There still may be some debate (somewhat more muted than in days past) whether the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 is a bigger deal, but there’s no debating that Memorial Day weekend brings us the greatest weekend of auto racing here in the Americas. The day kicks off in Indianapolis with the traditional Indy 500, just as it has most years since 1911.
(In 1917, with World War I looming on the horizon, the 500 was canceled. In 1918, with the war raging across Europe, the 500 was canceled again.)
World War II caused racing at Indy to be cancelled from 1941 through 1945. While it lay dormant during those years, the track fell into disrepair. Owned, coincidentally enough, by World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, the track had become so dilapidated and overgrown many felt the only proper course of action was to level the joint and plow it under. Tony Hulman bought the track and facilities for $750.000 (I am all but certain he didn’t pay with Bitcoin). Among those who objected to the purchase was Hulman’s own mother, Grace Smith Hulman, who was a proponent of tearing the place down and starting over from scratch.
Recall 1911 was a very different era than now. Cars were still seen mainly as novelties for the very wealthy. Their reputation for reliability (or lack thereof) was so poor that many wondered if any car could run at a fast pace for 500 miles at all.
During the 19-teens, Henry Ford was “putting America on wheels” with his ubiquitous Model T, and perhaps equally importantly, the five dollar a day wage that enabled some of his workers to eventually own one of those machines they helped assemble — which sold for upper $200s to low $400s in their heyday.
There was even a school of thought that the human body would not be able to manage the stress of traveling over 60 MPH, the infamous “mile a minute” speed that was the stuff of science fiction in that era.
The average speed of that first Indy 500 was just under 75 MPH and, as it turned out, drivers could survive traveling that fast. Problems arose when drivers were subjected to the forces of traveling from 60-0 MPH in a short distance over a brief period of time in the event of a wreck. Sam Dickson holds the dubious honor of being the first person killed during the running of the Indy 500. Dickson was the riding mechanic for Arthur Greiner and was thrown from the car when a wheel and tire fell off on lap 12. In another bit of cheery news, members of the Indiana state militia had to use their rifles as clubs to clear a path for the medics to get to Dickson.
In all, 73 people have been killed during the run-up or during the course of running the Indy 500. Of course, the vast majority of them (42) were drivers, but 13 were riding mechanics, one was a motorcyclist, and 17 others were track officials, pit crew members or spectators. Perhaps most tragically, an 11-year-old boy, Wilbur Brink, died playing in his driveway across the street from the track when a tire that cleared the track property’s fence in the course of a wreck during the 1931 Indy 500 and struck Brink in the head.
Through all the triumph and the tragedy, the Indy 500 endured and remained a mainstay on the annual auto sports calendar. This year’s 500 was the 105th running of the event.
For comparison’s sake, the first running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans didn’t occur until 1923. The first Grand Prix of Monaco was run in 1929. That F1 race used to open the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend races, at least here in the states, earlier in the morning than I care to recall.
Some of you might recall that 25 years ago on Memorial Day weekend, there were some serious questions about the future of the Indy 500. There was a battle for the heart and soul of American open wheel racing raging back in 1996. On the one side you had CART, which had pretty much run American open wheel racing as they saw fit since they split with USAC in 1979. On the other, you had Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George and his upstart Indy Racing League, or IRL.
In 1996, CART drivers and teams were allowed to run the Indy 500, but of the traditional 33 starting spots in the big race, only eight would be available to CART regulars. And the cars would have to meet IRL specs to compete. CART teams found those proposals unacceptable and decided to host a rival event at Michigan that Memorial Day weekend. On Sunday, coincidentally enough.
Things looked promising at first for the new race. ESPN signed on to broadcast the event live, even against concurrent coverage of the Indy 500 over on the Mothership at ABC. The US 500, the rival race in Michigan, drew over 110,000 fans, a near sell-out. A huge purse was announced for the new race. Things were looking splendid in the hours leading up to the US 500. Would that things went as well on track. With the field coming out of turn 4 on the final pace lap prior to the green, Jimmy Vassar’s pole-sitting car made contact with the entry of Adrian Fernandez, triggering a massive 10-car wreck. Vassar went on to win the race and over a million dollars in prize money plus another 100 grand for taking the pole for that event.
