Home » NASCAR’s Oldest Paved Oval Was Built Around A Minnow Pond

NASCAR’s Oldest Paved Oval Was Built Around A Minnow Pond

Darlington Ts3
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From its earliest conception, Darlington Raceway was born to be a special racetrack. The track’s builder and designer, Harold Brasington, was a businessman and retired racer. After attending the 1948 Indianapolis 500 and witnessing the massive crowd of approximately two-hundred thousand people, as well as the festivities, and impact on the local economy, Harold thought to himself, ‘If Tony Hulman can do it here (Indianapolis), I can do it back home.’

The rest, as they say, is history. Upon returning home to South Carolina, Harold purchased 70 acres of land from local farmer Sherman Ramsey. The track’s unique egg-shaped layout is the result of a promise Brasington made to Ramsey that he would not disturb his minnow pond located at the western end of the property he had purchased. In order to fit his racing circuit, Brasington had to slightly pinch one end of the track.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

[Ed note: Oops… the weekend’s holiday and other things interrupted my time and I didn’t get this post up this weekend. If you watched either of the great races this weekend then you can learn something here. Sorry for the delay – MH]

Sherman Ramsey may have passed away in 1966, but fifty-eight years later his stubborn love of fishing lives on in one of the most unique tracks on the NASCAR schedule.

A Track Of Firsts

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Source: NASCAR

Harold Brasington wanted his race track to be something grand. The Indianapolis 500 has Memorial Day in the spring, so Brasington decided to have his own 500-mile race on Labor Day weekend in the fall and he would call it the Southern 500. The 1950 running of the Southern 500 was only the twenty-first race that NASCAR had ever sanctioned, but there were two important firsts. It was NASCAR’s first race on a paved oval. It was also the first 500-mile NASCAR race. Prior to that, there had only been three races that were even 200 miles in length, most were between 100 and 175.

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NASCAR founder Bill France was nervous about having his cars run 500 miles, worried that a bad race with the majority of cars breaking down or wrecking would be a stain on the reputation of his up-and-coming series.

To ease his fears, Brasington put up the largest purse NASCAR had ever seen. The inaugural Southern 500 had a posted purse of $25,325 ($324,172 in 2024). Previously, the largest purse paid out in a NASCAR-sanctioned race was $6,825 at the 1949 Langhorne 200. The race was a massive success by NASCAR standards at the time. Twenty-five thousand fans and eighty-two drivers showed up, seventy-five drivers started the race, and twenty-nine were still running when Johnny Mantz took the checkered flag nine laps ahead of second place Fireball Roberts.

For a little perspective however, when Johnnie Parsons won the 1950 Indianapolis 500, he took home $57,458 ($757,214 in 2024) from a $201,035 ($2,649,353) purse.

Darlington Raceway was visited twice a year from 1960 through 2004, with the spring race floating between late April to Early May and the traditional running of the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend every September. For the 2005 season, Darlington’s spring date was taken away as part of NASCAR’s westward expansion and given to Phoenix Raceway.

The original schedule for the 2020 NASCAR season still had Darlington being visited only once that fall. When the world shut down for the Covid-19 pandemic, NASCAR began looking for venues where we could safely return to racing. Darlington Raceway emerged as a leading contender in the early stages of the shutdown. The local government would permit us to race with Covid protocols in place, and the venue was close enough to Mooresville, NC that team members could drive themselves to the track instead of having to rely on air travel. Racing returned with two back-to-back races held at Darlington Raceway in May of 2020, and the series returned in the fall giving Darlington three races that year. After putting on three fantastic events, Darlington Raceway was awarded two race weekends on the 2021 schedule and a long-standing historical wrong had been corrected.

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Darlington Raceway was the first speedway racetrack built with stock cars in mind, and seventy-four years later it is simply one of the best. The Lady in Black is a *chefs kiss* of everything that makes stock car racing great.

“You never forget your first love, whether it’s a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition. And if you happen to be a racecar driver, there’s no victory so sweet or so memorable as whipping Darlington Raceway”
– Dale Earnhardt Sr, 9-time Darlington winner

So, what makes Darlington Raceway such a perfect racetrack, and what does it take to get around this place? Let’s dive into it.

