Darlington president Kerry Tharp retiring at end of season

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp is retiring after a nearly two-decade NASCAR career.

Tharp and NASCAR announced his decision to leave after this season on Thursday. Tharp moved from having little interest in the sport -- "I'd change the channel if it were on TV," he said -- to become its chief voice for a decade and a top-level executive at the track "Too Tough To Tame" since 2015.

"It's a great run," Tharp told The Associated Press. "I just had this feeling that it was to experience another chapter in our lives."

Tharp, 66, will oversee the Southern 500 and the start of NASCAR's playoffs on Sept. 3.

Tharp was thrilled with Darlington's latest throwback weekend a month ago where the sport celebrated its 75th anniversary at the Goodyear 400. The September race marks the fourth straight year NASCAR's 10-event postseason opens at Darlington.

"The last eight years, giving me the opportunity to become a race president?" Tharp said. "That's unheard of."

It certainly was an unlikely ascent for Tharp, who spent 26 years in college sports communications. He came to South Carolina in 1985 and became point man as the Gamecocks joined the Southeastern Conference in 1992 and hired coach Lou Holtz for six seasons from 1999-2004.

In early 2005, Tharp drew the interest of NASCAR and joined the organization that April. Soon enough, he was at the microphone moderating drivers' media sessions and answering questions from the press. Not that it came easily.

Tharp remembers his first race at Talladega when while searching for parking spot, he cut off a golf cart ridden by soon-to-be-NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. Tharp got both barrels from Stewart, known at times as a quick-tempered driver.

"He let me know what he thought about me, both verbally and visually," Tharp recalled.

Tharp's easygoing style soon made him a popular personality among NASCAR insiders. He drew chuckles from media members when he'd "roll into" driver interviews and frequently banter with race winners who liked ribbing Tharp. Many hardcore NASCAR fans have seen Tharp on screen, an authoritative face in the background of Will Ferrell's racing spoof, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

Tharp was assured the footage wouldn't make the movie, but Ferrell saw him at a screening and said, "You're in the movie!"

"People could see that was back when I had hair," Tharp joked.

Tharp drew on the path set by his late boss and mentor, Jim Hunter, Darlington's one-time president who became NASCAR's chief spokesman in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hunter mentored Tharp on blending the demands of the media with those of NASCAR, competitors and race teams.

In 2015, Tharp got a call from Joie Chitwood III, then head of Daytona Raceway about leading Darlington. "Joie, I haven't been president of anything since my senior year in high school," said Tharp, who was class president at Waggener High in Louisville, Kentucky.

Tharp enhanced Darlington's history as NASCAR's oldest superspeedway. He held throwback weekends celebrating the sport's past at the Southern 500 from 2015-20, an event that moved to May when track received a second racing weekend before the 2021 season.

Chip Wile, Tharp's predecessor as Darlington president and NASCAR's current Chief Tracks Operating Officer, said: "We're beyond grateful for Kerry's service to Darlington Raceway."

Tharp and his crew may have faced its biggest task in 2000 as Darlington was selected for NASCAR's return to racing after a two-month stoppage due to COVID-19. The track hosted two Cup Series races in less than a week as the first sport back into competition.

Tharp may be most proud how everyone at NASCAR performed to give race fans and others a respite from the coronavirus.

"Bringing live sports back during the pandemic," he said. "That's something I'll never forget."