Brad Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night, with the checkered flag falling at an hour when even the most rabid NASCAR fans struggled to maintain consciousness.
Already the longest race on NASCAR’s 2020 schedule, the 600’s traditional “daylight to darkness” format was stretched even further by an hour-long rain delay and an overtime finish. The only thing preventing it from being called a marathon was the fact that it ran longer than two marathons, with plenty of minutes still to spare.
And that, my friends, is becoming a problem.
In 1960, when Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith first conjured up the idea of a 600-mile stock car race, the premise that “more is better” still applied. An unofficial graduate of the P.T, Barnum School of Promotion, Smith was always on the lookout for something new, something different, something that had never before been attempted, or even imagined. And in an era where 500-mile races were considered “outer limits,” a 600-miler was simply beyond the realm of human comprehension.
Smith’s “World 600” was designed to be the ultimate test of man and machine, and in the beginning, it was.
In its inaugural running in 1960, the event featured eight official caution flags for a total of 45 laps, with at least a dozen other incidents -- crashes and mechanical failures that failed to produce yellow flags -- included in real-time reports of the race. Cars withdrew on laps 5, 6, 27, 85, 138,176, 233, 246, 333, 341, 352 and 365 of the event, with issues ranging from “terminal crashes” to engine and transmission failures, fuel leaks and even a collapsed frame. A total of 55 cars took the green flag that day, with only 36 of them surviving to see the checkered flag in a race that took 5:34:06 to complete on a day when the ambient temperature reached 89 degrees.
If that sounds torturous to you, consider that this year’s race – with an hourlong weather delay and an overtime finish thrown in for good measure – took almost exactly as long to compete. At a whopping , Sunday’s marathon was the longest event in the 60-plus year history of NASCAR.
|Keselowski won the Coke 600|
What once was designed to be the ultimate test of both man and machine has arguably become neither.
Race cars do not fail anymore. Engines no longer spew their guts on the back straightaway, erupting in billowing plumes of white smoke while chunks of piston and connecting rod cartwheel wildly in all directions. Wheels don’t collapse, tires don’t blow (at least with the regularity that they did in 1960), and it has been decades since the “Reason Out” column of the Monday morning race report contained words like “Fuel Leak” or “Frame Failure.”
In the early days of NASCAR, the question “Will my driver win” could only be answered after first determining “Will my driver finish?” Today, however, there is only one question needing to be answered. Finishing the race is virtually guaranteed, and it’s been decades since fans had reason to worry that their driver’s big lead would be erased within sight of Victory Lane by the failure of a 25-cent junkyard part.
Asked if Sunday’s race had taxed the endurance of the machines involved, defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch responded quickly in the negative.
“Is it (tough) on the cars? No,” he said. “The cars are way too sophisticated now. We could probably go 800, maybe even 1,000 miles on a race car before you’d start to see problems.”
He’s right of course, meaning that an extra-distance event like the Coke 600 is perilously close to becoming a game of “wait and see,” with a final verdict that takes far too long to determine. In today’s modern, microwave society where instant gratification is king, “wait and see” is no longer something the average Joe is willing to do.
In the 1960 World 600, second-place finisher Johnny Beauchamp rolled home four laps behind winner Joe Lee Johnson. Sunday, being four laps behind earned you 25th and 26th place at the drop of the checkered flag, as Ty Dillon and Matt Kenseth will unhappily attest.
In 1960, 35% of the field failed to make it to the checkered flag. Sunday, 37 of the 40 starters were still running at the finish, 19 of them on the lead lap. Only JJ Yeley, Bubba Wallace (hub) and Clint Bowyer (crash) fell out of the race before it was over.
Casual fans who sample our sport only once or twice a year – the way many of us experience the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 – have little interest in subjecting themselves to a 4½-hour motorsports marathon, no matter how good the racing may be. NASCAR is currently embroiled in a daily competition for the hearts, minds and attention of the North American sporting public. In recent weeks, we have recently major steps toward winning that competition, thanks to a healthy dose of “outside the box’ thinking.
Let’s not stop now.
Not long ago, the very idea of trimming the Coca-Cola 600 to a shorter, more user-friendly length amounted to nothing less than treason.
“Tradition” was reason enough to leave everything the way it was. If 600 miles was good enough for Grandpappy in 1963, it was good enough for us. Not because it was the right thing to do, necessarily, but because it had always been done that way.
Now, however, the world has changed. Three months in COVID-19 quarantine have allowed many of us to begin examining things from a whole new perspective. We no longer take things for granted, simply because they have always been there.
Wednesday night Cup racing? Why not?
Doubleheader weekends? 500 kilometers instead of 500 miles? Sure! Let’s try it! What do we have to lose?
It is time to ask ourselves whether the Coca-Cola 600 puts NASCAR’s best foot forward the way it once did. Smith’s revolutionary "more is better" concept no longer resonates with a significant percentage of the racing public. With 300 television channels, instantaneous access to the worldwide web and dozens of readily available flavors of social media on-call to entertain us on demand, “too much of a good thing” May finally have become... too much.
We have “been there” and “done that,” and with a major revamping of the 2021 schedule already promised by NASCAR, perhaps it is time to re-examine our sport’s longest race, to see if we can come up with something new, something different, something fun; in a way that will honor the legacy of Smith, the Great Innovator himself.