Earning Your Stripes

First and foremost, you must understand the concept of running on the fence, or “ripping the boards” as we call it in circle track racing. Darlington is a racetrack where you will often see drivers put their cars right against the outside retaining wall in the corners. As we talked about before in my piece about Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR teams will use rear-end skew to create yaw in the corners which generates side force by exposing the side of the car to the air. The air impacting the side of the car acts like an invisible hand, pushing the car toward the center of the corner. At tracks where the upper groove is a viable option, this effect can be magnified. Using the asphalt seam as a reference in the photo below, we can see how the rear-end of Parker’s Xfinity Series car is closer to the wall than the front end.

Parker Boards
Photo: Daylon Barr/Big Machine Racing

The aero wake rushing off the right front corner of the car has nowhere to go and becomes trapped between the wall and the right side of the car. The right side of the car acts like a funnel with the nose at the opening and the tail, right against the wall, as the nozzle. The air is scooped in by the nose and squeezed more and more as the side of the car gets closer to the wall. This pressure creates added side force and allows the car to maneuver through the corner at a higher rate of speed.

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A secondary effect of running the wall is that it gives the driver an additional tool to try and make their car handle on the racetrack. As the driver places their car closer to the wall, more side force will be generated which shifts the balance of the car towards understeer. Using this technique to balance the car requires extreme precision from the driver, and done well it can help the team significantly when it comes to pit stops. If the driver is confident and skilled enough, they can adjust their line to change the balance of the car rather than asking their pit crew to make a track bar or wedge change on a pit stop.

Running the fence is a high-risk, high-reward proposition, however. To take advantage of the aero benefits, a driver must place their car within inches of the wall throughout the corner. A slight misstep results in contact with the wall that will damage the racecar, or worse, puncture a tire. If a driver wants to have a shot to win at Darlington Raceway, they have to run their car right on the fence, but doing it wrong will guarantee a bad day. It must be done but it must be done properly.

The high lane often results in drivers receiving what’s known as “The Darlington Stripe” which is regarded as a badge of honor. When running the fence, the right rear quarter panel and bumper should be just grazing along the outer retaining wall, resulting in light scuff marks in that area of the car.

When the scuff marks occur further towards the front of the car that is simply the result of the driver making a mistake. One time, when we were testing with Noah Gragson, crew chief Dave Elenz placed a piece of tape along the right-hand side of the car, with a mark on the tape at the front of the right rear tire. A deal was made that if the car was only scratched behind the tape mark Dave would buy Noah’s dinner. If the car was scratched ahead of the tape mark, Noah would buy dinner for the team. See below, the right side of Chase Briscoe’s car after defeating Kyle Busch in a 2020 Xfinity Series race at Darlington. The scuff marks behind the conveniently placed arrow in his paint scheme constitute a “proper” Darlington stripe.

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Darlington Raceway was last repaved in 2008 and the racing surface has aged like a fine wine. We will see some of the highest levels of tire falloff this weekend, making tire management crucial to success in the race. The coarse surface of Darlington Raceway provides extra grip as the tires have more nooks and crannies for the rubber to grip into, but will literally tear apart a driver’s tires if they aren’t careful. During and after the race, piles of rubber marbles can be seen piled up on the racetrack as rubber has been torn from the tires lap after lap.

For more on how drivers can manage to save tires, you can read my Richmond piece.

Tire Falloff Is Real

Nascar Xfinity Series 2023: Nascar Xfinity Series Shriners Children's 200 May 13
Photo: Big Machine Racing/Daylon Barr

There’s been a lot of discussion about tire falloff in NASCAR circles lately, but why exactly is this something that everyone is asking for more of? In an extreme scenario where there is high grip and little falloff, drivers will run the same lap time lap after lap and it becomes obvious that there would be little overtaking. A surface-level analysis would indicate that if tires fell off and slowed down proportionally with mileage that all the drivers would slow down at the same rate and we would end up with the same single-file procession. In reality, this is simply not the case.

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Lap time falloff is only proportional to mileage if all drivers are managing their tires in the same way. Some drivers may choose to charge hard in the beginning of a run to make up track position while other drivers pace themselves. The drivers that pace themselves early in a run will have more grip later on and be able to make their way back forward. This is what creates overtaking as there are comers and goers throughout the run. Additionally, some drivers are just simply not as good at managing their tires. If you think back to the Cup Series’ tire debacle at Bristol Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago, the drivers contending for the win were all longtime veterans who cut their teeth in the high-horsepower era when they had to save their tires week in and week out. This constant turbulence in the pack as drivers charge forward and fall back is essential to good racing.

