Cars adorned with classic paint schemes of yesteryear -- including those associated with Hall of Famers Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison -- were everywhere. Drivers spoke wistfully about the importance of the event, as fans reveled in the sport honoring its rich past instead of running away from it as NASCAR is so often accused of doing.
In nearly every way the atmosphere was exactly what Darlington Raceway and NASCAR officials sought when they restored the Southern 500 back to the traditional Labor Day weekend date it held from 1950 to 2003.
And the "throwback" theme extended beyond what was happening on the track. Throughout Darlington's infield and the camping grounds surrounding the track located in a sleepy town of almost 6,300, there persisted the inescapable sight of a red flag with blue bars and white stars.
The Confederate flag and NASCAR have long been intertwined, the roots of each extending to the Deep South with some regarding both as Southern institutions. For decades the stars and bars were omnipresent at NASCAR races. Darlington's used to label its spring event the "Rebel 400," featured the flag prominently on programs and other advertisements and played "Dixie" during pre-race ceremonies.
Over the years, though, the sanctioning body has distanced itself greatly from the Confederate flag. This summer, following the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at the hands of a white supremacist inside a Charleston, S.C. church -- two hours south of Darlington -- NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France called it an "offensive symbol" and said, "we will go as far as we can to eliminate the presence of that flag."
NASCAR attempted to eradicate the flag from the speedway's grounds through a program where fans would turn in a Confederate flag and receive an American one in return. Except despite NASCAR's effort, the flag was quite conspicuous throughout the Darlington weekend. From flags to t-shirts, hats to can coolers, tattoos to pants it was impossible not to turn your head and see the symbol being displayed in some fashion.
At one flag exchange point there were no takers as of Sunday morning and a box of American flags sat untouched. Two security guards were clueless such a swap existed, while another dismissed the idea.
"No one in this crowd is going to give up their Confederate flag for an America one," the guard said. "They already own an American flag. Plus, they think by handing over the Confederate flag would be a form of surrendering in their mind."
Because either NBC didn't want to show a national television audience an event where the controversial flag was being displayed so freely, or event organizers wanted to give spotters a clearer view of the speedway (attendees say both reasons were cited by security, though neither could be confirmed as a Darlington spokesman declined comment), security personnel instructed patrons to take down their flags whenever cars were on the track.
"It's kinda ironic that they want to have a retro, throwback Southern 500 with all these cars painted like they were in the 1970s, but in the 70s the Confederate flag was all over this place," said Emerson Etheridge, who had nine such flags flying off long poles attached to the top of his motorhome. "What's next? Where does it stop? Pretty soon you won't be allowed to fly a British flag or a rainbow colored flag.
"What's wrong with our history and way of life?"
Describing himself as a "long, longtime" fan who's been coming to Darlington for 45 years, Etheridge recently has felt excluded. This is a common sentiment among fans who grew up watching Petty, Pearson and Allison and not just their replica cars.
Starting in the 1990s, NASCAR expanded its presence nationally with races added in Southern California, Dallas, New England and elsewhere, a broadening that came at the expense of tracks located in the Southeast. That shift, accompanied with perceived over-commercialism, seemingly un-relatable drivers and bevy of major changes that transformed stock racing from what it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, cost NASCAR a once very devout segment of supporters.
But as its popularity has rescinded since the mid-2000s, NASCAR realized it needed to win back that formerly fervent base of fans that had felt marginalized. To help regain its appeal, NASCAR encouraged drivers to voice opinions, emboldened the kind of rough driving that once earned penalties, and moved the Southern 500 back to its rightful place on the Sprint Cup calendar.
"There ain't no good ol' boys, just young punks with money," said Billy Hatcher, a native South Carolinian who's been coming to Darlington since the 1970s. "NASCAR's almost IndyCar now. No one hits each other. There's no contact. Ever since Dale [Earnhardt] Sr. died there's no badass mother f***ers anymore. And I hate the Chase."
Hatcher was holding court in his campground across the street from the track. So disillusioned with what NASCAR evolved into, he preferred to remain outside the speedway where he could flip between the race and college football on the flat-screen he brought with him.
"It isn't just about the race, there's college football and a party out here," said Hatcher, shirtless with a Bud Light in one hand and a cigar in the other. "I don't feel wanted in there."
That's the juxtaposition NASCAR finds itself faced with. On one hand it seeks to cater to the older devotee who feels disenfranchised; however that same fan base largely carries a belief that they should be allowed to conduct themselves without reform. That includes proudly displaying the Confederate flag, even if others may find it offensive.
"You ain't taking it away," Hatcher said. "It's Southern pride and got nothing to do with racism. Older black people aren't offended by the flag, it's all the young black people that are not working and raising Cain. If anyone has a right to be pissed, it's the Indians because we took their damn land."
And what about those who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of bigotry and oppressive violence, shouldn't they be free to attend a sporting event without being subjected to it?
"I've seen it my whole life," said an African-American man who didn't want to identify himself. "I understand to some degree the flag has a deeper meaning and there's pride involved. But it bothers me, sometimes greatly. It needs to go away and for anyone to say it's not offensive is an ignorant statement by an ignorant individual."