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NASCAR fans outside Darlington Raceway: ‘Time to hear the engines’

The Cup Series return from its coronavirus break had passionate tailgaters, partiers at the famed Raceway Grill and houses near the track jumping.
Cars go through a turn at Darlington Raceway during the NASCAR Cup Series Real Heroes 400 on Sunday.
Cars go through a turn at Darlington Raceway during the NASCAR Cup Series Real Heroes 400 on Sunday. [ JENNA FRYER | AP ]
Published May 17, 2020

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Tammy Gandy grew up around Darlington Raceway. She remembers a time when the greats such as Richard Petty would show up each year at her aunt’s house for homemade biscuits.

“(Petty) used to say there were none better,” Gandy said.

And no crowds were bigger in these parts than the ones that showed up for NASCAR races. So after seeing the hubbub and hullabaloo that always led up to race day, Gandy laughed when asked to compare that to this year’s scene.

“It’s a bit weird,” she said. “But we’re happy to be here for our track.”

NASCAR was back at Darlington on Sunday and even attracted some passionate tailgaters, despite them knowing they couldn’t get inside to watch the first Cup Series race since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sport in March.

“It’s about time to hear the engines and smell the gas fumes,” fan Dennis Nobles said.

People rented houses across from the 70-year-old track for the Real Heroes 400 and showed up to its famed Raceway Grill outside Turn 2 simply to be near an event they missed the past two months. NASCAR was dark for the past 10 weeks, the only glimpse of racing coming virtually during a series of gaming events.

But this was the real thing, minus the full throng of supporters who attend each year. Fans weren’t allowed inside because of the virus.

The Raceway Grill held a watch party, and patrons cheered, yelled and clapped when they heard the loud roar of engines. They played by the rules, too. Picnic tables were appropriately spaced to comply with social distancing.

Some fans walked across the street to the track’s perimeter fence simply to be as close as possible to the action.

“There’s no doubt this shows the loyalty of NASCAR fans,” restaurant owner Tony Baird said. “They didn’t want to stay home for this.”

Baird plans to have similar setups for the Xfinity Series race Tuesday night and the second Cup race at the track Wednesday night.

But it clearly wasn’t business as usual.

Parking fields typically packed with eager fans were empty, and the long rows of souvenir stands were missing from the track known for being “Too Tough To Tame.”

Instead, the only tables set up to sell flags and T-shirts were for President Donald Trump-related merchandise.

Checkered flags were in place for more than a mile along the main road leading to the track as an electronic billboard flashed, “NASCAR is Back at Darlington Raceway.”

“This is a different event,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp said. “It’s amazing how everyone (in NASCAR) came together to make it happen.”

Dennis Nobles of Aynor, S.C., a small town about an hour east of Darlington, wasn’t going to let the fan ban stop him from attending. He was among a group of five that rolled up in a motor home at an RV park outside the track’s start-finish line and planned to soak in the atmosphere while watching the race on TV.

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Nobles, 56, has been attending races at Darlington since the early 1980s and wanted to support the sport’s return. Other fans came from much farther away to take in NASCAR’s first race since Joey Logano won the FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8.

John Holland, 53, flew in from Chicago and tailgated with friends at a home right across the street from the track. He’d attended races at Chicagoland and Michigan in the past, and didn’t want to miss this one.

Holland was set up with several friends from Darlington.

“This is something I’ll never forget,” he said.

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