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Good News for Race Fans

March 21, 2004|From Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Every phone call he got, each e-mail he read, anyone he met at the grocery store last winter. All asked track president Andrew Gurtis the same question: Was Darlington Raceway on the way out?

A year later, the old country track that entered 2003 with a dubious future is looking much, much better. One glance at the 1.366-mile oval tells you that.

There are new light towers and safety barriers. And Gurtis is actually talking about adding seats for 2005.

"I can officially confirm," he says. "that my stomach is no longer churning."

The 54-year-old track was one of several cited by ex-NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. last January as being in danger of losing a race if attendance didn't pick up.

Then about six weeks later in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, a race in which the lead swapped several times, Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch in what was the closest finish (.002 of a second) since NASCAR went to electronic timing 11 years ago. The heart-stopping final laps became a signature for Darlington and the NASCAR season.

That summer, word came from NASCAR leaders that Darlington would keep two races this year and would get lights to make it more versatile in seasons to come, and the track signed a spring race sponsor through 2008.

"I think you can make the argument that we did our jobs," Craven said.

Gurtis added: "I'm not going to say that saved us. But that's what can happen at Darlington Raceway."

Darlington still didn't escape NASCAR realignment. The track's long-held Southern 500 date of Labor Day weekend was moved to November.

The race will now be run on Nov. 14, a week before the end of the Nextel Cup's 10-event championship shootout. That may not end up being so bad. Gurtis believes Darlington and it's new lights will have a very big say in deciding this year's champ.

"What started out as a tough 2003 has come full circle," Gurtis said. "I feel great about this raceway and its future."

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