Coming home

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Todd Hardee sits in an upholstered chair accented with a floral design. The owner of Kistler-Hardee Funeral Home chats in a room that dates to 1823. A time capsule, which features a sword, flag and flask of whisky from that era, is nestled in a column out front, but no one is sure which one. When the time capsule was discovered in the 1970s during a remodeling project and then returned, the two people who knew its location agreed never to tell and are no longer alive.

In this genteel setting less than two miles from Darlington Raceway, Hardee’s calm facade dissolves. His blue eyes widen and a smile creases his face. A longtime NASCAR fan — Richard Petty remains his favorite driver — Hardee is thrilled that the Southern 500 returns to its traditional Labor Day weekend spot for the first time since 2003.

“This may sound selfish, this may sound brassy or this may sound Southern, but Labor Day is our damn race day,’’ Hardee says. “That’s ours. We got it back, and we want to keep it.’’

Almost immediately, the 51-year-old catches himself and says softly with Southern politeness, “That probably did sound a little bad, didn’t it?’’

Before a response can be uttered, Hardee adds without apology but with conviction: “Labor Day is Darlington.’’

Watch the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC

From 1950-2003, Labor Day weekend in Darlington meant the Southern 500. From the beginning of rock n’ roll through man walking on the moon to 9/11, NASCAR’s premier series raced on the egg-shaped track the same holiday weekend. Fans turned Darlington into one of the state’s largest communities. They held a parade. They crowned a Miss Southern 500. TV stars came. Clint Eastwood even showed one year.

“It was Mardi Gras in September,’’ says 66-year-old Nita Huntley, a Darlington native whose mother took her to the first Southern 500.

When NASCAR began “modernizing tradition,’’ the race was moved to November in 2004. Then to Mother’s Day weekend. Then to April. The pageant already had been discontinued. The parade disappeared. The excitement faded.

Even those who attended the race after the date change admit it felt different. No one needed a jacket when the race was held on those sultry Labor Day weekends, but one came in handy on the other dates. The weekend also felt compressed instead of being held on a three-day holiday period. Such minor differences needled local fans, reminding them this wasn’t the way they had grown up.

After Labor Day stints near Los Angeles and Atlanta, NASCAR is back at Darlington Raceway. The city’s celebration feels like a favorite son’s homecoming. Checkered flags and American flags decorate the town square. The parade returns. And there will be fireworks.

This is a reunion and reawakening. It’s a chance for residents to reminisce about adventures — or misadventures — in the infield, sitting in the old covered grandstands, which magnified the roar of cars and made ears ring, or all the traffic that arrived. It’s about rejoicing over the track reclaiming its birthright. This also is a time to introduce a new generation to what Labor Day weekend means in Darlington — the return of the town’s identity.

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The mayor is solving another problem. A mother and daughter have a question about logging on to a computer in the Darlington County Library. Tony Watkins, in his third term as mayor, is seated at the reference desk helping them. This is his office when not overseeing a city where one can find an egg salad sandwich for $1.50, antebellum homes and fewer than 7,000 residents.

Watkins, whose thin silver hair and tall build radiate respect, resolves the computer issue and asks his supervisor permission to step away from his desk. Soon, Watkins is reminiscing about Labor Day weekends when so many people came to the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway they didn’t have a place to stay.

Married for 47 years and a Darlington resident for 49, Watkins recounts when his father owned a movie theatre on Pearl Street near the town square. On the night before the race, the theatre stayed open late. Multiple features played, giving people a place to escape the heat and even sleep for a bit. The movies varied but one played year after year — “Quicksand” with Mickey Rooney. The 1950 film tells how the life of Rooney’s character spirals out of control based on a decision he makes and those that follow.

“It was just the worst B movie you can ever imagine,’’ Watkins says, leaning back as he laughs.

Reality would prove to be worse.

Watkins became the mayor two months after the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. He was still in his first term when NASCAR took one of Darlington’s two race dates for the 2005 season, a crushing blow for the community’s economy and spirit.

We have history,’’ Watkins says. “We have tradition. We have old antebellum homes. Great place to live, but we know this. We know that Darlington Raceway put Darlington, South Carolina, on the map. That’s something that maybe we took for granted. To think of losing one or maybe even a second race is almost like losing your identity, and it does something to your city.

“It was almost like a panic.’’

North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., held its last Sprint Cup race in 2004. North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway fell off the schedule after the 1996 season. Between those years, NASCAR added races in California, Illinois, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Nevada and Texas. The question was if Darlington would disappear from the schedule with talk of further expansion beyond the sport’s traditional Southeast base.

Darlington Raceway survived. It had more history than Rockingham and more prestige than North Wilkesboro. Darlington Raceway held the sanctioning body’s first 500-mile race in 1950, a year after NASCAR’s first event. Seventy-five cars started. Eighty-two ran the next year. There were 50 cars in 1954 when the temperature soared to 101 degrees. That race lasted 5 hours, 16 minutes, 1 second.

The track was as unforgiving as the weather. The sport’s best often excelled. Drivers elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame won all but six Southern 500s from 1963-90. Among those winners were Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

That helped make Darlington special. So did the the ties to the community. It’s hard to ignore the track when one can open a door or a window and hear the cars. Many residents have tales about going to the race when they were younger. One repeated story was how they often attended the race for free, aided by a friendly ticket taker they knew. Call it the benefit of living in a small community.