Tire falloff also opens the window for drivers to make mistakes. When the tires and pace hang on throughout a run, the driver’s braking, turn-in and throttle application points remain consistent and they can get into an almost robotic rhythm. At a high falloff track like Darlington Raceway, these points change constantly as the grip level reduces slightly with each subsequent lap. Drivers must make an educated guess as to where the grip level is going to be corner after corner, lap after lap, all while trying to accurately place their racecar within inches of a wall. The braking marker for Turn 3 entry at Darlington Raceway will be roughly 130 ft (40 m) earlier on 45-lap old tires than it is on fresh sticker tires. Guessing wrong creates mistakes, mistakes create passing and cautions, cautions change strategy and create restarts, restarts create more passing. It takes all of these ingredients working together to create compelling racing.

As I mentioned earlier, Darlington Raceway has a unique egg-like shape. Turns 1&2 are wide and sweeping with a 600 ft radius and 25 degrees of banking. Turns 3&4 are slightly tighter with a 525 ft radius and only 23 degrees of banking. Great, yeah we get it they have a different radius but that’s hard to conceptualize. What does that actually mean? Well, it means that the minimum speed in Turns 1&2 is about 20 mph higher than in Turns 3&4. A similar phenomenon occurs at Texas Motor Speedway where both ends of the track are banked differently. For a brief refresher on aero platforms you can read that piece.

From a setup perspective, this creates an interesting problem for the teams. The starting ride heights are determined by the maximum suspension travel on sticker tires in the high-speed Turns 1&2, but the optimum aero platform is needed in Turns 3&4 where the lower speeds cause the car’s suspension to travel less and thus ride higher. Additionally, as tires wear out and speeds decrease, there will be even less suspension travel in both corners which brings the car even further above the window of its optimal aero platform.

The different ends of the racetrack combined with massive lap time falloff creates a two-fold problem for teams trying to set up their racecar. Downforce is a product of the square of velocity, meaning that when speed doubles downforce quadruples.

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On sticker tires, the minimum mid-corner speed in Turns 1&2 is just over 155 mph and in Turns 3&4 it is around 135 mph. Purely from the change in velocity, the racecars are making 25% less downforce in Turns 3&4 as compared to Turns 1&2. The downforce levels will be reduced even further in Turns 3&4 by the reduced suspension travel, bringing the downforce loss up closer to 30% from one end of the racetrack to the other. Using the same formula, we can examine the change in downforce as the tires degrade and lap times slow down. Isolating Turns 3&4, on 45-lap old tires the minimum mid-corner speed will be reduced down to around 115 mph. At the end of a run when the mechanical grip from the tires is at its lowest, the aerodynamic grip produced by the racecar will be 25% lower than at the start of the run.

So how does one get around Darlington Raceway? Take a ride with Kyle Busch during an Xfinity Series test and then let’s break it down. The GoPro camera mount on the right rear decklid presents an excellent vantage point for the wall proximity in which drivers will try to run.

Drivers take somewhat of a diamond line in Turns 1&2 where you will see them enter low, wash up to the wall, and then take a low exit. There are a number of reasons for this. A low entry allows them to take a shorter distance while simultaneously slowly easing (sliding more or less) up to the wall while stabilizing the car with slight trail braking on entry before transitioning back to the throttle once they approach the wall. At the other end of the corner, if you look at a map of the track from above, you will see that the exit of Turn 2 sharpens quickly late in the corner as the track begins to narrow down towards Turn 3.

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Google Earth

The wall jutting out essentially makes the corner have a decreasing radius, forcing drivers to shade lower on exit. We call this “making the second cut” and listening to an onboard you will hear the drivers get back into the throttle hard to charge through the center of the corner while they rip around the wall and then breathe back out of it at about two-thirds of the way through the corner. Breathing out of the throttle causes a slight deceleration and also shifts weight onto the front axle, increasing cornering ability and pulling the car off the wall and towards the apron. A slight balance shift will occur in this moment as weight is shifted off of the rear wheels at the same time as side force is removed by the reduced wall proximity. This can cause corner exit oversteer if the driver is not careful with their transitions.

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The wall jutting out essentially makes the corner have a decreasing radius, forcing drivers to shade lower on exit. We call this “making the second cut” and listening to an onboard you will hear the drivers get back into the throttle hard to charge through the center of the corner while they rip around the wall and then breathe back out of it at about two-thirds of the way through the corner. Breathing out of the throttle causes a slight deceleration and also shifts weight onto the front axle, increasing cornering ability and pulling the car off the wall and towards the apron. A slight balance shift will occur in this moment as weight is shifted off of the rear wheels at the same time as side force is removed by the reduced wall proximity. This can cause corner exit oversteer if the driver is not careful with their transitions.