The CART/IRL feud dragged on for years. The US 500 was run three more times at Michigan, but never again on Memorial Day weekend head-to-head with the Indy 500.There were no winners in the tiff as far as open wheel racing is concerned. NASCAR was the unwitting victor of that disagreement, quickly becoming the most popular and best-attended auto racing series in America during that period.
The third event of the Memorial Day weekend tradition is NASCAR’s World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Charlotte is a relatively recently built track, at least in comparison to Indy or Monaco. Opened in 1960, it was the brainchild of O. Bruton Smith and longtime NASCAR driver and nemesis Curtis Turner. The initial stock car race at Charlotte didn’t get off to a smooth start either. The track surface started coming apart even during practice. Crew chiefs and drivers were fabricating heavy duty screens to protect their windshields and radiators.
In another example of how some chores were left undone before that first World 600, there was a thin patch of dirt left between the outer side of pit road and the inner edge of the race track itself. That only became important because a rule had been added saying that any driver who cut across that dirt patch would be disqualified. The track feared drivers running that line in the dirt would kick up huge clouds of dust and debris. They had meant to plant grass seed there before the race but never got around to it. Six drivers, including Lee and Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, all got disqualified for cutting across the dirt strip exiting the pits.
Joe Lee Johnson (no relation to Junior Johnson) won that first World 600 by a stupefying four-lap margin over Johnny Beauchamp, both men at the wheel of a 1960 Chevy.
The race track at Charlotte got off to a rocky start (ironically enough) and ended up in bankruptcy court. A gentleman by the name of Richard Howard eventually took the reins of the track, and along with other investors, was able to pay off the mortgage on the joint. At that point, though, Bruton Smith took a renewed interest in the track he’d helped design. By 1975, Smith was the majority stockholder of CMS and Howard was soon packing up his office.
The Memorial Day doubleheader of racing even inspired some racers to attempt to run both events on the same day. The late John Andretti was the first driver to attempt the feat in 1994. Tony Stewart remains the only driver to complete every lap of both races on the same weekend in 2001. He finished sixth in the Indy 500 and third in the World 600 that year. Robby Gordon attempted to compete in both races five times. The most recent attempt at running the double was Kurt Busch back in 2014. He finished an astonishing sixth in the Indy 500 but suffered a blown engine in the 600 and finished 28th. For the record, that year’s Indy 500 was the only IndyCar start of Busch’s career.
We’ve been discussing races and racing series that date back many decades. Now it’s time to shift gears and talk about a new racing series that debuts in a fortnight (June 12). The SRX (Superstar Racing Experience) series kicks off on that date at Stafford Springs Speedway in Connecticut. In its debut season, the series will host just six events.
(In NASCAR’s first Cup — then termed Grand National — season, it hosted just eight races. To quote one of Bruce Springsteen’s underappreciated classics, from small things, mama, big things one day come.)
Will that be the case with the SRX? Stay tuned. Some big names in racing have aligned themselves with this experiment.
Those six events will be broadcast on consecutive Saturday nights on CBS at 8 p.m. ET (weather permitting, of course). The producers are shooting for a two-hour time slot per race, meaning even with a few unexpected delays, the racing should be over in plenty of time to make way for the local affiliates’ 11 p.m. local news broadcasts, which are often major cash cows for the local CBS stations.
It’s interesting that a top TV exec from FOX recently said that Saturday night schedules are death to the ratings of Cup races; there will be no conflicts between scheduled Cup and SRX events. Recall that while the Firecracker 400 at Daytona was becoming a Saturday night race over the years (leading to countless weather delays), this year the Cup teams and drivers will be competing on the Fourth of July itself at Elkhart Lake. The second Daytona race will be held on August 28th.
The powers that be behind SRX include three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and multi-time champion crew chief Ray Evernham. All six events will be run on short tracks which seems to be the fans favorite as of late. Two of them will be run on dirt tracks. The full schedule is:
- June 12 – Stafford Motor Speedway
- June 19 – Knoxville Raceway
- June 26 – Eldora Speedway
- July 3 – Indianapolis Raceway Park
- July 10 – Slinger Speedway
- July 17 – Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway
The SRX events will be patterned along the same lines of the old IROC series. Rather than have drivers and teams bring cars to the track, each driver will be issued a car for that week’s event. The cars are all said to be equal, but if history teaches nothing else, it is that likely there will be some belly-aching that some cars are more equal than others. Evernham designed the cars to promote competitive racing and reasonable costs and durability.
