Showtime to sponsor Southern 500

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One of NASCAR's oldest superspeedways finally has another sponsor for its iconic race.

Showtime Networks Inc., the home of popular cable series like "Dexter" and "Weeds," agreed to a multiyear deal to become the title sponsor for Darlington Raceway's Southern 500.

"I think they bring a lot to the table," track president Chris Browning told The Associated Press, ahead of an official announcement expected later Monday.

This is a first for Showtime, which launched its "Inside NASCAR" program in February. Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, said the sponsorship is the next step in linking the network with one of the country's most popular sports.

"We're excited about it," Hershman said.

The May 8 race will be known as the Showtime Southern 500.

Like many sporting events, Darlington Raceway has struggled to find corporate backing in a floundering economy. Showtime will be Darlington's third title sponsor in the past three races, after a five-year deal with the Carolina Dodge Dealers ended in 2008. Last year, Browning signed GoDaddy.com to underwrite the event about a month before the green flag dropped.

Browning said he had interest from several companies eager to back Darlington. Some, he said, did not want to keep the historic "Southern 500" name, but that was something track officials did not want to surrender.

The first Southern 500 was run in 1950 and won by Johnny Mantz. Mark Martin took last year's event at the track considered "Too Tough To Tame."

Showtime approached NASCAR officials about expanding its presence in the sport and was pointed in Darlington's direction. A group of Showtime executives visited the site and were instantly hooked by Darlington's authenticity and NASCAR history.

"It was very important to us that we maintain that," Hershman said.

It was not long after that both sides reached an agreement, Browning said.

"Inside NASCAR" is a weekly highlights and analysis show along the lines of its "Inside the NFL" series. The NASCAR show is hosted by Chris Myers, Randy Pemberton, former NBA star Brad Daugherty and driver Michael Waltrip.

Getting more than a one-year commitment from Showtime means both the network and the track can take full advantage of each other's resources leading up to the 2011 race.

"They'll get their feet wet in this one," Browning said. "Then they'll have 12 months to know what they want to do."

One wrinkle is a contest where a viewer can win a VIP experience to Darlington's race on Mother's Day Weekend. Showtime spokesman Chris DeBlasio said along with an up-close look at the Sprint Cup race, the winner will show up in Victory Lane and be presented a replica of the trophy that will go to the race champion.

The network also expects to have a hospitality tent for fans on Darlington grounds, with perhaps some celebrities from its cable shows popping by.

It wasn't that long ago that NASCAR had tagged Darlington Raceway as an underperforming track in danger of being shut down. Since that warning, Darlington has added lights, repaved its surface and sold out four of its five races since moving from Labor Day weekend to the Saturday before Mother's Day.

The Showtime deal "is a great indicator of the strength of Darlington," Browning said.