Prior to the 2021 Southern 500 weekend, Darlington Raceway patched a 600 ft strip of asphalt at the exit of Turn 2 where the surface had gotten too rough for racing and was beginning to come apart. This short ribbon of asphalt has significantly more grip than the old asphalt all around it which makes the last phase of Turn 2 quite different from the rest of the corner, and racetrack as a whole.

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NASCAR

Imagine for a moment that we’re no longer in the warm early summer sun in South Carolina, and allow yourself to be transported somewhere up north in the dead of winter. You’re about to walk outside and as soon as you step out your front door you feel yourself start to slide. Dammit. You knew you should have put some salt down last night before the storm got here and now there’s ice everywhere. Right when you try to plant one foot down the other one starts to slide. You look like a cartoon character with your legs flying around in a whirlwind. And then, right at the last second when all hope is lost and you’ve resigned yourself to accepting a bruised tailbone you reach out and manage to grab hold of a handrail. Crisis, and pain, averted. Phew. That’s exactly what this patch of new asphalt does on the exit of Turn 2. Drivers will refer to this as “charging to the patch.” It allows them to get greedy rushing the throttle in the middle of the corner because even if either end of the car starts to slide, they just have to hang on to the racecar long enough to get to the new asphalt and the added grip will save them, just like the hand rail saved you from busting your ass on the ice.

As we get deeper into a run, and tire grip reduces, you will see some drivers experiment with a higher entry into Turn 1. Lifting out of the throttle earlier and taking a higher, straighter entry to the corner makes the car behave more predictably when transitioning up towards the wall where the side force will help them catch and stabilize the car.

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Turns 3&4 behave completely differently to Turns 1&2. Because of the high-speed nature of Turns 1&2, drivers will brake with double the pedal force for twice as long getting into Turn 3 as they do Turn 1. Getting into Turn 1 they will be decelerating gently while trail braking up to the wall, but getting into Turn 3 drivers will be standing firmly on the brake pedal to rapidly decelerate the car. Turn 3 is also taken with a much higher entry line, even from the beginning of a run. Drivers will be eager to take advantage of the aero benefits of the wall for as much of the corner as possible, and the radius of the corner is too sharp to effectively make the diamond approach work. Discrepancies in line from driver to driver tend to appear on the exit of Turn 4. The exit of the corner opens, opposite to that of Turn 2 which gets sharper, meaning that it’s a viable option to run the fence all the way around to the front straightaway and take a high exit line. The downside of this is that it punishes the rear tires as drivers taking a high exit will still be turning while trying to apply throttle. Because of this, you will see some drivers move their apex and minimum speed to an earlier point in the corner, allowing them to pull down off the wall, taking a low and straight exit and accelerate the car more while turning it less.

Because of the low grip, high speed nature of Darlington Raceway, it is very easy for drivers to manipulate one another’s car with air. “Packing air” is something you will see constantly throughout the field. For a refresher, here’s another excerpt from my piece on Texas Motor Speedway:

To make a pass by packing air, the overtaking driver will attempt to turn under the defending drive in the middle to exit of the corner and placing their right front nose alongside the defending driver’s left rear quarter panel. The wake off the overtaking driver’s nose will push against the left rear of the defending driver’s car which counteracts their side force and causes the car to oversteer. When done properly the defending driver will have to lift out of the throttle and counter steer slightly to recover their vehicle, breaking their momentum and allowing the overtaking driver to pull ahead of them on the straightaway. If the overtaking driver gets a bit too aggressive, or if the defending driver is already struggling with oversteer, packing air can cause a crash even without contact between the vehicles.

On older tires at Darlington Raceway, drivers are already having significant trouble wrangling their cars through the corners. The addition of another driver packing air makes it borderline impossible for the defending driver to apply the throttle. Often times towards the end of a race, the driving can get a bit physical as drivers throw haymakers at one another to make a pass. Watch below as Denny Hamlin tries desperately to get around (then Xfinity Series regular) Ross Chastain during a 2020 Xfinity Series race. Hamlin tries every aero trick in the books to get around Chastain, before finally throwing a desperate slide job that takes both drivers out of contention for the win. These two drivers are now fierce rivals in the Cup Series, and this was the first in a now-long list of contentious moments between the pair.

