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Let there be light: Darlington switches on

Updated:
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Darlington Raceway's half-century of tradition changed in a flash Tuesday night with the debut of its multimillion dollar lighting system.

Just before twilight, officials threw the seven switches that lit up exterior lights at ``The Lady in Black,'' NASCAR's oldest superspeedway that debuted in 1950.

Jeff Gordon, the Nextel Cup points leader and a six-time Darlington winner, headlined an exhibition program that also featured truck series points leader Bobby Hamilton and all-time racing greats David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. Each driver was to cruise 10 laps around Darlington in front several thousand fans _ perhaps larger than the usual crowd during Friday qualifying _ who got in free for the night show.

``I'd never thought we'd race here under the lights,'' Gordon said. ``I think we're going to love it.''

And the additions just may save Darlington's spot on the Nextel Cup schedule.

The track, cut out of some Pee Dee farmland in 1949, has hosted two races a year and held the prestigious Southern 500 each Labor Day weekend since 1960. But traditions began to change a year ago when NASCAR officials moved the Labor Day event to California Speedway and shuffled Darlington's second race to this November.

Then in May came another body blow _ Darlington was sliced to one race for 2005 and that would come on Mother's Day weekend, a traditional off week for the series. The saving grace was that race would take place at night.

That has officials excited about what's to come.

``Darlington's got a couple of strands of diamonds around it. It feels like there's a buzz around this place,'' said Andrew Gurtis, Darlington's former president who was promoted to the headquarters of International Speedway Corp., the track's owner.

The roof was torn off the Brasington Grandstands in turn 2 to make way for the lights. There'll be 47 poles at heights between 90 and 120 feet outside the track, 27 poles above the grandstand and 212 poles, ranging from 10 to 24 feet high, inside the facility. They are expected to generate 180 million lumens of light to give drivers the same view of the tire-chewing, ornery surface as they might have on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

``During the day, you have to deal with shadows,'' said Hamilton, who won the March 2003 truck race at Darlington. ``There are no shadows at night. And racing at night just looks faster.''

Pearson is the track's all-time champ with 10 Darlington victories. He was driving a vintage No. 21 Mercury Cougar. Yarborough, who's tied with Gordon with a record five Southern 500 victories, was in a 1977 Oldsmobile borrowed from a Tennessee collector Bob McNabb.

But Gordon and Hamilton had more on their minds than a feel-good, fan fest.

Hamilton should be in Darlington's first night race with the Craftsman Trucks on Nov. 12. ``For us, this is a 10-lap test man,'' Hamilton said.

Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis, said Gordon was seeking any knowledge he could about night conditions at Darlington. Loomis said Gordon told him riding over to the track this afternoon he might discover how the setting sun affected glare in the cockpit. ``Those are things people don't realize about Jeff Gordon,'' Loomis said. ``He's always looking to get something out of it.''

Gordon expected fans would enjoy the Darlington lights for years to come.

``You can see how avid these fans are,'' he said. ``This race track is so rich in history, they want to keep it around here a long time.''
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