As best I’ve been able to figure out (and some information out there is still rather sketchy, or at least I’m not on the list to get any memos), the cars’ bodies will not be patterned even loosely on any manufacturer or model of street car. (Which I think is a mistake.) Again, through what I’ve been able to ferret out, the cars will run engines by Ilmor, 396 cubic inches based on Chevy LS powerplants putting out around 500 horsepower and capable of 7500 RPM reliably, similar to the spec engine used in the ARCA series. For a racing engine, those Ilmors are unique in that they come with a 500-mile warranty. They do feature Holley/Edelbrock electronic fuel injection units with the ECUs sealed to prevent any miscreant from tampering with them.
Race lengths are designed so that there will be no need for live pit stops. The starting lineup for each event will be determined by random draw. Each race will have two heat races. After the first heat race, the field will then be inverted for the second heat. The finishing order of that second heat will determine the starting order for the main event.
The winner of the main event will be awarded 25 points, the runner-up 22 points and so on in descending increments. The champion of SRX will be crowned after the final Nashville Fairgrounds event. There will be unlimited attempts to finish the main events with a green/white/checkered finish.
Drivers who have signed on to run SRX races include three time Cup champion Tony Stewart (naturally), 1988 Cup champion and perennial most popular driver winner Bill Elliott, 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte, 2004 IndyCar champ and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, Paul Tracy, Mark Weber, four-time and 2021 Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, five-time Trans Am champion Ernie Francis, and two-time Trans Am series runner-up and former Indy 500 competitor Willy T. Ribbs.
SRX has said that there will be other big-name drivers who will make cameo appearances in the series. They haven’t named any of them, and my guess is some of those drivers may be hesitant to rock the boat with NASCAR if they still drive, own a team or are involved with broadcasting NASCAR events. NASCAR tends to look at any sort of full-fendered oval track racing as falling under their umbrella. It’s notable perhaps that none of the tracks on the SRX schedule are owned by NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports.
So we’ve discussed somethings old and something new. What about the rest of the superstitious bride’s chant, “Something borrowed and something blue”? I suppose since Helio Castroneves won the Indy 500 in a one-off deal for the Meyer Shank Racing team, that car could be considered borrowed. And while most modern-era engine failures in Cup racing are signaled by an engine that just sounds a bit off-song after dropping a cylinder on lap 139 of the World 600, Kurt Busch’s engine expired in a thick cloud of smoke worthy of a mosquito control truck in the Pine Barrens of Jersey. He “blew” that one up right proper, I suppose.
Note: Speaking of Will T. Ribbs, while his career was mainly in sports cars and open-wheelers, Ribbs did play an important footnote in NASCAR racing as well. Way back in 1975, Humpy Wheeler, one of the smartest and most innovative minds ever to devote himself to our sport, had a novel idea. In the lead up to that year’s World 600, it occurred to Wheeler that he wasn’t selling many tickets to race fans of color. He felt maybe more Blacks would attend his races if they had a driver that looked like them competing. Aware of Ribbs’ success in other forms of racing, Wheeler contracted with car owner Ed Negre to prepare a car for Ribbs to drive in the 600. For a variety of reasons, Ribbs was never able to attend any practice sessions to drive that car. He felt the car, a ’74 Dodge Charger, was off-pace and wouldn’t be up to speed in the race.
That left a race-prepped car without a driver. Wheeler asked a local short track ace in the Carolinas of that era if he’d like to race the blue and yellow Dodge. A fellow by the name of Dale Earnhardt eagerly accepted Wheeler’s offer and drove that old Dodge to a 22nd-place finish in his very first Winston Cup start. And as Bruce taught us, from small things, big things one day come. Coincidentally, that day Earnhardt finished one spot ahead of Richard Childress, who would become a long-time team owner for the outfit where Earnhardt spent most of his career.