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Drivers, officials, fans pumped for Darlington throwback weekend

Darlington Raceway

The idea was to start slow and build on this year’s initial effort.

But based on the reaction from teams, drivers, sponsors and others in the industry, Darlington (S.C.) Raceway officials might want to raise their goals going forward.

This week's Bojangles' Southern 500 NASCAR weekend is the kickoff of a five-year plan to celebrate the history and heritage of the legendary race track.

As part of the celebration, race teams will feature throwback paint schemes on their cars.

RELATED: Darlington's throwback paint schemes

Concessions will include items that haven’t been on the menu in decades -- fried green tomatoes, sausage perlo and pimento cheese sandwiches.

The annual Southern 500 parade, idled since the early '90s, returns.

Even ticket prices (for renewal customers) were given the throwback treatment -- $18 seats in the Colvin Grandstands, which is located on the original frontstretch of the 1.336-mile track.

But it's the paint schemes that have everyone buzzing. More than 30 of the 43 entries lining up are expected to carry the special one-race look.

That's quite a few more than officials originally anticipated.

"Our goal," Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile told NASCAR.com, "was eight to 10.

"This is a five-year platform; this isn't a one-year deal. We felt like if we could get eight or 10 teams on board to really showcase what we're trying to accomplish, we felt like in 2016 we could get more, in 2017 we would get more and so on. But the response that we've gotten from everyone in the industry has been incredible.

"Everybody can rally around this idea, everyone from licensing to NASCAR to the team itself to the Hall of Fame. Everybody has a piece and a role in this weekend and they're all excited."

Darlington was the first paved speedway greater than 1 mile in length to feature NASCAR events, hosting its first race in 1950. The Southern 500 quickly became one of the "crown jewel" races of the circuit, and it was run on Labor Day, or the weekend preceding the official holiday, from '50 through 2003.

This year, the event returns to its long-held spot on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.

Shortly after taking over the reins of the track, Wile said he met with, International Speedway Corp. vice president and chief marketing officer, Daryl Wolfe to begin developing a plan to generate interest in the event, the only Sprint Cup Series race currently hosted by the track.

"We started talking about, 'OK, how do we differentiate Darlington from the rest of the stops on the schedule?'" Wile said.

"Obviously what we have here is the history and heritage of Darlington. We started brainstorming ideas. We got a focus group together that consisted of people in the industry -- teams, NASCAR, ISC -- and really vetted through the concept. Everybody agreed that it was a great idea, that it was something that the sport needed, so we went to work."

The era the track is celebrating this year runs from 1970 through '74, Wile said, but "for the teams we just wanted them to celebrate something in the past. It could be from five years ago or it could be something from 50 years ago.

"We felt like in order to be authentic to what we're trying to accomplish, we had to be able to reference data or artwork from a specific era," he said. "After talking to our focus group, we felt like the 1950s and '60s the sport was just getting its legs and there wasn't as much data to reference. So the start of the modern era of NASCAR started in 1970 so we felt like the first year we will celebrate 70-74."

The pre-race concert will feature Grand Funk Railroad, which earned its first No. 1 single on the Billboard chart in '73. Country music's Tanya Tucker will sing the national anthem. "Two very iconic early '70s artists that are going to be a part of our weekend and really tie it all together," Wile said.

"I really believe what's happening here is something that could begin a new tradition," Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "The race itself and the track is all about tradition and history and we lean on its history and tradition to promote the event. This is possibly a new chapter for it to promote and market that tradition and history. And an opportunity for the drivers, teams and owners, everybody as a group to tip your cap to some of the things that each of you like about the past -- maybe a driver or paint scheme or something like that.

"I think it's really cool. It's something that you would imagine sitting around with your buddies going 'You know what would be awesome?' But you’d never think … 'Well, that'll never happen but it would be really cool if it did.'

"Well it's happening and it's a pretty cool thing that it's being embraced by so many people."

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