Chris Gill: Mean and nasty, or somewhat agreeable?

Chris Gill

To suggest Darlington Raceway has some historic significance it is like saying Wilt Chamberlain had a few lady friends in his time.

In the era of gleaming new speedways and modernized tracks from yesteryear, Darlington remains a snarling monster intent on ripping apart race cars. It’s brilliance has been marginalized in the minds of many since the advent of contemporary Taj Mahals in Texas, California and Chicago – the latter all carbon copies of original concepts.

The very design was dictated not by computer models, progressive banking or market research, but a minnow pond. Initially, the course was going to be a pretty standard oval with modest banking of 23 and 25 degrees, until Sherman Ramsey stood his ground. Ramsey was a farmer who sold Harold Brasington the land to build his Indy car race track on – yes, Darlington was built with open-wheel cars in mind. During construction, Brasington realized he would have to pinch one of the sets of turns off because of a promise made to Ramsey not to disturb a minnow pond on the peanut farm.

Tracks don’t have backstories like that anymore. Today, one of two corporations 1) buy land and do what ever they want with it or 2) buy an existing track with history, which is then either 2a) kept in its current status, 2b) removed one date for the advantage of another newer track or 2c) discarded entirely for a cutting-edge, uninteresting oval somewhere in the suburbs of a metro area. Great history we’re making, right?

But I digress.

What happened in Darlington, S.C., was the creation of the most difficult oval, perhaps ever, thanks not only to very different ends of the track, but also a surface abrasive enough to chew up the soles of your shoes during a casual walk. Relatively brief tire life meant cars sliding up the banking and smacking into the wall with regularity. Compounding matters, the Southern 500 was held on Labor Day weekend for 53 years – late August/early September in South Carolina is pretty warm. Again with the understatement, that’s like saying George Steinbrenner could be somewhat disagreeable.

On those hot, late summer afternoons, drivers in the Southern 500 feared for the lives of their cars more than their own. Engines weakened by thousands of degrees of stress on all the moving parts, tires with barely enough tread to keep the air sealed and white walls marred by a mile of rubber and steel abrasions tested even the best racers of through the years. The Southern 500 was unlike any other major in American racing, a totally unique experience that couldn’t be claimed by Indianapolis or Daytona.

Then some dope thought it would be a great idea to move the 500 to Mother’s Day weekend. Schmuck.

While it didn’t ruin everything, enough elements were removed to severely impact Darlington’s once-nefarious bite. Today, the Southern 500 will be contested in day-to-night conditions on four-year-old pavement, which is still new enough to lessen the tire degradation.

Yes, it’s still a race worth watching if only because it’s configuration hasn’t been tampered with – sans switching the start/finish line to the other side of the track – and nevertheless continues to befuddle those who wish to conquer a track nicknamed “The Lady In Black” or “Too Tough To Tame.”

To those of us who remember the “old” Southern 500s, it’s kind of like watching Washington Wizards Michael Jordan after witnessing Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan.

Thanks for everything: Carol Shelby, who helped Ford Motor Company beat Ferrari at its own game in the 1960s, died Friday.

His leadership and ingenuity put American manufacturing on par with the European supercars and beat them all, with regularity – the most famous of which was the inspired run by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt in the GT40 at Le Mans, a victory which spawned the traditional champagne victory spray.

We need more guys like Shelby these days, not only in the sporting arena, but to give us Yankees a renewed spirit we desperately need. Few other sports can energize a country like auto racing, and none did it better than Shelby back in the day. His is a legacy someone, anyone, needs to recapture.

Just sayin’: I know the previous 11 graphs extolled how great Darlington is/was, but there is an NHL Game 7 playoff game on tonight, too. Nothing is better in sports than a Game 7 in hockey. ... A lot is being made of what the New York Knicks need to do in the offseason (keep Jeremy Lin? Keep the interim coach? Trade Amare Stoudemire?). If only teams could decide to trade or release the owner. ... In the middle of the end credits for “The Avengers” is a teaser to the next movie which really separates the casual moviegoer from the nerds. When the villain for the sequel was revealed at the showing I attended, one third of the audience gasped, the others sat in confused silence.

Chris Gill can be reached at