August is always the hottest of the months down Carolina way. Summer has waxed full and as the days slowly get shorter the songs of cicadas meld with the chirping of the crickets. Shadows are longer with the last celebrations of the season well under way. College football and tailgating will be in full throttle soon enough, but the last hurrahs of beach trips and mountain camp-outs are still in full swing. A wonderful time of the year, always capped off with the long Labor Day weekend.
For many years the NASCAR race at Darlington was the grand finale of any summer well spent. A long weekend of playing in the surf along the powder-white Carolina beaches ended with a Sunday afternoon under those glorious early September skies watching the big boys go at it on the "Track too tough to Tame.” One still had their carefully collected seashells in their camper as they hauled it in bouncing across the grass to find friends and family in the infield; shells that rattled in the sinks and many a cry went up at the discovery of a shattered sand dollar that plunged from its perch while that perfect parking spot was obtained. Oh, but what a time was had! Grills fired up, recipes exchanged and of course the merits of favorite drivers argued throughout the night. Then just like that, poof! They moved the race dates and Labor Day at Darlington was no more.
Years of history were forgotten and the traditions of multitudes of fans ignored. It gave many an extra day on the beach and it gave NASCAR a race in California while we evened up our tans with nary a thought to the other race. But that gaping emptiness was there. The power brokers at the top knew best; the sport was going Hollywood. You know, "Swimmin’ pools & movie stars" and those very fans from which they'd acquired their wealth needed to float on away in their cement ponds. The history of a track and its fans since 1950 had been kicked aside, plus Mother’s Day or close to Thanksgiving just didn't entice your average stock car fan.
NASCAR was really in the big leagues in the early 2000's. Ticket prices skyrocketed and those ensconced in plush Speedway suites looked over the crowded infield snickering at those of us camping with our flags a’flying and well stocked coolers of beer while they sipped cocktails, comparing the latest fashions. They forgot we were the most solid supporters of the sponsors’ brands, but if you don't do laundry you're not specifically picking up Tide because Waltrip drove the car. So the big wigs catered to cronies, the costs skyrocketed and just like that poof! The economy crashed. Sponsors fled en masse, and the regular fans had long since ceased to attend, budgeting for other things instead. We spent our Labor Day weekends at lakeside campgrounds, mountain parks and beachfront cookouts. We prepared for Football season, spending our dollars on new grills, fancy awnings and all that makes tailgating true perfection. Then just like that poof! Our Southern 500 returned as a throwback race celebrating all that history which was previously cast aside.
So here we are, looking at the fourth year of a return to our traditions. The engines will once again roar this Labor Day weekend as the Bojangles Southern 500 takes to the track at the Darlington Raceway. The cars will be brilliantly painted for the throwback theme and while many of the drivers will not be the good old boys we knew and loved, many of their offspring will still play a vital part. Yes, beaches will be visited, shells will be collected, sand dollars will inevitably break, and campers will once again settle happily in the infield. But as in any case where age old tradition has once been cast aside, we will be leery. Our beer coolers will be full, excellent food will be barbequed, family and friends will discuss their summers, all the while expounding on the merits of their favorite drivers. Those sitting in air-conditioned coolness in the suites above the track will quite possibly not snicker at those of us in the infield, flags no longer a’flying (that’s a story for different time) with our coolers full of beer. For their ideas have proven not so wonderful and their leaders have imploded on as grand a scale as any wreck the "Lady in Black" has ever entertained.
One can only imagine that come Monday when the campers and fans are rolling out of the infield, someone will find, strangely enough, one half of a broken sand dollar. Memories will fly like sparks in the night of his long-gone loved one’s treasures from race days in the infield and the half will be gently carried home to reside with another found years ago. One thing is certain; the halves will not fit together yet the idea is the same. It is a sand dollar; just two halves not of the same whole. Let us all hope it works as well for the "Lady in Black”, the "Track too tough to tame" and The Bojangles Southern 500.