In this clip there are also numerous onboard shots with Ross Chastain where you can hear how much he is having to feather the throttle and see how much he is wrestling with the steering wheel. Also noteworthy is Denny Hamlin’s excellent lane choices as he constantly changes his line to avoid the aero wake of Chastain’s car.

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Due to the race and stage lengths, green flag pit stops will not be a factor in the Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series races unless a driver is pitting with a mechanical issue or a flat tire. In the Cup Series, green flag pit stops will be a common occurrence, and Darlington Raceway has one of the trickiest pit lanes to get onto. The flat, wide apron deceives drivers into thinking they can carry significantly more speed into the pit lane than is actually viable. It is very common to see drivers get caught for speeding on pit entry, or even worse to miss the entry to pit road as Denny Hamlin did here during the 2017 Southern 500. Even the best drivers can get caught out by this racetrack.

There’s a lot of reasons why they call this place “Too Tough to Tame” and it is a racetrack where only the best of the best are able to find success. There is simply no way to luck into a win at Darlington Raceway. This quickly becomes apparent when you take a brief look at the stats. Most wins? David Pearson. Most top 5’s? Richard Petty. Most top 10’s? Bill Elliott. Most laps led? Dale Earnhardt Sr. Best average start? Jeff Gordon. Best average finish? Denny Hamlin. Like I said, the best of the best. To find victory lane in Darlington is both an honor and a privilege.

If you’ve made it this far, I’d say you deserve a little bit of a treat. Take a minute to enjoy the finish of the 2022 fall Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway, in what was a true heavy-weight battle between Noah Gragson, Sheldon Creed, and Kyle Larson. A wild final lap, and one of the most enjoyable wins of my career.

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Top image: Daylon Barr/Big Machine Racing

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Cautionary Tail-Light
Cautionary Tail-Light
10 days ago

These articles are absolutely riveting.

Your deep-dive into the characteristics of each track combined with the technicalities and subtleties of car setup are fantastic.

Having been born in Europe and grown up in Australia, I’ve never watched a NASCAR race and have really only seen the very occasional short clip of massive pile-ups that make the evening news down here. Combined with the good-ol’-boy schtick of the commentators it has made NASCAR come across as a simple format for yokels not good enough to drive open-wheelers. And that is most definitely not the case.

I think this sport is doing itself a disservice by having commentators who focus on the what: “oh boy oh boy they side-by-side oh and then one-ah them done bang into the wall there” (I could see that, I’m watching it too) instead of the why: “by putting his car there it’s going to cause the lead car to get loose at the rear”

NoiseVibrationHastiness
NoiseVibrationHastiness
11 days ago

I still don’t understand the aero affects and packing air. In this article, running close to the wall increases side force? I’m looking at it as the air flowing between the car and wall is Bernoulii-esque – sped up because volume decreases.

This would decrease pressure between the car and the wall, and forces would bring the two together (take 2 pieces of paper about an inch apart and blow between them, the pieces will move towards and touch each other).

Wouldn’t this make the car tend towards oversteer?

NoiseVibrationHastiness
NoiseVibrationHastiness
11 days ago
Reply to  Aedan McHugh

Thank you for clarifying! The wall AND air mass are both stationary, so the car is redirecting that air.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
11 days ago

Damn, but that was a wild finish!
I’m more risk-adverse as I age, and the footage of a wall inches away at triple digits involuntarily made me tense way up.
I’m enjoying these articles much more than I anticipated

Space
Space
11 days ago

Is the pond still there?

Fourmotioneer
Fourmotioneer
12 days ago

Nice piece!

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
12 days ago

Great piece as always – I’m so glad autopian gave us what we asked for, some motorsports pieces on the weekend.

I kept checking for it this weekend, but don’t worry, my disappointment was quelled somewhat by watching IMSA at Laguna Seca!

CSRoad
CSRoad
12 days ago

So much more than just the mention of the Darlington Stripe, another great article. Thank you very much.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
12 days ago

I remember stock car models that came with a Darlington Stripe decal.

Roger Pitre
Roger Pitre
12 days ago

That was an insightful read, and I don’t even particularly like NASCAR! (I think my dislike stems from when Speedvision was taken away from us in the early aughts).

Miles Long
Miles Long
12 days ago
Reply to  Roger Pitre

I still very much miss Speedvision (such great content!), and haven’t followed NASCAR since it stopped being interesting in the 1990s.

Last edited 12 days ago by Miles Long
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