Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2014

A Day-Long Celebration Of Speed

A NOTE TO READERS: This post was delayed by the late finish of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Another Memorial Day weekend arrives; at once a holiday of solemn remembrance and a cultural hinge point on the calendar. Though the solstice is more than three weeks distant, this is the unofficial start of summer. Here on the New Hampshire seacoast that means it’s time for people to flock to the beaches and fill the streets of Portsmouth; or it would be if it weren’t overcast, damp and cool. But if summer’s kickoff isn’t very summery, that doesn’t mean there aren’t distractions. For auto racing fans at least, this weekend also marks their sport’s annual marathon.

Early risers can catch the Monaco Grand Prix. Run through the narrow streets and tight corners of Monte Carlo since 1929, Monaco is immediately recognizable and one of the most prestigious stops on the globe-trotting Formula One circuit. This year German Nico Rosberg claimed the pole in the third and final qualifying run, and led the race from start to finish. It was Rosberg’s second straight win amid the glitz and glamour of the Riviera, and moved the 28-year old back into the F1 points lead, just ahead of Englishman Lewis Hamilton. While the Formula One schedule stretches until late November, with two-thirds of the races still to be run, Rosberg and Hamilton are the only two drivers to have topped a podium so far. They hold a commanding lead in the driver standings and seem destined to battle for the championship all the way to the final race in Abu Dhabi next fall.

While watching the open-wheeled racers may be a fine way to start a gray New England Sunday, the reality is that F1 racing has very limited appeal in this country. That hardly surprising, given that not a single American driver sits behind the wheel of a F1 car and only one race, November’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas is run on American soil. Still more than half a billion fans around the globe tune into F1 races annually, a reminder that we provincial Americans are not the final arbiters of what makes for popular sport.

More familiar to us are some of the drivers and team owners who assemble in Speedway, Indiana each Memorial Day weekend for the self-styled Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. The premier event of the IndyCar Series, the top level of American open-wheeled racing, goes green shortly after noon eastern time. Some six hours later, the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on NASCAR’s schedule begins in daylight and ends late in the evening under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The pairing of the most famous American auto race and the marathon event of our most popular racing series make for a day that can sate the hunger of even the most devoted fan. For one driver, it also makes for a very long day behind the wheel.

The 98th edition of the Indianapolis 500 comes off as two distinct races. After ABC offers up a self-congratulatory retrospective on its half-century of broadcasting the race and after 83-year old Jim Nabors sings “Back Home in Indiana” for one final time, James Hinchcliffe outraces pole sitter and teammate Ed Carpenter to the green flag to take the early lead. At speeds approaching 220 miles per hour the fragile roadsters tear around the heartland oval for nearly three-quarters of the race without a single caution flag. Hinchcliffe and Carpenter each take a turn in front, as do defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves. On lap 59 Marco Andretti, third generation scion of American racing royalty passes Dixon to claim first place. Texas native Ryan Hunter-Reay soon takes his turn in the parade of leaders.

But after nearly 375 miles of green flag racing the final 51 laps of the race are marked by a series of crashes, cautions, and restarts. Dixon’s day ends abruptly with a hard spin into the wall in Turn 4. On the restart Hinchcliffe and Carpenter are two parts of a three-wide race into Turn 1, along with Townsend Bell. But at these speeds three-wide racing is ill-advised. Bell forces Carpenter down into Hinchcliffe, who as the last to join the lineup must take responsibility for the ensuing wreck. The two teammates go spinning into the outside wall, leaving Carpenter with nothing to do but scream angrily at his friend.

With eight laps to go a wreck by Bell brings out a red flag; as the race is stopped to allow time to clear the track of debris. The final sprint is between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay, the former seeking to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears as four-time Indy 500 winners and the latter trying to be the first American to claim the checkered flag since 2006. Four times in six laps the two swap the lead. The most dramatic lead change comes with three laps to go, as Hunter-Reay dives almost onto the infield grass to slip by Castroneves. Twice more the two change spots before the 33-year old American holds on by a car length to claim his first Indy 500.

Among those in pursuit of the two leaders is Kurt Busch, the full-time NASCAR driver who is hoping to race 1,100 miles in a single day. Busch finishes an extremely credible sixth in the 500, and leaves his race car for a golf cart. The cart takes him to a waiting police cruiser, which shuttles Busch to a nearby helicopter. From there it’s a short flight to the airport and a Cessna jet that makes the 425 mile flight to Concord, North Carolina in just 49 minutes. Another helicopter ride later and Busch has time for a short nap before climbing into the #41 Chevrolet for the start of NASCAR’s longest race.

In the end mechanical problems stop Busch short of his goal. A blown engine two-thirds of the way through the Coca-Cola 600 ends his day after 906 miles of high speed left turns. The story of the NASCAR race is the return to dominance of six-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. His #48 Loew’s Chevrolet starts on the pole, and leads for much of race as day slips gradually into night. Kevin Harvick has a turn in front, as do Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, but in the closing laps Johnson’s blue and white car again takes the lead, and by night’s end he claims his fourth 600 and a record seventh victory overall at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It is Johnson’s first win of the season, and while an eleven race drought would scarcely be noticeable for most drivers, it has been a subject of growing concern for fans of NASCAR’s dominant champion.

The hour is late, and each year’s longest day of auto racing draws to a close. As always it has offered up hours of spectacle, the great variety of high speed drama which the sport’s various series provide. The only down note is the unavoidable sight of empty seats in both Indiana and North Carolina. Attendance at the 500 is estimated at more than 200,000, but permanent seating capacity at the Brickyard is closer to 250,000. In Charlotte the entire back stretch grandstand, filled to overflowing as recently as 2006, is now closed and given over entirely to advertising banners. NASCAR’s steadily declining television ratings are down another ten percent so far this season. It’s a trend without an end in sight; and there is little solace in the certain knowledge after Sunday that those who are no longer watching truly don’t know how much excitement they’re missing.

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