Ladies and gentlemen, grab a bottle of suds, a bottle of sunscreen, and a bottle of medicated powder. NASCAR, in a rare about-face, is finally putting the right race back into its rightful place on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The 66th edition of the Southern 500 will mark the return of Darlington Raceway to Labor Day weekend.
Now, please promise me that you will do the same.
For those of you who don't know, a brief history lesson. The 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway is the American motorsports version of "Field of Dreams." Local entrepreneur Harold Brasington, inspired by a visit to the Indianapolis 500, decided he wanted to build an asphalt racetrack of his own ... in rural South Carolina. Like Ray Kinsella, he mounted some heavy machinery and started plowing under corn (and peanut plants) to do it. And like Kevin Costner's character in the film, his tractor was followed by whispers of "That dude isn't quite right in the head, is he?"
But on Labor Day 1950, Brasington got the last laugh. He threw open the doors to the Southern 500, NASCAR's first speedway event, and a crowd of more than 25,000 jammed the Harry Byrd Highway, packing into the little concrete grandstand to watch no less than 75 cars take the green flag three-wide, almost immediately popping tires in the sweltering heat and on the sandhills-glazed surface.
That spot on the calendar is where the self-declared "Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing" stayed for the next 53 years. Over those decades, the track provided us with some of the greatest moments in NASCAR history, even as the weight of having two Sprint Cup events in a financially-ravaged region took its toll on ticket sales.
Then in 2004, at the height of NASCAR's boom and greed, the racetrack lost Labor Day to a sister corporate facility, the newer, shinier, big-market California Speedway. The official reason was that the move was made as part of an antitrust settlement by NASCAR and its track ownership arm, International Speedway Corp. That was really just an excuse. The actual reason was that suit-wearing salespeople were salivating over the idea of wining and dining potential corporate sponsors in SoCal as opposed to sweating and fretting in SoCar.
For the next decade, it seemed as though NASCAR and ISC were conspiring to slowly asphyxiate "The Lady In Black." The track went from two races to one and the Southern 500 was moved to November and then Mothers Day, a date that had always been regarded as a NASCAR taboo. They did get lights and a new tunnel. But then in 2014 the race was pushed back into April. Meanwhile, Labor Day racing in Fontana, Calif., stumbled so miserably that the race date was moved back south ... but to Atlanta instead of Darlington.
A padlocked Darlington on Labor Day weekend became one of the primary pillars of the never-quieted complaining from motorsports traditionalists that NASCAR had forever abandoned its roots. New TV deals came and went. New Chase for the Cup formats came and went. New racecars came and went.
But through it all, the Darlington diss was the one consistent scream of blasphemy that filled my email inbox, ESPN.com chat rooms, radio guest spots, and social media timelines.
Ryan, I tell you what ... if NASCAR ever does the right thing and moves Darlington back to Labor Day then I promise you I will be there and my whole family will be, too!
Well, folks, they did do the right thing. The lone bold move of a largely business-as-usual calendar rollout. So, in return, I expect you to do the right thing as well. After all, a promise is a promise, right?
You see, that's the one aspect of all this that gives me a tiny bit of pause in the middle of my Labor Day victory dance. We've been here before. A fact that I was so rudely reminded of on Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before the 2015 schedules were announced.
I was traveling up U.S. 1 North to visit family and pulled into the parking lot of Rockingham Speedway. The doors to the office were barred, chains held every gate shut, and there were weeds growing up around the granite boulders out front, beginning to cover up the chiseled-in names of the legends who've won there.
Like Darlington, Rockingham was built by Harold Brasington. Like Darlington, it was a longtime anchor of the Cup Series schedule. Like Darlington, it began struggling to support two races in the Pee Dee region of the Carolinas. Like Darlington, NASCAR left in 2004 for a bigger market, though in the case of The Rock it lost both dates instead of one. And like Darlington, people constantly promised me that if NASCAR ever came to their senses and returned to Rockingham, then they would, too.
In 2010, when The Rock did reopen, I wrote a column calling race fans out on their promise. I reminded them that they were being given that rarest of second chances and they needed to make sure that empty seats didn't give the racing sanctioning bodies an excuse to bail again. It was reprinted in the local paper, the Richmond County Daily Journal and I heard from friends and family, many mad that I had called them out. In 2012, NASCAR did return with a Camping World Truck Series race. If everyone who had emailed me to say they were going had actually showed up, it would have been a sellout. Instead, the crowd was decent, but not great. One year later, a second race drew a smaller audience. Owner Andy Hillenburg, saddled with debt after saving the track at auction, didn't sell enough tickets to save the day or Rockingham's race date.
So now it's empty again.
Race fans, you have been handed a second Southern 500 life. A chance to prove that you actually are the stock car traditionalists that so many always claim to be. NASCAR admitting a mistake by undoing an old, unpopular decision is an event that comes along ... well, never. If this doesn't work, there won't be a third chance.
We already know that Darlington is "Too Tough To Tame." Over the last decade of calendar shuffling, you've used the box office to prove that it's "Too Tough To Die." Now you need to do the same to reclaim Labor Day weekend forever and ever amen. A ticket is a vote.
After all, and as I've said before, you promised. This time back it up.