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Auto Racing Package: Darlington Raceway switches start-finish line

March 19, 1997

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ It was put down with one straight sweep of a paint brush and for almost 50 years, Darlington Raceway’s start-finish line stood as both hurdle and benchmark for NASCAR’s most talented drivers.

Darrell Waltrip won his first superspeedway race at Darlington in 1977 and his most recent at the same track in 1992. Dale Earnhardt rolled to five of his seven Winston Cup championships with Darlington victories. Bill Elliott won the Winston Million bonus here in 1985 and Dale Jarrett lost the $1 million prize last year when he hit Darlington’s wall leading the Southern 500.

That era ends with this week’s TranSouth 400. After the race, officials will move the start-finish line from the front stretch to the back. The switch gives the track more room to expand and improve, track president Jim Hunter says.

But some drivers wonder if it is tampering with tradition.

``I don’t think they’re going to take No. 1 at Augusta (National) and turn it into No. 18. I don’t know why they’re doing that,″ said Michael Waltrip, Darrell’s brother.

``I think there are going to be a lot of people who had tickets on that front stretch wondering what happened,″ Darrell Waltrip said.

Hunter has heard the complaints, but his task is keep NASCAR’s oldest track comparable with the gleaming racing palaces opening across the country.

``In NASCAR today, if you don’t keep up, you’re going to be left behind,″ he said.

The track will add a new grandstand and a tower filled with luxury suites in time for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Hunter says that’s the only way for the track to compete with new layouts in Texas, Las Vegas and Southern California.

When Hunter took over Darlington five years ago, there were splinters and cracked wood along the grandstands. The rusty sheet-metal roofs on the garage area had curled off their foundations. Water spritzed out of grimy, stained faucets in the spectator’s bathrooms.

The improvements came slowly. The track paved parking lots and renovated washrooms. Hunter lined the access roads with Palmetto trees. Azalea bushes sprang up in the infield.

The latest renovations include new garages and a spiffed up Victory Lane.

Hunter doesn’t buy the argument he’s trampling the sacred aura of the egg-shaped track that Harold Brasington carved out of farmland in 1949. Other famous sporting events have changed and become more prestigious, he says.

``At Augusta National, the Masters, they switched front and back nine, the Kentucky Derby used to be run at a different distance, baseball’s World Series was nine games at one time,″ he said.

The only place it will make a real difference, Hunter said, is at the start and finish.

Drivers will immediately race into what many considered the toughest corner in NASCAR, turns three and four.

``When you enter it, it almost feels like you’re going into a tunnel,″ racer Ricky Rudd said.

The wider, oval shape of the curve sends cars nearly into the wall leaving turn four. Three-wide racing is nearly impossible. Turns one and two are more circular than the opposite corner and machines seem to have magnetic attraction to the concrete lining turn two.

``If they’re going to change it (the line), I think they should make the turns wider so you can race,″ Michael Waltrip said.

Jeff Gordon wrecked at Darlington in March 1995 in the TranSouth. He has not lost here since, winning three straight races to tie Earnhardt’s mark.

The racers don’t expect the change to affect competition. They understand the need for improvements. It’s the lost legacy that bothers them.

``It doesn’t make a lot of sense,″ Michael Waltrip said.

End Adv for Thursday March 20

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