Why Is the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR’s Longest Race?
Last year’s Coca-Cola 600 felt like a marathon, courtesy of 18 cautions and 13 overtime laps before Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag. However, the traditional Memorial Day weekend race is always a long day and night because of its status as the longest race on the NASCAR schedule.
Six hundred miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a full day’s work on what has evolved into the best day of worldwide action in motorsports. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is – and the reason is a little bit childish.
The Cola-Cola 600 started as the World 600 in 1960
Construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway was a big step forward for NASCAR. Curtis Turner and Bruton Smith had competing ideas for a major track in the Charlotte area, and they came together with a vision for a 1.5-mile oval and 45,000 permanent seats. The track has been an important part of the schedule since.
The unveiling came in June 1960 with a 60-car field in the World 600. Joe Lee Johnson, whose only other victory came the previous season at Nashville Speedway, was five laps down when leader Jack Smith bowed out with a ruptured fuel cell, and Johnson scored the win.
The race was one of 44 on the 1960 Cup Series schedule, and it was easily the longest. The Daytona 500, Southern 500 at Darlington, and Atlanta 500 were 100 miles shorter, and the season’s second appearance at Charlotte was the only other event checking in at as many as 400 miles.
The Coca-Cola 600 was envisioned as a rival to the Indianapolis 500
Though construction delays pushed the debut race at Charlotte Motor Speedway into mid-June, the World 600 was conceived as a Memorial Day weekend rival for the world-famous Indianapolis 500.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that both were contested on the same day, and the installation of lights in 1992 created another scheduling shift as NASCAR moved the start of its race to late afternoon and out of the same window as its open-wheel rival. By then, the World 600 had morphed into the Coca-Cola 600.
One aspect that has never changed, however, is the race’s status as the longest on the Cup Series schedule. According to Autoweek, it’s not clear whether it was Curtis Turner or Bruton Smith who decided that the race should be 600 miles. However, the intent was clear: NASCAR wanted an event that would be bigger than the Indianapolis 500 in length, if not in stature.
The race now caps a big day for motorsports
The last Sunday of May has become a feast for auto racing fans because Formula 1, IndyCar, and NASCAR all stage races that are rich in tradition.
Formula 1 began competing in Monte Carlo in 1935, and the Monaco Grand Prix joined the permanent schedule in 1955. With occasional exceptions, it’s kicked off Sunday action on Memorial Day weekend since 2001.
The Indianapolis 500 traces its origin to the 1911 International 500, taking its better-known name in 1950. From 1911-70, the race was scheduled for May 30 unless that fell on a Sunday, in which case it was pushed back to Monday.
In 1974, race officials anchored the event to the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to set up 1,100 miles of racing between the two biggest American racing circuits.