Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, May 28, 2018, 9:58 a.m.
If one is a fan of automobile racing, it was hard to go through the Sunday of Memorial Weekend without a vague sense of what might have been. Three of the world’s great spectacles take place on this day every year unless the elements intervene.
The Grand Prix of Monaco. The fastest vehicles that can still turn left and right snake through the streets of Monte Carlo, which is pretty much the same thing as the Principality of Monaco, on a course that is aburdly unsuited for their maneuverability.
The Indianapolis 500. I once attended it five years in a row, 1988-92, but then duty called me to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the next 20 years. I took the road not taken, a la Robert Frost: Then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, though as for that, the passing there, had left them really about the same.
The Coca-Cola 600. NASCAR’s longest race. For those two decades, I went there and most everywhere else. I became noted for it.
Now I’m home, armed only with electronics and an itchy cell-phone finger.
Daniel Ricciardo won in Europe. Will Power won at Indy. Kyle Busch won at Charlotte. The first two are Australians. None of the three had ever won the race in question before. The crucial reason an Aussie didn’t win the Coca-Cola 600 is that there was none. As natives of Las Vegas, Nevada, go, I suppose Busch is reasonably Australian. As David Letterman might have said, I have no idea what that means.
What I do know is that if Busch were an invading general leading an army that was attacking Charlotte Motor Speedway, he would have ordered the troops to take no prisoners. He led almost every lap. The top three finishers all drove Toyotas. If another car on the track could have gone 600 miles without having to replenish fuel and tires, it might have defeated Busch’s Camry, but it would have been close.
By the way, Busch, among his 47 career victories at NASCAR’s premier level are at least one victory at every track currently on the schedule. No one has ever done that. It was a little harder years ago, when all sorts of tracks wandered into and out of the old Grand National schedules of the 1950s and ’60s, but that’s not to underestimate its significance. I’d say it’s more impressive than all those Xfinity and Truck victories his combined.
The Indianapolis 500, a triumph of both Will Power and willpower, seemed similar to most of the Indianapolis 500s of my memory. The winners of the five I attended were Rick Mears twice, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk. I saw most of the 1999 race because I was on a media junket with Tony Stewart, who ran at Indy and Charlotte on the same day. (Kenny Brack won that one, by the way.) In recent years, the racing “package” allowed more passing, particularly at the front of the field. This year’s package gave the race a more subtle allure, which is a polite way of noting that its charms required closer attention.
The long shot of the day was that the most competitive race was in Monte Carlo. At the end, Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were all within range of one another. For three quarters of the race, Ricciardo was out front, but supposedly his Red Bull was leaking power. Vettel’s Ferrari stalked and waited for a mistake that never came, and Hamilton took advantage of Vettel’s frustration to close in, but the race ended with the three top finishers in the same order they occupied when it began.
I didn’t anticipate the Monaco outcome. I had no idea passing – in open-wheeled vehicles, they seem to prefer the term “overtaking” – would be so difficult at Indy.
Charlotte, though, was exactly as I feared. A week earlier, the racing in the Monster Energy All-Star Race, won by Kevin Harvick, had been breathtaking because the rules used experimentally actually worked. NASCAR needed to carry that momentum, but using similar trickery with the bodies and engines was deemed too radical for an event of the 600’s stature.
Perhaps Harvick, the season’s biggest winner with four, might have challenged Busch, but when the left-front tire on his white Ford exploded, and it skittered irreparably into a wall that wasn’t soft enough, the air in the race escaped, too. Watching a race car roar around a 1.5-mile track on the edge of control is exciting but less so when completion requires 400 times.
Last week seemed odd because several people remarked to me that the All-Star exhibition had been “one hell of a race.” I expect it may have sold a few tickets for the Coca-Cola 600.
Now, in my estimation of the current lethargy into which NASCAR has tumbled, it’s back to square one. Pocono could be one squared. It’s still one.
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