Doubtless Monday there will be many naysayer’s proclaiming the World 600 is way too long. I’ve often expressed an opinion that a lot of stock car races are way too long and should be cut down, especially in light of the fact often the drivers don’t actually get up on the wheel until the final twenty laps anyway. But the World 600 is special and it deserves its epic length even if each lap isn’t fraught with action.
Recall the era when Charlotte opened.
By and large the stock car racing circuit still competed (often several times a week) on dirt tracks of less than a mile in length. Darlington at 1.33 miles in length was the longest and fastest race on the circuit until in 1959 Bill France Sr. finally opened his dream track, Daytona, for the Daytona 500. (Originally the July race at Daytona was 250 miles in length. Why? It was just too frickin’ hot in Florida to expect fans to endure much more than that). Raleigh Speedway had been a mile in length — and incidentally was the first super speedway with lights…not Charlotte — and went under in 1958. Memphis-Arkansas was a dirt track, but it was a mile and a half in length with steeply banked corners. That experiment also failed.
But into the breach the brave will wade. A fellow by the name of Bill Marchbanks was building a 1.4-mile paved track in California of all places. The track held only three Cup races before it folded. (The first of myriad of tracks in California to fail). And NASCAR legend, Curtis Turner and partner Bruton Smith (yes, that Bruton Smith…he’s that old) were trying to carve a 1.5-mile speedway out of the rocky soil outside of Charlotte, NC.
Keep in mind the times. Stock car racing in that era was still a regional curiosity centered in the Southeast, a bit of a freak show to folks in other parts of the country who preferred open wheel racing and the Indy 500. That didn’t set too well with some Southern gentleman. A trip to Indy convinced Darlington’s owner Harold Brassington to build a paved super speedway of his own out there in the middle of nowhere. A snub while trying to attend the Indy 500 that saw him escorted off the property supposedly led Bill France to start scheming to build a paved track bigger and faster than Indy. And in a final bit of audacity Bruton Smith decided not only was the race on his new super speedway going to be run concurrently with the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend, it was going to be 600 miles not 500 miles to show those hoity-toity open wheel types what a real race was. This is America and bigger is better. Or it was back then anyhow. And folks like me will still take a 70 Buick Deuce and Quarter 455 convertible over a fuel sipping Prius until they pry the premium gas nozzle out of our cold dead hands.
The first World 600 was a disaster to put it kindly. The race wasn’t run on Memorial Day weekend. It had to be pushed back three weeks because the track hadn’t been finished in time for the scheduled date. Concrete was poured for the grandstand seats days before the race. The track surface began coming up in chunks even during practice. Turner and Smith doggedly kept patching the track, but at times it seemed hopeless. When the race was finally flagged green, most cars looked like refugees from a post-apocalypse Mad Max movie. They had heavy grating and screens over the windshields and grilles to keep chunks of the track surface from taking out radiators or decapitating a driver. After five and a half hours Joe Lee Johnson was flagged the winner. Several notables who had seemed to finish well, including Lee and Richard Petty were disqualified later that week for entering the pits incorrectly. Rex White officially finished sixth. Richard Petty’s disqualification and the fact that White had raced at Marchwood in CA when most Southern drivers stayed home help explain why the King wasn’t the 1960 champion.
In 1961 David Pearson won the 600, an accomplishment made that much more notable by the fact he drove the final three laps on three wheels after a catastrophic mechanical failure during those final two laps.
Turner and Smith lost their shirts on the new speedway. By 1962 they filed for Chapter 11 protection which didn’t please the Teamster’s Union that had provided some financing. Stories from that era are too ugly to tell. But the World 600 went on under new management and eventually in 1975 Smith was able to take back control of the track. He hired a promoter by the name of Humpy Wheeler and it was game on.
Because of its epic length and staying power, the World 600 became one of the three crown jewels of stock car racing. The Southern 500, the Daytona 500 and the World 600 were the three big races on the circuit. As best I can recall only David Pearson ever won all three in a single season. The Talladega spring race would later be added to these three events to form the basis of the “Winston Million” awarded to any driver who could win three of the four events, perhaps the most monumentally successful promotion ever in stock car racing coming as it did just as the television age bloomed in NASCAR, thanks to our friends at ESPN.
So, yeah, 600 miles is an unwieldy length for a stock car race especially in today’s world of tweets, instant gratification and fast food. But the 600 mile length is a 41-year tradition that connects us with our spiritual forbearers, those fans in the starched white shirts and skinny ties who were NASCAR’s original fans, the ones who kept the sport open for business until us barely reformed hippies in our jeans and T-shirts showed up with our coolers and nickel bags.
It’ll be lost on many of you who have never had an engine torn apart on the garage floor in front of you, but those extra 100 miles really tax an engine’s ability to survive. It’s almost unimaginable the engine builders are putting together carbed mills with pushrods that can run near or over 10,000 RPM for 300 miles much less 500 miles or in this case 600 miles. I don’t care how bad ass the Shelby, Camaro or Challenger you just bought is. You hit 10 grand on the tach and before you reach the end of your street your engine is going to be shrapnel you can feed into a Cracker Jack box with a teaspoon. These engines are the work of magicians. They say the reason we have all the mandatory pit stops during the All-Star race is to let the pit crews’ shine and get their nod for the important role they play.
The extra 100 miles in the World 600 give the oft mentioned but never seen “boys back at the shop” their moment in the sun. The heck with the engines. Just assembling a chassis, drivetrain and suspension that will survive 600 miles at 180 plus MPH is an accomplishment in and of itself. Sixty drivers started the 1960 World 600, and only fifteen were listed as running at the end of the race. (Recall there were six disqualifications). Last year seven of 43 finishers failed to finish the 600. Five of them started and parked. The two others DNF drivers crashed. Not a single entrant was listed as having lost an engine in 600 miles of racing.
A bit of trivia: Dave Blaney driving for Phil Parsons was the first starter to park and cash in last year in the 600, good enough for an $84,000 dollar payday. Jimmie Lee Johnson earned $27,150 for winning the first World 600. Even adjusted for inflation, something is badly askew here.
Is 600 miles of racing too much? Do you want to see the Six Hours of LeMans? How about the Indy 250? Yes, 600 miles seems excessive, but my friends who don’t follow racing know on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, don’t call me with an invite to a barbecue or an offer to go boating. From 6 a.m. when the Monaco coverage starts, through the Indy 500 that afternoon and through the evening and long into the night I’ll be indulging myself, nay gorging myself, on my passion of auto racing the finest of smorgasbords offered up all season. A shorter World 600? Please. Let’s also condense Christmas Day to five hours so we can all get a half day’s worth of productive work in too.
We the people hold these truths self-evident. No woman can be too pretty, no beer can be too cold, no rock and roll can be too loud, no car can be too fast, and on Memorial Day weekend we race 600 miles. Let it rock!
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