COLUMBIA, S.C. — Wednesday was National Dog Day, and Gov. Henry McMaster’s English bulldog, Mac, wanted to experience the Cook Out Southern 500.
If he can’t go to Darlington Raceway, why not just hop into the pace car on his master’s property?
So what if McMaster was already in the car, revving up the Chevy primed to lead the 40-car field when the green flag drops for Darlington Raceway’s 71st Southern 500 on Sept. 6 (NBCSN),
Doggone it, Mac wanted in.
So McMaster relented, climbed out of the driver's seat so Mac could hop in.
Such was the day of fun and positivity as the state of South Carolina paid homage to NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway event, which is also the first race of this year’s Cup playoffs.
But that’s not the only reason.
Typically, when Darlington Raceway is able to host a full allotment of fans (47,000 grandstands, plus infield campers), the economic impact is grand — more than $58 for the Pee Dee, and more than $64 million for the state.
But this year, the most fans the track can host is 8,000 because of the pandemic. But after hosting no fans in May for two Cup races, and an Xfinity event, Wednesday was a reason to celebrate this upcoming race.
It’s a step. A step forward, at that.
This next step will also include two additional races, although those won’t be in front of fans. One without fans is the Sept. 5 noon Xfinity event, the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 (NBCSN). And the other without fans is the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series’ South Carolina Education Lottery 200 on Sept. 6 at 2 p.m. (FS1).
“Although we will not be able to have the sellout crowd we had last year, it’s just amazing that we’ll get to have spectators viewing all the dramatic events that happen at every race right here in Darlington,” said Pamela Evette, the lieutenant governor, about the Southern 500. “I’m excited for the race. My family is excited. And it’s always good to watch a race at the track that’s Too Tough to Tame.”
Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp, who had in the past worked with the likes of Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz while he was sports information director at the University of South Carolina, was in his element as Wednesday's emcee. The first thing Tharp did was recount the events leading up to May’s three Darlington races. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR had halted the season after four races. The other major sports shut down, as well.
“Because of the support and faith (McMaster) and his staff showed in NASCAR and Darlington, we were able to host three races over a period of five days that jump-started the sport back to live competition," Tharp said.
After everything had shut down, only UFC and the Professional Bull Riders Tour had conducted live events before NASCAR waved its green flag after an eight-week hiatus of its own. As executives from other major sports watched and wondered if NASCAR could make it work, other fans did as well. As in nearly 10,000,000 for the three May races at Darlington.
“Darlington and the state of South Carolina were at the forefront for bringing back live sports to our country — something we desperately needed during these unprecedented times,” Tharp said.
Racing often more than once a week, NASCAR’s Cup Series made up for all the races that were missed and just caught up this past weekend with a weekend doubleheader at Dover, which did not allow fans.
Also since then, sports have resumed in pro sports like the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.
But all this started in Darlington. And when that happened, South Carolina was also in the spotlight.
“(Darlington Raceway) is quite a remarkable thing that has helped put South Carolina on the map, and it’s one more thing that makes South Carolina the best place in the world to live and work,” McMaster said.
Tharp, of course, credits that to the partnership.
“We could not ask for a governor who is more supportive of our race track and our event,” he said.
Cook Out sponsor
for one race
Earlier this week, it was announced Cook Out would sponsor the 71st Southern 500. It’s a deal for one year, and Tharp said Cook Out now has first exclusive right to negotiate again for next year if it would like to extend that deal.
“We’ve got a brand to stand on, but we’re very excited and pleased to get an entitlement sponsor in there,” Tharp said.
This year’s Southern 500 pace car features the sponsor-less Southern 500 logo, and Tharp said it’s doubtful those pace-car logos can be updated to Cook Out’s branding with the race less than two weeks away.
Cook Out is also Darlington Raceway’s official quick-service restaurant.
For the first time since 2004, the Southern 500 will be included in the playoffs. That 2004 race, ran in November, was won by Jimmie Johnson, the eventual seven-time Cup Series champ who said before this season he is retiring from full-time Cup competition after this season.
Tharp talked about the added excitement for the 16 playoff drivers and all the fans in a system that eventually whittles it down to four playoff-eligible drivers for the final playoff race Nov. 8 Phoenix Raceway.