Former Gamecock Kerry Tharp back in SC country, revved up for Darlington's Southern 500 weekend

Former Gamecock Kerry Tharp back in SC country, revved up for Darlington's Southern 500 weekend

By David Caraviello/Special to Spurs & Feathers

DARLINGTON — Kerry Tharp’s office is dominated by racing mementos, no surprise for a track president who’s worked in NASCAR for over a decade. 

A print of Darlington Raceway hangs on one wall, a framed checkered flag and the facility's first sanctioning agreement adorn another. On a shelf is a racing helmet signed by dozens of premier-series drivers.

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But there are also vestiges of his previous career — like a plaque of thanks from University of South Carolina head coaches, a collection of scenes from SC’s campus, and a Gamecocks sticker on one door. Tharp left South Carolina 12 years ago, moving into NASCAR communications after two decades in the school’s sports information department. But it’s clear that USC never left him.

“It’s still a very good relationship,” he said of his ties to South Carolina. “I think the world of the Gamecocks.”

On Labor Day weekend, Tharp will be consumed with the Sept. 3 Bojangles Southern 500, and his second NASCAR race weekend since being named president of Darlington Raceway in June of last year. But on Sept. 2 he will have one eye on Charlotte, where South Carolina opens its football season against NC State at Bank of America Stadium. 

“Everything I’ve read and heard says the team is stronger, faster, more athletic than they were a year ago,” Tharp said of head coach Will Muschamp’s squad. “But it’s still very difficult. … I see us being an improved football team, though, and I think that improvement is going to continue.”

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Tharp worked for 20 years as South Carolina’s associate athletic director for media relations, and maintains ties to the university. When Muschamp was in Florence for a speaking engagement, Tharp invited the coach to the raceway, where he was driven around the tight, 1.33-mile layout at high speed. He and Muschamp speak occasionally, as do Tharp and Steve Spurrier, who had recently become SC’s football coach when Tharp left for NASCAR.

“He said, ‘Coach, anytime you need a couple of tickets to the Daytona 500 or whatever, let me know.’ So me and a few of the coaches, we went to that for four or five years,” Spurrier recalled. “We went to the Charlotte 600. I tried to get him tickets to games anytime he needed them. He became a good friend, and he’s a wonderful man.”

Tharp initially worked in NASCAR’s licensing department, but within months was shifted to competition, where he liaised with drivers just as he had with athletes during his time at Carolina. His genial style, excellent working relationship with media, and Palmetto State ties made him a natural fit to take over Darlington after former track president Chip Wile left for the same role at Daytona.

“Kerry possesses the perfect attitude and approach to be a NASCAR track president, because he understands the promotion of the sport, he’s easily approachable, and he’s always working for the betterment of the sport,” said Ramsey Poston, Tharp's former boss at NASCAR communications, and now president of the public relations firm Tuckahoe Strategies.

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Joie Chitwood, executive vice president and chief operating officer at International Speedway Corp., hired Tharp for the Darlington role. Chitwood said he initially met the future track president on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2005, before Spurrier’s first game against Florida as South Carolina head coach, where Tharp helped arrange a pregame photo with Spurrier for Chitwood’s son.

“You think of Darlington, and what that racetrack means for our sport and really the state of South Carolina,” Chitwood said, “… for me, finding a person like Kerry was about finding someone who appreciated that tradition and had the right kinds of relationships in South Carolina.”

Tharp still maintains many relationships at USC. He’s close with Athletics Director Ray Tanner, with whom he shares the occasional lunch or phone call, and he counts his three straight trips to the College World Series with Tanner’s baseball teams among his highlights in Columbia. Tharp is also close to many former players, including Todd Ellis, Sterling Sharpe, Ryan Brewer and Harold Green, whom he now counts as friends.

“The thing that sticks out in my mind are the people, the relationships that you made,” Tharp said.

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There are plenty of moments, too. The night press conference at Williams-Brice Stadium when SC joined the SEC. Winning at Kentucky to secure the 1997 SEC title in men’s basketball. Flying on a private plane with former SC basketball player Mike Boykin, now head coach at Oklahoma State, to a game at Temple after Boykin had participated in his graduation ceremony in Columbia.

And two coaches, in particular. “Not many people can say they worked with Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier,” said Tharp, a Louisville native who graduated from Western Kentucky. “When it’s all said and done, those will be two of the best all-time.”

After he moved to NASCAR, Tharp kept himself firmly planted in the Palmetto State, choosing to live in Fort Mill rather than Charlotte. “Got as close as I could to the state line without going over,” he said. And he continues the connection between the university and Darlington forged by former track president Jim Hunter, a Gamecocks football player from 1959-60.

“He just had a way about him that I admired and tried to emulate a little bit — his style, how he dealt with drivers, owners, crew chiefs, and in particular, the media,” Tharp said of Hunter, who passed away in 2010. “I learned a lot from him, and certainly miss him a great deal. But to be able to be here in Darlington … where he was so revered, makes it special.”

Which is why it all seems to fit, having Tharp in Hunter’s old office, 77 miles from the University of South Carolina campus. Even the Southern 500 race weekend will have a slight garnet tint, with head coach Dawn Staley and members of the women’s basketball team honored for winning the national championship. He’s been gone from SC for a dozen years now, but in many ways, Tharp never really left.

“The University of South Carolina became his school,” Spurrier said. “He is certainly a huge Gamecocks fan.”