Earnhardt and Darlington made for each other
Jim McLaurin, Columbia State
Romeo and Juliet? Nah. Bonnie and Clyde? Closer. Dale
Earnhardt and Darlington? Perfect fit.
``It is an aggressive racetrack,'' said Earnhardt, the
seven-time Winston Cup champion, in an attempt to explain his particular affinity for a
certain little plot of history in the Sandlapper State. ``It's a racetrack you've really
got to drive on.
``Over the years I've had a knack to do that.''
Each spring when NASCAR's Winston Cup tour career makes the
first of two annual visits to Darlington Raceway, the range of emotions in the garage runs
the gamut. From fear and loathing to an uneasy don't-hurt-me-and-I-won't-hurt-you truce to
-- shall we say it? -- love.
At that end of the scale, the class roll is very small. And
at the top of that list are the names of two men: David Pearson, the Hall-of-Famer whose
win total is second only to Richard Petty, and Earnhardt. Why? Because those two have
driven Darlington like nobody else.
Of Pearson's 105 career victories, 10 came at Darlington. Of
Earnhardt's 71, nine came on the track they like to bill as ``Too Tough To Tame.'' On a
percentage basis, at least, nobody loves the place like Earnhardt.
What's the attraction? As he said, Darlington is a tough
place to drive.
When local Harold Brasington built the track in 1949, he had
no model to go by, so it was built, well, the way he built it. A track that was plenty
wide in 1950, the year of the first Southern 500, became incredibly narrow as time went
Complicating matters, one of the investors had a minnow pond
outside one of the turns that he wasn't about to let Brasington fill in, so Brasington had
to shorten up the turn. That gave the track its unique egg shape.
If a car stuck in the first and second turns like a vacuum,
it necessarily was junk on the other end. Chassis setups became a compromise that worked
on neither end and the premium was placed on a driver's ability to negotiate that
``At Darlington, you don't race the other cars, you race the
racetrack,'' Earnhardt said. ``It's the element you're trying to beat. It's not so much
the drivers and the other teams, if you race the track itself and run the track good,
you'll most likely beat the competitors.''
Over the years as speeds escalated, some minor changes were
made through re-paving to give the drivers a little more racing room. But, Earnhardt said,
the increase in speeds more than offset it.
``It's still a bear to race,'' he said.
Then there's the history of the place. Only one other track
on the Winston Cup circuit, Martinsville, is older, and no other superspeedway can claim
every champion in the sport's half century of existence as a competitor. Of the 12 drivers
who have won more than two races at Darlington, eight are members of the National
Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame and the other four -- Earnhardt, Darrell
Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon -- are shoo-ins when they become eligible.
When a place can count his childhood heroes -- Curtis Turner,
Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker -- as men who fought Darlington and won, Earnhardt said, it
makes the fact that you have won there a little more special.
``It's a place that because it goes back a long way, there's
a lot of history to it and a lot of great race car drivers have won there,'' he said. `I
still haven't beaten David Pearson's record and I don't know whether I will or not. That's
pretty impressive to have won the races he's won there. To be a contender to tie him,
well, that's pretty amazing in itself.''
There is a fine thread of irony that runs through Earnhardt
and Pearson's history at the track. But for an accident in 1979 that sidelined Earnhardt
for a few races, the two could be tied. That spring, in the Rebel 500, Pearson suffered
the ignominy of running off the left-side wheels of the Wood Brothers' famous No. 21
Mercury when he left the pits too early. Soon after, Pearson found himself without a job.
At Pocono that July, Earnhardt was leading the race in Rod
Osterlund's Chevrolet when he crashed, breaking both collarbones. He needed a sub, so who
better to take over at Darlington? Pearson filled in that Labor Day weekend and won the
1979 Southern 500 in a car that might have carried Earnhardt to Victory Lane.
``You never know,'' Earnhardt said. ``He might have driven
somebody else's car and won, too. I was proud to have him in that car. It showed the class
of the team we had at that time. ``That sort of set a mark for me to go out -- with him
being able to win in the car -- for me to go out and drive hard, too. ``He taught me a lot
about the racetrack. I paid attention.''
It was almost as if Pearson was turning over the reins. The
next spring he would get the final victory of his career, in the Rebel 500 at Darlington,
and Earnhardt would take up where he left off. Earnhardt won the 1982 spring race, nipping
Cale Yarborough by 3 feet in Bud Moore's Ford. After he teamed up with car owner Richard
Childress in 1984, for the next 10 years Earnhardt owned the place. He won the spring race
in 1986, swept both races in 1987. He won the Southern 500 in 1989, pulled off his second
double in 1990, then won the spring races in 1993 and 1994.
Ironically, Darlington is also the site of Earnhardt's
scariest moment in racing. On the warm-up laps before the 1997 Southern 500, Earnhardt
blacked out. Medical tests could find no reason for it. Doctors finally termed it a freak
occurrence, not likely to happen again.
But, Earnhardt said, you have to wonder. It could have been
all over that day. If it had been the end of his spectacular career, he said, it couldn't
have come at a more fitting place. ``Darlington has always been a special place for me,''
Earnhardt said. ``Both good and bad. But special.''