While a Walmart is scheduled to open next spring in Darlington, some things have remained constant through the years. The city’s population has changed little since the last Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. The lunch counter remains at the Carolina Drug Store. When ordering a meal at Jewel’s Deluxe, you write it on a sheet of paper and hand it to the waitress because that’s the way it has been done for decades.

“Granted, we might have got a new fast food restaurant or they might have paved a road,’’ says India Rogers, 28, a Darlington native who went from working in Jewel’s Deluxe to owning it. “But I feel like when you come to Darlington, you get the original Darlington.’’

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Harold Brasington III’s briefcase carries the history of his grandfather’s track in photos, documents and photocopies, but even more special are the memories.

Had it not been for the original Harold Brasington’s desire to bring a NASCAR race modeled after the Indianapolis 500 to the fields of Darlington, there would not be a discussion about the race returning there this weekend, more than two dozen teams going with retro paint schemes and even Kyle Larson, born in 1992, growing a 1970s-era mustache to go along with the weekend’s throwback theme.

Brasington, a tall man often seen in photos bending or leaning down to others, called himself a daydreamer in a note to fans in the inaugural Southern 500 program. One would have to be to build such a grand track in a small community. But Brasington — or Mr. Harold as some still refer to him these days — also had to be resourceful. He squeezed one end of the track to preserve a neighboring minnow pond, thus creating the odd-shaped, 1.366-mile track.

While he left the track’s ownership group a few years after the speedway was built, he later returned for the races, bringing along his grandson to chat with former drivers before the event.

“He would drive in the tunnel on race day and pull up in the pits and he would say, ‘Stay in the car,’ and talk to some of these old timers,’’ Harold Brasington III. “I would sit in the car and pout because I wanted to get out and look at the race cars, but the pits is not a safe place.’’

MORE: NASCAR legend Pearson remembers Darlington  |  PHOTOS — Darlington Raceway through the years

Brasington III later got his chance to look at the cars when he sold programs while in the Boy Scouts. A fan of Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough, the younger Brasington admits, “I didn’t sell a lot of programs. I was busy watching my guys race.’’

Along with the heroes who came to Darlington, the Southern 500 always meant more to local residents, especially in those early years. Labor Day was a time when tobacco warehouses would fill for auction, when work in the fields neared completion, when hunting season approached and school began. Brasington III, 47, recalls that period in a youth’s life as a “magical time.”

While the tobacco warehouses have been converted into something else, Todd Hardee hopes he can instill what the Southern 500 means to his first grandchild, Jayce Tailor, born in June and create the sense of awe Brasington III recalls about this time of the year.

“I’m always going to have my memories of what the racetrack was,’’ Hardee says. “I want to take the opportunity to build his memories.’’

Harold Brasington did more than create a place for cars to race. He provided a place for memories to develop, be nourished and linger, taking those back to a time long past.

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Elle May Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies” showed one year. So did Matt Dillon from “Gunsmoke.’’ As did Alan Hale Jr., better known as “The Skipper” from “Gilligan’s Island.”

From 1960 to the early ’70s, the Southern 500 parade was a destination for celebrities.

Joey Saleeby, 60, met some of them. He grew up in a home on the corner of Hoole and Warley St., which was where the grand marshal’s vehicle often was stationed before the parade started. Saleeby, whose family owned Joe’s Grille for 63 years until he sold it this summer, recalls some of the celebrities taking what he called a pit stop in his home before the parade. Saleeby has a picture of Donna Douglas, who played Elle May Clampett, with the family dog, a terrier named Tippy. Milburn Stone, who played Doc Adams on “Gunsmoke,” sat at the family’s kitchen table and drank coffee before the parade. “He was one of the nicest people,’’ Saleeby says.

Many others appeared in the parade including George Lindsey, who played Goober on “The Andy Griffith Show,’’ and singers Marty Robbins and Buck Owens. Pictures from the 1960s and ‘70s show crowds shoulder to shoulder and lined behind one another in the town square. The parade returns Saturday night for the first time in a decade. Trent Owens, crew chief for Aric Almirola, and a Darlington native, will serve as grand marshal.

“I laughed at first,’’ Owens said when he was asked to be the grand marshal, “and then I figured it was for real. I used to go to the parade all the time. I never saw myself as being the grand marshal of the parade.’’

The nearly two-mile parade route will end in the infield at Darlington Raceway — a place once so well known for its rambunctiousness that a jail was placed there for race weekend.

Bobby Kilgo, who owns a law firm in Darlington, recalls the spectacle, the free-flowing Falstaff Beer and sleeping overnight in his Volkswagen bug. While it’s only coincidence, maybe there’s something to Falstaff Beer, the third largest brewery in America in the early 1960s, ceasing production in 2005 — the season Darlington’s schedule was reduced to one Sprint Cup race and the Southern 500 was not used in the lone race’s name.

This is a time for the community to celebrate instead of lament what happened. The return of the parade is significant, says Robert Garland, assistant fire chief, who formerly oversaw the parade.

“A lot of people … grew up with the parade,’’ says Garland, sitting in a booth of the Dairy Bar, a hot dog/hamburger joint in Darlington that does not take credit cards. “In this fast-paced world driven by dollars, things seem to get pushed aside and tradition is one of them. To bring this back, to me, is bringing back a tradition that is worth reminding. It brings you back to what you grew up with and what it meant to Darlington.’’

And what a race on Labor Day weekend means.

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