COLUMBIA, S.C. — Darlington Raceway's $7 million construction plan is on the clock.
The track, known as the "Lady in Black," is in a race of its own to complete its first major capital improvements in more than a decade before the Monster Energy Cup Series arrives for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Raceway president Kerry Tharp likes the progress he sees so far and is confident things will be done before the NASCAR's big rigs enter the property.
The question is how long before the race will the work be completed.
"Lot of work to do in a short period of time," Tharp said this week. "They're going to have the race Labor Day weekend, so we're going to have to get that thing done."
Tharp, long called "The Commander," as the face and voice of NASCAR's media center before moving to Darlington, now watches a battalion of workers and armada of construction vehicles swarm the arena to complete its biggest expenditure since spending $10 million to repave its surface and construct a new infield access tunnel in 2008.
There has been cutting of concrete first laid about 70 years ago and aluminum girders being moved into place as part of re-doing the pitch of the Tyler Tower — which Tharp described as a "re-rub" — designed to give spectators a better sightline of action in the pits and throughout the track.
There's no doubt in Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace's mind that International Speedway Corp., Darlington's owners, gave the go-ahead to upgrade the historic track because of the raceway's successfully run "Throwback Weekend."
Wallace said envision Old Timer's Day at the ballpark, add in crazy costumes from the 1970s and 1980s and snazzy paint schemes of fans favorite cars and it adds up to an event NASCAR fans love, Wallace said.
This year's theme celebrates NASCAR's seven decades of competition .
In September, Brad Keselowski's No. 2 will sport a black-and-gold Miller Genuine Draft paint scheme that Wallace ran at Darlington in 1990.
"When you've got a huge success (in Throwback weekend), you understand what you did right and what you did wrong," Wallace said. "This was all right."
And, according to Tharp, should be even better for the 58,000 fans who fill the track for the Southern 500 on Sept. 2.
The aging Colvin Grandstand along the backstretch is getting the most attention with its hard-to-sit-on metal benches being swapped out for more comfortable seating, Tharp said.
Concession areas and bathrooms are getting upgraded with things like flat-screen monitors to keep those waiting for food and drinks updated on the action, Tharp said.
The Tyler Tower and Wallace Grandstands in front of the start-finish line will be redone. Three more luxury boxes will be added to Tyler Tower and its metal seats are being replaced by stadium-style chairs with cup holders. Darlington also will add three more 12-seat luxury areas to its Jeff Gordon Finish Line Terrace. It opened three such sections in time for last year's Southern 500.
The metal seats in the grandstands are also coming out, replaced by improved benches with seatbacks.
Tharp said Darlington took its time in rolling out its construction plans, knowing an aging track means older, weather-beaten materials must be carefully handled before getting replaced.
The work has continued at a good pace. The pessimist part of Tharp knows an early Southern hurricane season or unusually wet weather pattern could impact progress. Each day he comes to work, Tharp knows it is one day closer to the Southern 500.
A major goal of the project is to keep Darlington on NASCAR's schedule for years to come, and missing this deadline is not an option.
"We've only got one shot," Tharp said. "We've got to do it right."