceway, just barely outside the Darlington city limits, has been the city’s most prominent and most valuable neighbor. Today, the track pumps at least $53 million into the state’s economy, with most of that staying in the Pee Dee area.
How much of that circulates in Darlington is hard to say, but the city welcomes the two big NASCAR race weekends, one in the spring, one in the fall. The Southern 500 is coming in September.
“They’ve always been a helping hand,” Darlington Mayor Curtis Boyd says of the racetrack. “Darlington is a lot more than the racetrack, but they’re the iconic view of us. … They’re just a big part of the city. They are us. … We never want to see them go away.”
The track is technically in the county, but for Boyd, such distinctions are just “lines in the sand.”
“We consider them part of the city, and they, I think, feel the same way,” Boyd added.
“We’d love to have had them in the city, but that was a decision that was made years back,” says Boyd. “That won’t ever be overturned now. But the racetrack is a major heartbeat of the city of Darlington. That’s what we’re known for. … It’s a trademark, landmark of our city, even though they’re not in the city limits.”
Raceway President Kerry Tharp has done an excellent job, “always willing to help,” Boyd says.
The raceway is host for the annual Taste of Darlington, host for the annual Terrence Carraway 5K run, and has often hosted blood drives and news conferences for events not necessarily involving the Raceway. Until recently, Darlington’s Fourth of July festival was held at the track. During the COVID pandemic, the raceway opened its gates to huge numbers of area residents seeking inoculations against the virus.
And thanks to the main event – the racing itself — tens of thousands of visitors a year come to the Darlington area.
“Twice a year, we have people coming into our town,” Boyd says. “As the city, it’s our responsibility, and the residents’ responsibility, to make those people feel welcome. We don’t have a big motel in town for them to stay at … again, we’re working on trying to get that changed.”
One former Raceway president, Chris Browning, explained to Greater Pee Dee Business Journal how the racetrack pumps up the Darlington-area economy. “I’ll point to our local Subway. I eat there a good bit, and went there about a week before our inaugural truck event. While I’m waiting for my order, the owner says, ‘Hey, Chris, you won’t believe this, but I’ve already got a catering order for some deli trays for some of the teams that are coming in. … Then about a week after the race, I went back and he said his business was unbelievable over the weekend.”
Tharp said in a statement: “I often tell groups in this area that I’m speaking to that this is your racetrack; call upon us whenever you can to experience some of the things that we have to offer. We want to be good public servants and provide the residents of this region with the opportunity to feel like they are a part of this racetrack. Being a good community partner is something that we take very seriously and is something that we will continue to champion in the years to come.”
“Since it first opened its gates in 1950, Darlington Raceway has been blessed to have the support of this community and its people,” Tharp continued. “One of the many things I discovered when I moved to Darlington in 2016 was that this was a city that cared about its racetrack and shared a sense of pride about its heritage and tradition.
“While we’re fortunate to have two major NASCAR events at our track that attract tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world, we’re always looking at ways in which we can utilize our facility to help serve the community.”

Author: Stephan Drew

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