Legends come out to play Labor Day weekend at Darlington

David Pearson will be back behind the wheel of the famed 1971 No. 21 Mercury on Sunday at Darlington. Ryan McGee

They're waking up the echoes down at Darlington.

They're sending out a call to all the gearheads, grease monkeys, storytellers and living legends.

But most of all, they are calling all cars.

They're calling on the stockers, the roadsters and the sprint cars … and the cars are answering. On Saturday, they will roll into the infield of NASCAR's original superspeedway, some for the first time and others for merely the first time in decades. They will roll in from Charlotte, N.C., Indianapolis and Stuart, Va. For two days they will shake off the dust, fire up their engines and resurrect the memories.

Welcome to the inaugural Darlington Historic Racing Festival in Darlington, S.C.

Held fittingly, some say finally, on Labor Day weekend.

"I am so fired up, I can't hardly stand it," said Buddy Baker, who started 58 races at Darlington and will be on hand Sunday to sign autographs and run a few hot laps. "No offense to the folks who will be racing out in California this weekend, but there's no place I'd rather be than Darlington and no weekend I'd rather be there than Labor Day."

Summon the heroes
Baker will be one of more than 20 living NASCAR legends scheduled to descend on The Track Too Tough To Tame, a list that includes David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison, Marvin Panch and Chargin' Charlie Glotzbach.

Those eight drivers alone have combined to win more than 400 races, and on Saturday and Sunday they will sign autographs, participate in Q&A sessions and then take some hot laps around the track in the cars that made them famous. In between, fans will stroll the Darlington infield, view dozens of classic race cars and take their budding young race fans down to the Kids Zone. (Not bad for 15 bucks.)

But no matter where fans might be or what they might be doing, everyone will pause to watch when the racers go rumbling by on the high banks.

"I'm a little worried about Pearson," admitted Leonard Wood, half of the world famous Wood Brothers, who will be on hand Sunday morning with Pearson. "We're bringing down the car he won with at Darlington in 1972 and '73. We've had a devil of a time finding tires to put on it. The ones that are on there are 30-something years old now. We're going to need to tell him to take it easy before he goes out there. But telling David Pearson to slow down has always been kind of a waste of breath."

That's why Pearson, at age 73, is still one of the coolest cats alive, and still races on short tracks back home in Spartanburg.

"I love coming back to Darlington," said the track's all-time race winner, with 10. "They haven't forgotten where they came from down there. You can't really say that about the rest of the sport, you know?"

Back to the future
The man at the controls of the Darlington time machine is Chris Browning. As soon as he was named president of the raceway in 2004, he began to brainstorm ways to propel the then-54-year-old racetrack in the future while still preserving its storied past.

"Right after I took the job, I talked to Junior Johnson about the idea of a historic festival," Browning said via telephone while putting the finishing touches on infield preparations. "He'd just come from the legendary Goodwood Festival of Speed in England and was immediately on board with the idea."

But first, Browning and his team had other issues to deal with, such as mending fences with a fan base still angry about the track losing its traditional Labor Day weekend spot on the NASCAR schedule. The '04 fall race was the 55th and final Southern 500. The track was left with one date, the seeming black hole of Mother's Day weekend, and most so-called experts sat back and waited on the Lady In Black to quietly pass away.

Then Browning and his team sold out the '05 event … and '06 … and '07 … and '08. They also spent millions on facility improvements, and just two weeks ago the track announced that next spring's race will be renamed the Southern 500.

With the Darlington Raceway's future officially saved, Browning was finally free to push ahead with his idea to honor its past. Said Browning, the relief still obvious in his voice, "Once we were able to start making calls and asking who might be interested in participating, we knew we were on to something."

Infield of dreams
As Browning and his team started visiting the already established festivals at Monterrey, Lime Rock Park and anywhere else old cars rumbled around racetracks, word began to spread about the new Labor Day event at Darlington.

Cotton Owens called from Spartanburg saying he wanted to bring one of his legendary old No. 6 rides. Car owners and mechanics such as Raymond Fox, Bud Moore and Waddell Wilson all jumped at the chance to come tell fans about what Owens called "real cars instead of those winged deal they're out there running today."

Donald Davidson, curator of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum, started packing up a bunch of his vintage Indy Roadsters, including three Indy 500 winners and an Indy car originally built for Junior Johnson.

"Few people realize this," Davidson said as his cars were being prepped for the 700-mile trip from Speedway, Ind. "But some of the earliest races run at Darlington were Indy car races. Harold Brasington, who built the track at Darlington, was inspired to do so after he attended the Indianapolis 500, so he ran open-wheel races there because that had always been his dream."

Now, nearly six decades later, Brasington's dream of open-wheel cars on his racetrack, once considered to be the ramblings of a crazy dreamer, will come true once again.

You got something better to do?
Brasington's dream isn't the only one that will materialize this weekend at Darlington.

So will Chris Browning's -- the end result of a 5-year-old idea, one that hit him as he worked to save the old track.

And the old racers, though none likes to admit it, are being handed the chance to bring their daydreams to life. A chance to turn back the clock, see old friends, dance with the Lady In Black once again, and soak up the praise and applause from the adoring race fans they miss so dearly.

Those cheering fans are the same once-depressed masses who had resigned themselves to the fact that race cars would never return to Darlington on Labor Day weekend. The ones who kept driving by the empty track at the end of every summer, a migration burned into their brains after 60 years of returning.

This weekend, they will return. And finally, they won't be alone.

I'll be there … and so should you.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.