Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Traditionally speaking, Darlington is doing just fine these days

Woody Allen once said, “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”

That’s certainly true as to how many NASCAR fans feel about racing anywhere else but Darlington, S.C., on Labor Day weekend.

Almost seven years removed from the last Southern 500 at Darlington in 2003, fans still cringe when reminded NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series is running 500 miles this weekend somewhere else.

Why is that?

It certainly can’t be because the Cup race was so much more successful on Labor Day weekend than its current date on Mother’s Day weekend. Darlington has never had bigger crowds since it moved to a Saturday night race in May.

It can’t be because of weather. While races in March and even the one tried in November didn’t exactly bring out the best from Mother Nature, if one thing was constant about the Labor Day weekend race is was the weather – hot and humid.

I saw many a driver crawl gingerly out of their cars after 500 miles in the baking sun at Darlington. Surely, running on a Saturday night in May has to be better conditions.

It can’t be because it’s gotten any easier to win the Southern 500. In the past five years, the 500 has been won by some of the best the Cup series has to offer –Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin.

So what is it? Why after seven years does it still smart for many in NASCAR to travel someplace other than Darlington on Labor Day weekend?

Maybe it’s just because that’s what so many people did in this sport for more than 50 years. It was comfortable. It was close to home for many. It’s just the way they always did it.

That’s doesn’t mean it should always be that way.

It may well be an awesome tradition to play baseball in the cozy confines of a 10,000-seat stadium but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do in 2010.

In all reality, tradition does indeed provide an illusion of permanence. After doing something the same way for so long, it seems wrong to do it any other way.

Yet sometimes – not always – the new way is the better way.

Former Observer writer Tom Higgins to be inducted in NMPA Hall of Fame

Former NASCAR champion driver Dale Jarrett, crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson and former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins will be inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame in January.

All three were selected on more than 65 percent of the ballots cast by NMPA members to earn induction into the Hall of Fame. Wilson was selected on 70 percent of the ballots. Higgins was selected on 68 percent of the ballots, and Jarrett was selected on 66 percent of the ballots.

“These three men have impacted the sport on the track, in the garage and in the media center. Their contributions are significant," said NMPA President Dustin Long.

Higgins covered NASCAR and other motorsports in a 40-year journalism career, including 34 years at The Observer. He was one of the first reporters to cover NASCAR full time. He received NASCAR’s Award of Excellence in 1996. He also won the NMPA’s George Cunningham Award in 1987.

As a crew chief, Wilson won the Daytona 500 in 1980, ’83 and ’84. His engines powered teams to 109 wins, 123 poles and three Cup championships. Wilson built the first engine to exceed 200 mph with Benny Parsons behind the wheel.

Jarrett, now an ESPN analyst, won the 1999 Cup championship. Among his 32 Cup victories were three Daytona 500s (1993, ’96 and 2000). He and father Ned are the second father-son combination to have each won at least one series title behind only Lee and Richard Petty. Dale Jarrett follows Ned into the NMPA Hall of Fame. Ned Jarrett was inducted in 1973.