Whether it’s the Super Bowl for football, Opening Day for baseball, Christmas Day for basketball or playoffs in hockey, the four major sports have their specific day that stands out for fans. For auto racing fans, the last Sunday in May has become or already was (in my case) the greatest day of the year.
The glitz and glamour of the Principality, the streets of Monaco that dare to be challenged by cars and drivers well above driving on a city street circuit which makes winning the Grand Prix a crown jewel event. Ayrton Senna made it his personal playground, winning six times in seven years with two near misses (1984 & 1988).
Greats like Senna, Schumacher and Prost won there with occasional appearances by drivers like Panis, Fisichella and Trulli being able to speak to the Prince. This race is one of the last links to the original Formula 1 World Championship and the history connects all three races together.
For the 2014 version, a battle between Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will take center stage. If they make it past the first corner, the race should be decided between them. However, former champions Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen lurk in the background looking to pounce on any intra-team disagreements.
After having breakfast at Monaco, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing takes place at the Indianapolis 500. The crescendo building up to Mari Hulman George saying, “Lady and Gentleman; start your engines,” is unmatched in motorsport or in major sporting events. Nearly 250,000 people will be at the Speedway watching the event, with the fastest overall field in “500” history starting the event.
The story of Sam Schmidt driving for the first time since his severe crash in 2000 will be the most poignant piece no matter how many times you have seen the clip. Schmidt will have a French driver that looks like Sascha Baron Cohen wearing a Senna helmet behind the wheel of a Lucas Oil car looking for the drink of milk after 500 miles in Simon Pagenaud. Another emotional moment will be Jim Nabors a.k.a. Golmer Pyle singing, “Back Home Again In Indiana,” for the last time in-person. Illness and father time have caught up to Nabors but his voice is still the way to get a quarter-billion people to sing for two minutes. The pageantry and history permeate the track, the residing areas and the country as a whole. This is the day non-race fans tune in to watch racing.
I will have goose bumps for that moment and a tear may be shed like when Nabors returned to Indy after missing a year due to health concerns. Whether Delta Force led into the race or whatever song ABC will use to lead in this year, the intensity and the desire cannot be measured by fan or driver. Al Unser, Jr. famously said after winning in 1992, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”
As a fan, I have gone to the track once and have yearned to go back again. Part of this job and chasing this dream is to make those trips a reality. Based on practice, the battle between Honda and Chevy should be close and it will take a driver who’s willing to go on the edge to win the race. While the Dallara chassis’ aesthetics are cringe worthy, the racing they have provided has made up the difference.
Kurt Busch will be a center of attention, running the double between Indy and Charlotte. He learned first-hand last Monday the differences between an IndyCar and stock car. However, from 12th position in a backup, “The Outlaw” could put a wrench in his plans with the speed he has shown all month. With such a close field and so many drivers that can win, the race should be as exciting as ever.
A reprieve is given for an hour or two before NASCAR’s longest night, the Coca-Cola 600 take place. Considering the weather this season, that may not actually be true but in terms of miles, that is the case.
Charlotte is where the Armed Forces play a big role, with Patriotic cars throughout the field and the men and women who defend our freedom getting plenty of recognition. Indy has a part but Charlotte goes over the top on this weekend that we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The story of the 600 with the current broadcast crew is talking about the weather cycles from daylight, to dusk to night. Tires probably won’t be an issue since they are usually hard but the cars will be fast. This race has been the introduction for four champions in David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth as winners in the Cup series. Will Kyle “Yung Money” Larson add his name to that list after winning the Nationwide event on Saturday?
Hendrick Motorsports has been at the forefront in victory circle at Charlotte, with six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson looking to add more to his already Hall of Fame credentials. If he were to win from pole Sunday night, he would become the all-time winner in 600 history…his greatest competition may be his teammate Kasey Kahne who has won the event three times and possibly had the best car during the All-Star race before wrecking in speedy-dry.
The aforementioned Gordon will be racing after having back spasms flair up during practice and the four-time champion and three-time 600 winner will want to put on an ironman performance to win. As per any NASCAR race, many drivers can win but who will be out front after four and a half hours? That is part of the fun of the Greatest Day in Motorsports.