While Kerry Tharp’s official title is President of Darlington Raceway, ringmaster of the traveling show we call NASCAR might be a more apt description, especially during a Throwback weekend.
From coordinating numerous activities including an 80’s Dance Party, food, music, track trivia, prizes and a Throwback Parade to dealing with the aftermath of an aberrant rain and hail storm, Tharp and his staff are behind the scenes making certain that the show will go on.
Anytime you’re present for a Throwback event at Darlington you can expect to see NASCAR Hall of Famers and veteran drivers and the upcoming weekend is no exception. Richard Petty will wave the green flag as the honorary starter for the Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington. Petty, Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott will then share their expertise with the FOX Sports broadcast team of Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer during the race. Petty will join them during Stage 1, Labonte will take over for Stage 2 and Elliott will be in the booth for the final stage.
“I think it’s pretty cool that they’re adding those guys up in the booth,” Tharp said, “because I think each of them is all from a different era and I think each of them will provide their own unique perspective on the race and on the weekend.”
There will also be some unique pre-race activities.
On Friday before the Camping World Truck Series race, Ron Hornaday Jr. will complete a parade lap in a 1975 Ford Bronco and on Saturday Randy LaJoie will pilot a 1966 Mustang Shelby before the Xfinity Series event. Prior to the Cup Series race Sunday afternoon, Hall of Fame inductee Red Farmer will take a spin around the track in a Wood Brothers Racing car that Neil Bonnet drove.
Another highlight, Tharp said, will feature “one of the team owners, Justin Marks, (Trackhouse Racing) who is going to drive the No. 33 Skoal Bandit car that Harry Gant drove here at Darlington. That will allow fans to get a real good visual of Throwback cars.”
Darlington Raceway, known as the track Too Tough to Tame, is one of the most unique and challenging venues on the NASCAR circuit. Add the new Next Gen car into the mix and it’s difficult to predict who will end up in victory lane.
Tharp believes that the racing might be even better than what we’ve seen in the past.
“I think it’s going to be better,” he said. “When we had the tire test here, the people from Goodyear were very encouraged about the tire wear. Darlington is famous for the tires falling off, so I think you’re gonna see that on Sunday in the Cup Series and I think the new car is going to be challenging for the drivers to maneuver.
“I’m not very good at predicting who will win but I will say that Joe Gibbs Racing has certainly had great history here at Darlington with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. all winning here multiple times. I think you’re probably going to have to go through that team in order to get a win here.
“But you take a look and see how successful Hendrick has been this year and also some of the first-time winners, whether it be Ross Chastain, Chase Briscoe, or even Austin Cindric and I think you could see a first-time winner here. I think anything could happen.”
Winning races is always the goal for the drivers and teams but for Tharp, it’s all about the fans and ensuring that they have a memorable experience.
“Just being able to see the fans enjoying themselves whether it be in the campgrounds or the stands, we missed that for about 2 1/2 years with the pandemic,” he said. “I’m looking forward with a lot of anticipation to seeing that again.”
It hit home for Tharp during the pandemic as NASCAR ran races without fans in attendance.
“The race that we had in May of 2020 when we brought back live racing and sports back to this country. There hadn’t been any live sports in about 8 or 9 weeks and we were the first to bring it back. There were no fans in the stands and that was very, very different.
“I can remember Kevin Harvick won that race and he got out of his car after his burnout. He got out and usually, there are a lot of cheers and even a lot of boos, but there was nothing.
“It was dead silent.
“I’ll never forget that. And I think that’s why you never take your fan base for granted.”