My Brain on NASCAR: The (Egg-shaped) Oval Office


Cathy Elliott

By Cathy Elliott

Part one of a three-part series on Darlington Raceway

Regardless of our personal opinions on the current government administration, I’m pretty sure there’s one thing on which we can all agree. From the smallest of businesses to the greatest nation on earth, success or failure depends on one thing … and no, it’s not Twitter. It’s leadership, and Darlington Raceway has boasted some of the very best.

“The Lady in Black” will celebrate her 68th year of NASCAR Cup Series racing on Labor Day weekend; not too shabby for a weird-looking racetrack carved out of a peanut field by a local sand-and-gravel guy born with a load of something we could all use a lot more of: gumption.

That man was Darlington’s first president, Harold Brasington, who after returning from a trip to the Indianapolis 500, decided that stock cars needed their own premier racing venue … so he just hopped on a bulldozer and built one. As what once had been farmland slowly began to resemble an actual racetrack, naysayers simply laughed and scratched their heads, nicknaming the facility “Harold’s Folly.”

(It is important to note that those same detractors brought their lunches out to the construction site almost daily to watch the work in progress. Darlington Raceway was the biggest tourist attraction in town before she hosted a single race … and she still is.)

In the end, Brasington got the last laugh after all, as the inaugural Southern 500 in 1950, expected to attract about 5,000 fans, drew a crowd of 25,000. It was, to say the least, a spectacular success. 

In 1950, Bob Colvin took over the president’s chair at Darlington. Bald, cigar-chomping Colvin was one of early stock car racing’s grandest and most dynamic personalities. His outgoing, back-slapping style of promotion persuaded media outlets, that previously had taken a rather dim view of racing, to devote precious airtime and headlines to the rapidly-growing sport. His outgoing personality and obvious love for his job was infectious, a contagious bug that people wanted to catch.

Colvin died of a heart attack in 1967 at his desk, at the age of 46. He was succeeded by Barney Wallace, a local grocery store owner who was one of 12 original investors who put up $5,000 each to build Darlington Raceway.

Wallace served as track president from 1967 until his death in 1983. During his tenure, the track was purchased by International Speedway Corporation, which still owns it today, but he is best remembered for beating the “blue laws” that prohibited retail activities on the Sabbath, becoming the first man who held racing events on Sunday.

Following Wallace’s death, Walter “Red” Tyler took over the title of president. It was 1983, newer, fancier tracks were being built, and the Lady was in need of what we would describe in modern cosmetic terms as “a little bit of work.”

Tyler oversaw that work, which included the construction of a new control tower and the installation of concrete walls, subsequently made famous by the legendary “Darlington Stripe.” He passed away in 1994, literally days before the completion of a new front-stretch grandstand bearing his name.

In 1993, former Darlington Raceway Public Relations Director Jim Hunter came back to town, this time to unpack his arsenal of originality in the president’s office.

Harold Brasington was known as the man who built Darlington, but Hunter was known as the man who saved her. She had lost some of her legendary toughness over the years, becoming a bit run-down and neglected, a battered showgirl in a growing chorus line of chrome-and-glass beauties.

Hunter performed somewhat of a miracle in Darlington. Already well-known and, more importantly, well-liked in the community, he made something old not only new again, but relevant, and cool. Before NASCAR called him away to take charge of its public relations department after the tragic death of his friend Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, he doubled Darlington’s seating capacity and “flip-flopped” the layout, moving the start/finish line to the opposite side, where there was more space to construct new grandstands and additional parking areas.

He also flip-flopped the track’s relationship to the community, becoming the link that created a bond between the two. He opened the doors to the locals, and formed an ambassadors’ club that physically represented the venue in South Carolina’s Pee Dee area, and beyond. People began to think of Darlington Raceway as more than a big, loud tourist attraction in the middle of nowhere. Instead, they began to take ownership of it, and to think of it as family.

In 2001, Darlington got its first real “corporate guy,” Andrew Gurtis, the vice president of sales and administration at Daytona International Speedway. Popular and outgoing, Gurtis was dealt a tough hand when, only a couple of years into his Darlington tenure, it was announced that the historic Labor Day weekend Southern 500 would move to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Many felt the loss of the Southern 500 would not bode well for Darlington’s future, but Gurtis’ respectful treatment of the final Labor Day weekend race in 2003, and his creative promotion of Darlington’s fall 2004 race, which was run in November, drew huge crowds and kept the speedway on a forward trajectory.

When Gurtis was called back to Daytona in 2004, Chris Browning was tapped for the president’s chair. He brought an extensive racing resume to Darlington, including stints as the assistant director of public relations and marketing at Martinsville Speedway, Penske Speedways’ PR director, and the general manager of Rockingham Speedway.

During his time at Darlington, Browning oversaw the completion of the new Brasington Grandstand in Turn 1, the track’s resurfacing project, and the construction of a new infield access tunnel.

In August of 2013, International Speedway Corporation announced that Chip Wile, formerly of the Motor Racing Network (MRN), as the new president of Darlington. Although Wile’s tenure at the track was relatively brief, it was both significant and successful, producing the massively popular and award-winning “Throwback” campaign. Wile now serves as president of Daytona International Speedway.

The enthusiasm of youth is one thing, but you can’t beat experience, and Darlington Raceway got an impressive dose of it when Kerry Tharp was announced as Wile’s replacement in June 2016.

Tharp joined NASCAR in April of 2005 after a successful 20-year career as associate athletic director for media relations for the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He worked for 26 total years in intercollegiate athletics prior to joining NASCAR. He served two years at the University of Tennessee and four years at the University of Oklahoma, prior to the University of South Carolina, and has played an integral role in the communications efforts for NASCAR, forging strong relationships for the sanctioning body with the drivers, race teams and tracks.

Tharp is an excellent fit for Darlington. He is experienced, professional and, perhaps most importantly, blessed with a sense of humor and a “work should be fun” outlook. NASCAR fans, particularly in Darlington, where we think we own stock car racing (because we do), can rest easy knowing that “our” track is in good hands … for now, at least.

The only thing we know for sure is that this is Darlington, and you never know what might happen next.

 

Cathy Elliott is the former public relations director at Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR, Desktop 500, and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough to Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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