‘It’s been a great run.’ Kerry Tharp steps down as Darlington Raceway president

After almost two decades in NASCAR, Kerry Tharp is calling it quits.

The 66-year-old announced he is retiring from his position as president of Darlington Raceway. He informed staff of his move Wednesday, and the track officially announced it Thursday.

“It’s been a great run, and it is time for us to experience another chapter in our lives,” Tharp told The State. “I thought the time was now to announce that. Being able to work in this sport and work at Darlington is an honor of a lifetime. I have been able to be around some great people and experience so many great moments. But I think it is time for me and my family to experience another chapter.”

Tharp will stay on as the track’s president until the end of December and help his replacement with the transition. The Cookout Southern 500 on Labor Day will be his final race at the track.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” Tharp said of the Southern 500. “It is a crown jewel event and the opening race of the playoffs, a lot of excitement and we want to sell it out for the second year in a row.

“We are coming off a terrific weekend in May at Darlington coupled with the Southern 500 coming up in 82 days. So if I am going to step back and retire, you might as well go out on top, and I think that is what I am doing.”

The Kentucky native said he plans to stay in South Carolina, where he has lived for the past 30 years. Tharp’s children and grandchildren are nearby, in the Charlotte area.

Tharp became the 10th Darlington Raceway president in July 2016. He took over for Chip Wile, who left to become the president of Daytona International Speedway and is now NASCAR’s chief track properties officer.

Tharp worked in NASCAR licensing and then in the communications department for a total of 11 years before being promoted to Darlington’s president.

Before NASCAR, he spent 26 years in college athletics, including 20 at South Carolina, where he was associate athletic director for media relations. He has an endless amount of stories to tell from his time at USC and is not afraid to do his imitation of former USC coach Lou Holtz upon request.

Tharp admitted he didn’t watch or know much about NASCAR when he decided to leave USC for a new venture, but he quickly fell in love with the sport and its people.

“The people in the sport are the best of the best,” Tharp said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working in college athletics and thoroughly enjoyed working in NASCAR. I don’t see how it can get much better professionally.”

At Darlington, Tharp was part of several memorable moments including the sport’s throwback weekend, which started a year before his arrival and gives fans and drivers a time to honor NASCAR’s history.

This year’s throwback weekend, held in May, welcomed 33 veteran drivers to help honor NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, which Tharp called a “pillar event” for the sport.

Tharp also was involved in NASCAR’s return to the track during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR was the first league to resume live events after the onset of the pandemic.

Darlington hosted two Cup races in four days during May 2020, which helped the venue secure a second race date in subsequent years. The track hosted two Cup races each season from 1960-2004. It held just one Cup race from 2005-19.

Darlington hosts one race in May and has been the first Cup race of the playoffs on Labor Day weekend.

“Bringing live sports back to our country will be something that I will never forget,” Tharp said. “The continuation of the throwback weekend is something you can feel good about and getting our second race back was huge. I think we have been a strong community partner and provided a strong service for people in this region.”