COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — NASCAR's "Lady in Black" is getting a multimillion dollar upgrade.
Darlington Raceway is spending nearly $7 million to upgrade and improve seating in three of its main grandstands, a project that will impact nearly 60 percent of the 58,000 seats at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.
"This solidifies our place as one of the sport's crown jewels," Darlington President Kerry Tharp told The Associated Press.
Tharp said the project, dubbed "A Better Darlington," will begin Thursday and will be completed well before the Southern 500 is run Sept. 2.
The construction is the track's biggest capital expenditure since spending $10 million to repave its surface and construct a new infield access tunnel in 2008.
The upgrades are fan-driven to improve the race-day experience at a track first carved out from South Carolina farmland in 1949. The aging Colvin Grandstand along the backstretch will receive the most attention with its hard-to-sit-on metal benches being swapped out for more comfortable seating, Tharp said.
Concession areas and bathrooms will also be upgraded, Tharp said.
The Tyler Tower and Wallace Grandstands in front of the start-finish line will be redone. Tyler will get three more luxury boxes and engineers also will re-do the pitch — called a "re-rub," according to Tharp — to give spectators a better sightline of action on the track and in the pits.
The metal seats in Tyler Tower will be 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 Wallace are coming out, replaced by improved benches with seatbacks.
Also in the works is a one-of-a-kind Wall of Honor to celebrate the track's winning drivers with banner signage at the bottom of the Wallace and Colvin grandstands on each side of the oval.
"We think this is unique for any track," Tharp said.
Darlington officials had talked with track owner International Speedway Corp. for a while about improvements. The talk picked up late last year and was finalized earlier this month, Tharp said.
Tharp said it was time for Darlington to spend more money for its fans.
"We're not the fanciest (track) out there, but we think we're the coolest," he said.
Tharp said widening seats will mean a handful of ticket holders might have to be move. Darlington staff will make sure to contact any and all ticket holders once renewals go out Thursday who are concerned about changes. They also plan to hold an open house prior to race weekend for fans curious to get a look at the changes before the Southern 500.
It wasn't too long ago Darlington fought for its survival. The Southern 500 was taken off Labor Day weekend in 2003 and shuffled around the NASCAR schedule for most of the next decade.
The track regained its summer holiday weekend in 2015. It has hosted NASCAR's throwback weekend the previous three years, when race teams, drivers, officials and fans often dress up in period clothing and styles of the era being honored.
This September, Darlington's throwback theme celebrates seven decades of NASCAR in honor of the circuit's 70th anniversary.