In 2004 NASCAR made the worst move they could have ever made. NASCAR was a growing sport back in the 2003 season as ratings and attendance were at an all-time high. Racing was sensational and in that season many great events took place. Included in those events was the 2003 Southern 500 at Darlington when veteran driver Terry Labonte won his first race in over three seasons and won the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. It was a bittersweet day.
Labonte was always a fan favorite, a calm, smart driver who usually wouldn't show his hand until late in the event. When the going got tough, Terry Labonte usually got going. There was not an unhappy person walking out of Darlington Raceway that day. Well, that's not true. Everyone was very happy for Labonte, in what turned out to be his 23rd and final career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. However, fans were unhappy for another reason.
The Southern 500, which had been a staple in NASCAR for 50 years was moving to earlier in the season and the famed Labor Day weekend event would move out west to California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway), leaving Darlington in the dust. Darlington was moved to one date on the schedule starting with the 2005 season and traditionally ran on Mother's Day weekend from that point forward. The track was still great, but it wasn't the Southern 500.
The Southern 500 was considered by many NASCAR fans and icons as the best race to win. Hall of Fame driver David Pearson has stated many times that winning at Darlington showed a drivers true skill. Fellow South Carolinian and NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough agreed. The Southern 500 was the toughest place to win. If you won at Darlington Raceway you immediately gained creditability. All the greats won the Southern 500 including Pearson, Petty, Yarborough, Allison, Earnhardt, Elliott, Waltrip, Gant, Martin, Gordon and Labonte.
Darlington's shape and track surface usually made for great racing and a long 500 miles for drivers. There are two extremely different corners on the racetrack making it almost impossible to set up a racecar that would handle on both sides of the track. A driver had to maneuver through lap traffic and make passes on Darlington's narrow and abrasive track surface. Add that to the usually hot Labor Day weekend temperatures and drivers and teams were usually in for a long day and fans were in for a fun, exciting race.
NASCAR quickly learned that Labor Day weekend was great because of Darlington Raceway and not the other way around. NASCAR's idea behind moving the Labor Day weekend event was a curious one. Given that most fans think of NASCAR racing on Labor Day weekend, NASCAR thought that the California Speedway was the best place to hold the event because of the amount of seats that California Speedway had. On a given race weekend, California Speedway, a International Speedway Corporation owned track, could hold upwards of 100,000 fans during a race weekend. Darlington Raceway held about 35,000 fans less than that. It was a chance, in NASCAR's eyes, to grow the sport in the country's second biggest market, Los Angeles. The idea failed miserably as attendance fell drastically at the facility. Not only that, but NASCAR had taken away one of the sports best races, making a lot of their hardcore Southern fan base very upset.
The Labor Day weekend event in Southern California flopped and eventually after a stale five seasons at the facility the Labor Day weekend event was brought back to the Southeast and given to Atlanta Motor Speedway, another track with more seats than Darlington. After another five year project NASCAR announced Tuesday that the Southern 500 will return to Labor Day weekend for the first time since the 2003 season.
To say NASCAR hit a homerun, may be an understatement. Many fans are still heartbroken that their beloved Southern 500 had been moved out west and couldn't believe that NASCAR would do such a thing. In some fans eyes the event will never be the same. However, the past can't be undone and while the past ten years will never be forgotten by race fans, NASCAR deserves a lot of credit for the vindication.
I remember calling up several radio shows over the past ten years pleading my case of having the Southern 500 back on Labor Day weekend. Many broadcasters and media members told me to move on because the date was never coming back to Darlington Raceway because the track didn't have the same seating capacity as others on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit. Well the truth is never say never and I'm glad NASCAR did what they know is right.
Labor Day weekend 2015 will begin a new era in NASCAR, it will start the second life of the Southern 500 and memories of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and others will flood back to fans. While the schedule didn't change as much as many fans thought it was going to, the best change happened. The Southern 500 is back and better than ever!
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