The Darlington Raceway is an example of daring entrepreneurship in the aftermath of World War II and has been the site of some of most consequential events in the history of American automobile racing. It has garnered many monikers over the years; first dubbed “Harold’s Folly,” the asphalt stock-car track whose challenging, egg-shaped configuration reminded many drivers of the fickleness of their luck, soon became known as “The Lady in Black.” Reflecting not only the difficulty for drivers of mastering that track, but perhaps also the stereotypical personality of the working-class Southerners who made up much of stock-car racing’s fan base, the raceway was later advertised as “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” As its value to the heritage of motorsports became increasingly recognized, over a series of decades when American culture took a decidedly nostalgic turn, it was ultimately dubbed “A NASCAR Tradition.”
The “folly” was that of Harold Brasington, a local real estate developer who envisioned a track at Darlington to host a 500-mile race such as he had witnessed in 1948 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IN-01-097-0054). Designed and built by Brasington, the raceway was intended to accommodate the Southern penchant for racing stock cars. When completed in 1950, it hosted the first 500-mile race ever sanctioned by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, thus instantly assuring itself a prime spot in the history of what would become one of America’s most popular spectator sports: NASCAR.
Brasington located his track on former farmland on the western outskirts of Darlington. Its odd configuration took into account the constraints of a highway to the north and a pond to the southwest. Its turns were banked in accordance with design principles of the time. Between the track and the highway Brasington built a range of concrete bleachers. Concrete barrier walls were erected around the track to assure the safety of spectators. They came to figure notoriously in Darlington races as intrepid drivers maintained high speeds by scraping the walls at turns.
In May 1964, management of the Darlington Raceway broke ground behind the bleachers for an automotive museum dedicated to the memory of the late stock-car racer Joe Weatherly. Precast concrete units, vaguely evoking Gothic arches, embellished the entrance front of this simple, one-story facility. The subtle historicism echoes that of the almost contemporary Darlington County Courthouse (1964, Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle and Wolff). Thus, even in a context dedicated to celebrating a most modern pursuit—automobile racing—in the mid-1960s, South Carolina’s only lately arrived modernism was already in retreat.
Over the following decades, as the popularity of NASCAR racing grew along with that of Darlington as a racing venue, the Darlington Raceway improved its facilities on an almost constant basis. The most conspicuous additions were stepped grandstands. As presently configured, the track is surrounded by the Colvin Grandstand on its north side, the Pearson Tower grandstand along its southwest turn, the Wallace Grandstand overlooked by the Tyler Tower Grandstand on the south side, and the Brasington Tower Grandstand at its southeast turn. In 1997, the orientation of the track was flipped so that the start/finish line moved from the north to the south stretch. Doing so was intended to place more spectators, who would be seated in the newer grandstands already built or planned on the side where the most unencumbered land was available, as close as possible to the most exciting racing action. In 2007–2008, the Darlington Raceway received upgrades, including repaving.
Nearby, the Darlington Dragway (1970–1976) provides further evidence of the important place of automobile racing in South Carolina’s culture. But the Darlington Raceway, a southern achievement and an American icon, remains unquestionably the state’s chief monument to popular motorsport.
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“Weatherly Museum Ground Breaking Scheduled Sunday.” Spartanburg Herald, November 19, 1964.