DARLINGTON, S.C. — When Kerry Tharp became track president at Darlington Raceway in 2016, he quickly realized that the venue’s throwback weekend platform was a diamond in the rough.
The throwback idea debuted the year prior, under the guidance of then-track leader Chip Wile, to critical acclaim from drivers, teams, fans, and media members alike.
But Tharp felt that it could be even greater and that has proven true over the six-year history of the Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR. The program has remained popular among the NASCAR fan base and teams have often built engaging social media programs around the “throwback” idea.
Ahead of year seven of NASCAR Throwback Weekend, Tharp told SPEED SPORT that it brings a smile to his face to see how the garage area has wrapped its arms around the concept.
“The sport has really embraced the throwback platform, from the drivers and the owners to the sponsors, media and certainly the fans. I think it’s something that everyone really enjoys,” Tharp said. “I think it’s that one weekend a year in which they can have a reunion, so to speak and somewhat take a walk down memory lane to relive some of the great memories that the sport has had to offer. It allows us to pay tribute to the heroes of the sport, the Hall of Famers, the legends and everybody that played a role in making this sport as great as it is today. [The throwback idea] has grown a lot even from when I first came to Darlington.
“Having the opportunity to be able to do something like this every year is just a blessing and we want to do everything we can to put on the best throwback weekend that we can and keep the program alive and well for many, many years to come.”
While throwback weekend was popularized when the track’s iconic Southern 500 moved back to Labor Day weekend in 2015, this year marks a shift because of Darlington’s return to two NASCAR events.
With the Southern 500 standing as the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Tharp and his team moved the throwback platform to the track’s new Mother’s Day event weekend to help give fans two distinct reasons to visit Darlington Raceway.
“It’s a good feeling, at least to us, that we’re able to work in throwback weekend over Mother’s Day weekend. I think that’s a great tie-in,” said Tharp. “It gives this weekend a really cool and unique identity and lets the Cook Out Southern 500 — which is leading off the playoffs again — have its own day in the sun as well as the kickoff race toward a Cup Series championship. We felt that was important to both weekends, that we could give fans two individual reasons to want to come to our race track.
“Being able to have two events this year is a real blessing in itself,” Tharp added. “That sprung partially out of our part in bringing live sports back to this country almost a year ago [following the sports shutdown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic]. It’s hard to believe that we’re here a year later having an event here with all three national series back in our garage area. That’s pretty special too.”
Tharp was quick to point out that fan excitement in the Darlington area is about more than just NASCAR’s throwback weekend, but also that Darlington Raceway has two event weekends on the calendar again after being trimmed down to one Cup Series race per year for more than a decade due to various realignments of the schedule by the sanctioning body that began in 2005.
“One of the most-asked questions that I fielded when I first came to Darlington about five years ago was, ‘Kerry, when are we going to get our second race back?’ And NASCAR was gracious enough to award us with a second date this year, which we very much appreciate,” Tharp said. “Of course, it doesn’t mean we’re going to have it every year but, hopefully, we can have it back again next year in 2022. I think it’s given people a lot of hope, though. It’s a real tribute to the fans that hung in there when things were a little uneasy for the track as a whole.”
In some respects, Tharp feels the throwback platform helped to revitalize and save Darlington Raceway from an uncertain future.
“I think once we introduced the throwback platform in 2015 and got our Labor Day date back, that helped us get back on our feet here, so to speak,” Tharp noted. “Now, I believe the future is very, very promising here. I think people love coming to throwback weekend and they love the Cook Out Southern 500, so I think that right now we’re poised to continue establishing ourselves as one of the crown jewel locations in the sport.
“As we saw last year, we certainly have had some of the best racing here that the sport has to offer.”
As the heritage of Darlington’s throwback weekend grows and begins to endure, Tharp noted one more important point: That the program helps to educate newer fans of the sport about its historic past.
“I think [throwback weekend] gives us an opportunity to teach fans, particularly newer fans of the sport, about our sport’s history and who some of the key players were that made the sport what it is today,” he said. “Some of the different aspects of the sport, the characteristics and personalities of the day back then, are very important. The throwback platform is a great tool for being able to teach those things and there’s no better place to have a throwback weekend than Darlington. It’s likely the most historic track that NASCAR goes to.
“For us to be able to have throwback weekend here at Darlington, bring fans back in and bring in a variety of different [pieces of] racing history and things like that is a really great mark and I think that the fans certainly enjoy it.”
NASCAR Throwback Weekend kicks off Friday night with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LiftKits4Less.com 200 and is headlined by Sunday’s Goodyear 400 for the NASCAR Cup Series.
Coverage can be found through FS1, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90 all weekend long.