Darlington Raceway is turning NASCAR into a time capsule. Having their traditional, annual, and longest-running race back where it belongs created the phenomenon of remembering the past, and every team is taking it to heart.
The sanctioning body is donning every car with the original NASCAR logo, and sponsors are allowing the classic logos to run for the weekend. Goodyear is running tires with lettering from the 1960’s and 1970’s on the sidewalls. But among the greatest things that teams have taken on is the concept of running throwback or retro paint schemes. Whether it is to honor a sponsor’s heritage, a personal connection, or a moment in time for the sport, seeing classic paint schemes back on the track is something that brings memories to the forefront of every race fan’s mind.
The Southern 500 will see many being run, but whether it’s this weekend or races from this past season or previous years, the classic looks never seem to go out of style.
Let’s look at some that were done right, never to be replicated:
In January, before the season began, the decision that Gordon made to step away from the driver’s seat at the conclusion of 2015 brought everyone to the realization that the final connection NASCAR had to one of the best decades of it’s existence was coming to an end.
Already not having DuPont on the car was a signal that times were changing, as Axalta had already made the move in 2013 after acquiring the company. However, fans then began asking, wondering, if in honor of the final season of seeing “Wonder Boy” behind the wheel, would the paint scheme that he was remembered for the most come back?
The answer, at least initially, was no. It was not in the plans from Hendrick Motorsports and Axalta.
But, the fans began petitioning, asking, and then begging for just one time…ONE FINAL TIME. They wanted that classic paint scheme that ran from 1992 through 2000. Finally, after coming to an agreement, the fans got their wish. Last weekend at Bristol, the rainbow came back for one final race, along with the memories of three championships, record-setting seasons, and the nickname of the Rainbow Warriors for the No. 24 team.
A classic scheme that was made fun of by many, but it was talked about each time the car hit the track. Seeing it back on the track for the final time, it was the perfect way to honor someone that has given so much to the sport, and sent it places no one ever expected.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. honors Daddy
When NASCAR lost “The Intimidator” in 2001, it was unclear if the sport would ever recover from such a void that Dale Earnhardt left. There would be no more black Chevrolet with GM Goodwrench on the sides of the fenders.
No more mustache grin, or the dark Gargoyle sunglasses, and no more classic interviews with “The Man in Black.”
Five years passed since the sport lost it’s icon, but also forgotten was the fact that a son lost his father. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still racing on the track, bearing the name of his dad’s company, and the sponsor he signed on with when he first became part of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
When the time came that Alabama inducted Earnhardt into it’s own Hall of Fame, the entire DEI company honored the move, running a special paint scheme on all it’s cars in the then-Busch Series and then-Nextel Cup Series. It also meant that for the first, and likely only time, that the son of possibly the greatest racer in the 1980’s through his untimely death would run his paint scheme.
Junior came onto the track, his usual red Budweiser Chevrolet was gone. Instead, his white number was outlined in red. A silver stripe ran across the bottom, and the car…jet black.
For one time only, “Little E” was running his father’s paint.
To this day, that paint scheme remains one of the most memorable to see back on track, as it connected the new fans and the old fans with not just a scheme, but a name.
In 1972, NASCAR saw many dramatic changes. R.J. Reynold’s Tobacco Company became the first sanctioning sponsor for the NASCAR Grand National Series, what has since become Sprint Cup.
At the same time, the biggest change came with it’s biggest driver. Richard Petty, already an icon in the sport, saw his “Petty Blue” Plymouth get a major swap thanks to it’s new primary sponsor, STP. Now, for 44 years running, that combination has stood the test of time. Whether it was Petty driving, or one of the many drivers that took over the famed No. 43 since 1992, the sponsor stayed with the Petty name.
Even when STP took a step back to become an associate sponsor for some seasons, every once in a while, the team would honor the past and run a classic look on the infamous car.
Bobby Hamilton ran four classic looks during the 1996 season on the car, from the all-Petty blue design (1964-1971), plus the 1973 design with the STP bold colors; the 1984 look when Petty won his 200th race, and the 1979 design that Petty ran when he won his seventh championship.
Current driver Aric Almirola has run similar throwback schemes in recent years as part of Richard Petty Motorsports, with the scheme having a slight twist in the addition of the “RPM arch” in front of the number.
