The Frontstretch: The Greatest Day In The Annual Racing Calendar by Danny Peters -- Tuesday May 24, 2011

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The Greatest Day In The Annual Racing Calendar

Danny Peters · Tuesday May 24, 2011

 

If you are a racing aficionado of any particular level of intensity, this coming Sunday, May 29th, is about as close as you can get to perfection on wheels with three of the most famous races running in all of motorsports: The Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and lastly the Coca-Cola 600 all in one glorious day. Coupled with the fact that Monday is a public holiday here in the States, it means you can grab a seat on your couch, rig your TV up in the yard or head to your favorite motorports friendly bar and sit back and enjoy 1261.887 miles (to be exact to the fourth decimal point) of racing without worrying about schlepping to work the following day.

First up in the early morning—or late, late night depending on your proclivities—at 6am EST is the Monaco Grand Prix, arguably the most storied race in all of Formula One. Sunday’s race will be the sixth on a 19-race slate – the 58th official F1 race through the streets of the tiny principality which at just 0.76 square miles is the second smallest country behind the Vatican City; and with a population of around 35,000 people is also the most densely populated country in the world.

The first official Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco was held in 1950 and won by the legendary five-time F1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio who was of Argentinean descent. Fangio started from the pole position and led the entire 100 lap race driving an Alfa Romeo 158 with a 1.5 liter straight-8 supercharged engine. Fangio, just for the record, won 22 of the 51 total F1 races he ran and had a stupendous average finish of 4.5 (not to mention an average start of 1.8).

Many consider Fangio to be the “greatest driver of all time” and it was not until Michael Schumacher, some 46 years later, that his (then) record five championships was eclipsed. Stirling Moss – a legendary British driver in his own right was fully cognizant of Fangio’s talent calling the Argentinean “Maestro.” Said Moss, “But I can’t think of any facets of Juan’s character which one wouldn’t like to have in one’s own.”

The 1950 race was, for the record, not the first race around the streets of Monaco; that race actually came 21 years earlier in 1929 under the auspices of the “Automobile Club de Monaco” and was won by the marvelously named William Grover-Williams in a Bugatti.

This season in F1, the 24-year old German and current champion Sebastian Vettel is showing “Fangio-style” dominance with four wins and one second place in the first five races, 223 of 294 laps lead. Teammate Mark Webber in nominally the same equipment has finishes of 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 4th, but is sitting in third place overall behind Lewis Hamilton. That’s not to suggest any sort of malfeasance, either. The young German is just that good.


The 2nd Race of the Greatest Day: The Indy 500 will celebrate 100 years at the Brickyard. Photo courtesy of Richard Grady

And speaking of good, the second race of the day, the Indy 500, promises to be just that. This year will be the 95th running of a race that makes up part of the unofficial Triple Crown of Motorsports along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. (Side note: Only one man has won all three – Graham Hill). But it is also the 100th anniversary of the first ever Indy 500 and a culmination of a three year celebration (the track opened for business in 1909). So, it’s a historic race even by Indy’s high standards.

The first 500 mile race was won by Ray Harroun in a car seemingly named for racing: The Marmon Wasp – a car you can see in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.

In front of 80,000 spectators and in a field of 40 cars, Harroun drove to victory and became the first driver to ever use a rear-view mirror. Back in those days, drivers would ride with mechanics alongside them to check oil pressure (and the like) and to inform their driver of traffic so Harroun’s decision not to use a mechanic (because he had the mirror) was considered very controversial. Here, just for the record, is some fabulous footage from that historic first event .

Some 100 years later, the picture is somewhat different with the sleek Dallara Chassis Honda powered engines tearing around the track at over 220mph. Now, in every form of motorsport there is a level of bravery required, but there is something about the old footage that makes me almost gape in awe at the massive danger these racers put themselves under.

This weekend’s spectacular should be just that with a number of drivers in with a shout at victory. The Penske trio of Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves (seeking a record tying fourth victory putting himself alongside Al Unser Jr., AJ Foyt and Rick Mears) all have legitimate shots as do the Ganassi pair – Scott Dixon and two-time and defending champion Dario Franchitti. Polesitter Alex Tagliani has looked fast all month long and don’t rule out a certain driver called Danica Patrick who has consistently run well at the Brickyard. In short, it should be a fascinating race to see who gets to drink the milk in Victory Lane. If you don’t watch much IndyCar, this would be one race to take a look at.

Finally, and since this really is a NASCAR website, there’s the longest race on the grueling 36-race schedule – the Coca-Cola 600. First run in 1960, the 600-mile race is one of the crown jewels of our great sport, and the inaugural event was won by Joe Lee Johnson (there’s a familiar name in Victory Lane huh?) one of his two victories in a seven year 55 race career. The 600 is also the longest race held on any oval in any form of motorsport. This Sunday evening’s race will also be the 105th points paying race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Don’t rule out a first time winner either with champions David Pearson (1961), Jeff Gordon (1994), Bobby Labonte (1995), Matt Kenseth (2000), and also non champions Casey Mears (2007), and David Reutimann (2009) all picking up their first victories at NASCAR’s home track.

Originally conceived as an attempt to rival the Indy 500, the Coke 600 has run on the same day as the 500 since 1974. Seven drivers have won both the All-Star race and the 600 in the same season — Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Jeff Gordon (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2003), Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch in 2010 – so keep your eyes on the back flip king, Carl Edwards, who will be looking to become the eighth member of an elite club.

So there is just a little taste of what is to come on a truly epic day of racing across three racing disciplines: Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR. We might not get three classics but I, for one, will certainly be glued to the screen all Sunday long. Hope you enjoy it, race fans.

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Tom Dalfonzo
05/24/2011 09:02 PM
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The only thing that would make this Sunday’s Indy 500 even better would be Paul Page’s voice and the Delta Force Theme pulsing through the speakers of every television set around the planet.

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