If you judge by the TV ratings, Louisville has long been a NASCAR hotbed.
Yet when Kerry Tharp was growing up in The Ville in the early 1970s, he was pretty much oblivious to stock-car racing.
“I never followed NASCAR at all,” Tharp said Wednesday.
In the two decades (1985-2005) Tharp spent as a sports publicist at the University of South Carolina, he never ventured to the Palmetto State’s Darlington Raceway to see the biggest stars in NASCAR run at one of the Cup circuit’s iconic venues.
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Had he wanted to, his duties in media relations for Gamecocks football precluded his attending races at Darlington — even when that track had two Cup Series dates.
Through the first 48 years of his life, if someone had told Tharp he would one day become president of Darlington, “I’d have probably said, ‘Have you been to the doctor lately?’” he said.
Yet, late last month, the International Speedway Corporation announced that Tharp, a graduate of Louisville’s Waggener High School (1975) and Western Kentucky University (1979), would become Darlington president on July 18.
“They approached me, (asked) if I wanted to come be the president of Darlington?” Tharp says. “I said ‘president of Darlington? Are you sure?’”
After a long career in college sports media relations, Tharp, now 59, made the jump to NASCAR p.r. in 2005. His current title is senior director of racing communications.
“I’ve been in NASCAR now 11-plus years,” Tharp said. “I’ve been fortunate, I think, to establish some good relationships with people across the entire industry.”
Tharp says one of those people, ISC Chief Operating Officer Joie Chitwood III, reached out to him about taking the top position at Darlington.
“I talked to them, and the more I talked to them, the more it made sense to me,” Tharp said. “I’ve been in South Carolina for 31 years. I love the state, I love its people. I know how special Darlington is to the state. And I know how special Darlington is to NASCAR.
“It became very exciting to me to be able to kind of interface my experiences in South Carolina and my experiences in NASCAR. … It was a chance to do something a little bit different and a little bit outside my comfort zone — and that can be exciting.”
Tharp’s ties to his native Kentucky are deep. His parents, Derita and Jim Tharp, still live in Louisville.
Jim once had a unique distinction in the commonwealth’s heated college basketball milieu. In spite of having grown up a devout Kentucky Wildcats fan, Jim worked for some 38 years as a member of the official statistics crew for Louisville Cardinals games.
“Dad is a huge Cats fan,” Kerry Tharp says. “But, obviously, he rooted for Louisville, too.”
In going to Darlington, Tharp, a married father of two and grandfather of two, thinks he is taking over at a good time.
Known both as The Track Too Tough to Tame and The Lady in Black, Darlington opened in 1950 in what was then South Carolina’s textile belt. Its Southern 500 is one of NASCAR’s most venerable races.
However, in the early part of the 21st century, it seemed the track was in jeopardy of being tamed. Darlington lost its spring race date in 2005. The same year, the Southern 500 was moved off of Labor Day, its longtime place on the Sprint Cup calendar.
In 2015, NASCAR returned the Bojangles’ Southern 500 to Labor Day. In conjunction, Darlington launched an innovative “Throwback Weekend” marketing promotion which featured retro-paint schemes on the race cars and other nostalgic touches.
“It kind of gave Darlington a rebirth,” Tharp said. “So I just thought the timing was right (to take the president’s job).”
This year’s Southern 500 will run Sept. 4.
Even at a historic track like Darlington, the challenge NASCAR faces is how to attract a younger demographic.
“We’ve got to grow it where we can involve younger people,” Tharp said. “Somebody might say, ‘How are you going to do that?’ Well, we’re going to figure it out.”
In the meantime, Tharp’s final race weekend as a NASCAR p.r. man will be spent in the state where he grew up.
This weekend at Kentucky Speedway
Thursday: Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Friday: Xfinity Series Alsco 300 (8:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
Saturday: Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network)