NASCAR kicks off its Playoffs Sunday evening in South Carolina, wrapping up an abbreviated race week at the famed Darlington Raceway unlike the Pee Dee has seen in the track’s 70-year history.

While up to 8,000 race fans have been approved to attend the Southern 500, there will be tens of thousands of other seats that will remain unfilled this weekend.

This Southern 500 marks the first year I haven’t seen a NASCAR race at Darlington since 1992. I doubt they’ll notice my absence. On the other hand, this marks the first real race week at Darlington without “Mr. Raceway” around. That would be Harold King, my great uncle, who died in March at the age of 96.

Uncle Harold had a career at Dixie Cup, helped launch the funeral service that put him in the ground, and served on both the Darlington City and County Councils.

His relationship with Darlington Raceway began before the asphalt had been poured. He had already served in World War II, come home to Darlington and married my great aunt Libba when Harold Brasington started carving NASCAR’s first superspeedway out of a peanut field on the outskirts of town.

Photo of Darlington Speedway in 2017 courtesy of Joe VanHoose

Harold sold tickets at the first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1950, was in the track office for his last Southern 500 in 2019, and did not miss working a race in between.

When I first traveled with my mom to Darlington in 1993, longtime NASCAR PR man Jim Hunter had just come back home to serve as the president of the track.

Uncle Harold was Mr. Hunter’s right-hand man and best friend. They played golf every week, vacationed together, and lived two houses apart. Hunter, ever the writer, would pen clever limericks about Harold’s golf game. Harold kept every funny card and was always ready to delight with a slow Southern delivery of a fast turn of phrase.

He had to be that fast to keep up with Aunt Libba. My great aunt talked as fast as she drove, and both were enough to scare the hell out of me. She told funny stories, too, and she and Harold would playfully poke at each other during morning breakfasts of the small, flat and flaky biscuits with just the right amount of Crisco topped with butter and fig preserves.

Harold would tell us how the FOX producer asked if he could write his prayer out and keep it under 25 seconds. Harold couldn’t offer such guarantees. Once you are touched by the spirit, he said, you just don’t know what will happen.

The third weekend in March brought me to Darlington for NASCAR races every year from 1993 to 2004. My mom and I stayed at the King Home, a 3/2 ranch with a formal living and dining room and a wood-beam ceiling in the family room surrounded by a perfectly manicured lawn and garden.

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In the mornings after breakfast, I’d walk across a lawn kept so tight you could play golf on it and duck into the backyard shed. Inside, Harold kept rows and rows of racing hats, diecast collectibles and a Unocal 76 checkered flag signed by all the drivers in the 1988 Southern 500.

Rusty Wallace. Richard Petty. Davey Allison. Dale Earnhardt.

They were all there. The roar of the engines a few miles away from the backyard sounded the alarm when it was time to head to the track.

Harold always had a surprise for me waiting there. It may be a TranSouth Financial hat or Carolina Dodge Dealers shirt, or a poster from the last race. A time or two, he waved to the security guard as we’d take a few laps around the track in my mom’s Ford Explorer.

Photo of Jim Hunter as a bobblehead courtesy of Joe VanHoose

Mr. Hunter always took time to a young, enthusiastic fan who already had ideas about running a racetrack. In 1994, my mom and I showed up just as Bill France Jr., Mr. Hunter and Uncle Harold were wrapping up lunch. Mr. France signed my Rusty Wallace hat.

A deacon in the Presbyterian church, Harold gave the invocation before every NASCAR race at Darlington for many years. Network TV was not ready for him.

Harold would tell us how the FOX producer asked if he could write his prayer out and keep it under 25 seconds. Harold couldn’t offer such guarantees. Once you are touched by the spirit, he said, you just don’t know what will happen.

Such was the case with many of his anecdotes. The way he could set up a joke, the pacing in his delivery of a story, and the cleverness in his eyes shining right through his bifocals made every meeting special. Uncle Harold was a Dixieland Garrison Keillor, which is all I could ever hope to be.

In 27 years of trips to Darlington, we all got older. Just a year after sitting with me and telling story after story of things that happened to her in the 1940s – after years of telling us all she would lose her mind – Aunt Libba passed away in 2019.

Joe VanHoose and his great uncle, Harold King, aka “Mr. Raceway”

For the last two years, my visits with Uncle Harold have been in the Presbyterian assisted living facility between Florence and Darlington. When I met with him the morning of the Southern 500 this past September, with dark clouds forming in the distance, I saw a bobblehead of Jim Hunter that Uncle Harold had perched over a ceramic recreation of Darlington Raceway. We joked that Hunter, who had passed from cancer 10 years go, needed to put in a word with the Good Lord to keep the rain away.

Harold was a bit weaker than I had seen him before, but he still had his stories to share, not to mention the peace he had made with Libba being gone, with having to move out of their home, with knowing that his time was drawing near.

We had just started social distancing when my mom called to tell me Harold was gone. We couldn’t travel to the funeral, which was proceeded by one more lap for Mr. Raceway around the track that put his hometown on the map. But Uncle Harold would suggest there is nothing to be sad about.

Here is a man from a small Southern town who married a special woman, had a great family and got to be around his passion for 70 years of his life. A man who was welcome in Dale Earnhardt’s motorhome. The historian who the New York Times turned to when it wanted to capture the story of Darlington’s survival and renaissance.

Like Darlington, there will never be another Harold King. I’m thankful he was my Uncle Harold.

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Joe VanHoose is a writer and promoter based in Athens, Georgia. He is a Florida man who recognizes that Florida is too hot to inhabit, but rumor has it that he was a Gator Football booster for nearly 20 years. Joe has more enthusiasm than talent for playing music, but he can put you on a good band or barbecue restaurant just the same. On the weekends, you can find him in a haze of red clay at one of the dirt tracks of Northeast Georgia. He is not ashamed of the gospel of short track racing.