At Darlington, that will not be there. Instead, it is the 1972 design. “Petty Blue” roof and hood, STP orange sides, and the 358 cu. in. decals on the hood.
No matter the scheme, or the driver, STP and Petty are a combination that will always be part of NASCAR.
When the 2005 season began, Mark Martin made it clear that his time on the track, at least on a full-time basis, was winding down. His entire career with Jack Roush, he felt that with his age and other obligations, the time had come to step away.
It wasn’t a retirement season, but rather a salute to the fans and all his supporters.
No race showcased that more than the All-Star Challenge. At the beginning of the year, Roush and Martin already showed that during certain races, his No. 6 Ford would run paint schemes honoring his past years in the sport. Of all the looks he would run, no scheme would be more iconic than when he was sponsored by Valvoline.
At that race, the team revealed a car that looked like it came straight from the 1995 season, down to the paint color and stripe design.
On that night, Martin would salute the fans in the ultimate fashion, by taking the win and the $1 million bonus. The victory also meant he was eligible to run the same race the following year, should he decide to do so. Even the announcers were wondering if Martin would hold onto the helmet for that race, since it was all about winning money instead of earning points.
Martin would answer all those questions when he talked to his owner on the radio, stating loud and clear, “If you have a ride, I will be here.”
Ironically, he would be there next year…as well as for the other 36 races. Martin stayed longer than expected, not officially hanging up his helmet till the end of 2013, even on a part-time basis. Guess Martin wanted to give a “Salute to You” for more than just one season.
When the racing world lost Jason Leffler in 2013 due to a sprint car accident, it hit everyone extremely hard in many ways. The young man that was nicknamed “Lefturn” was always jubilant, and always excited for his chance to perform.
Leffler got his big break in NASCAR in 2006 when he was a rookie at the wheel of the third Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet, the No. 11 FedEx machine.
That ride was taken over by Denny Hamlin in 2007, and he’s never looked back. But Leffler was a good friend to Gibbs and to Hamlin, so the weekend at Michigan when he unfortunately passed, Hamlin and his team were already on track, making their runs at practice and qualifying. However, on Saturday night, Hamlin himself made the decision to honor Leffler in a unique fashion.
Gibbs, Hamlin and company got hold of the graphics department, who help create the wraps for the cars the team puts on the track each week. In a matter of hours, the team had a new wrap ready and shipped to the track for the team. They went to work that night redoing the car, and by Sunday morning, the black and orange FedEx Toyota had a new look.
The car was a throwback to the paint scheme Leffler ran when he debuted with the team, showcasing white and purple along with the FedEx Express orange. Hamlin wanted to run the paint scheme, and even had Leffler’s name above the door.
Hamlin wanted to do it, and it did not take long for the team to be on board to make it a reality. Quite impressive in honor of another driver that was taken before he was ready.
Everyone that has even heard of NASCAR recognizes what car the Intimidator ran. At the same time, he was not against going with a paint scheme that for one weekend would not be black, nor exclusively promote GM Goodwrench.
In 1999, he not only promote a different brand, and not only one he was familiar with, but also brought back the paint that he ran before he became “The man in black.”
At the Winston that season, Earnhardt saw his car go back to the look he ran before Goodwrench came on board. It was the look he ran with Bud Moore when he had the No. 15 on the sides, and then when he signed on with Richard Childress Racing and the No. 3. The blue and yellow hues meant one sponsor, and one look…Wrangler Jeans.
The smile could not come off Earnhardt’s face when he saw the car, nor any of the fans who saw the look. They knew what it represented, and that seeing the colors back on track would be a sight that no one wanted to miss.
Wrangler continues to be an associate sponsor of Earnhardt Jr. and he ran a Wrangler car back in 2009 to a Nationwide victory at Daytona, the final time he would run the No. 3 in honor of his father.
Those colors with the No. 3 and an Earnhardt at the wheel…it was just right.
Come next Sunday, NASCAR is throwing it back with all the retro concepts at Darlington, from the lettering on the tires to the NBC logo. Teams have many retro looks coming to the track in their honor.
There is no question that many classic paint schemes will stand out at Darlington, and when they are done right, they will forever be remembered.