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Indianapolis 500 and Coca Cola 600, Memorial Day weekend traditions

As long as I can remember racing has been a big part of our Memorial Day weekends.  One of my most vivid boyhood memories was the news that my boyhood racing hero, Bill Vukovich, had been killed in the 1955 Indianapolis 500. To this young race fan it was one of those moments that even years later you remember exactly where you were when you received the news.

 We were listening to the radio broadcast on the car radio headed to a stock car race in Canfield Ohio that Memorial Day.  “Vuky” had won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954 and was leading the 1955 race at the time of his fatal crash. There was no doubt the young gas station owner from California was the hottest racing driver in the country.  How a kid from Pennsylvania got so wrapped up following a race car driver from California, I have never been quite sure. 

There was precious little racing information in the newspapers.  No Speed Channel or ESPN on the tiny TV sets of the day.  We hung on every word we could find in the car buff magazines.  Hot Road magazine had an occasional article on circle track racing, but our bible was Speed Age Magazine.  They followed the Championship Trail in open wheel racing and had great coverage of the young but ever growing NASCAR Grand National circuit in the South East. Tim Flock, Herb Thomas, Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts - the names were magic. 

In 1960, Charlotte Motor Speedway opened and began its bid to establish a Memorial Day holiday tradition to rival the long established Indianapolis 500.  In a bid to one-up the famed brickyard's 500 mile classic, they would offer 600 miles of racing.  Those were the days before corporation’s marketing departments attached their names to every venue or event that might get their name in the paper or on TV. Thus, the race was called the World 600.  Today’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway, was then simply, Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It would not be long before NASCAR’s Memorial Day classic would be marred by a tragedy of its own.  In 1964, just four years after the track's inaugural World 600, one of the biggest stars of the era Glenn “Fireball” Roberts lost his life in a fiery crash on the seventh lap.  Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson went into a spin on the back stretch. Roberts tried to avoid his two fellow drivers, but his car spun backwards into the wall and exploded on impact.  Jarrett rushed to pull Roberts from the wreckage that was fully engulfed in flames.  The badly burned Roberts lingered on in a Charlotte hospital for over a month before succumbing to his injuries.

It is mind-boggling when you reflect on how many years ago that was.  We have grown up, raised our children and become old creaky grandparents.  Yet, through all those years the tradition of enjoying the races over the Memorial Day holiday has been constant.  There is just something about sports events and holidays that seem to go together.

Even to the drivers who race on a weekly basis, these venues are special. Kurt Busch, talking about this weekend's Coca Cola 600 said, “It’s just a marquee event. I think if each driver had just five races to list, Charlotte would end up on all of them. You have Daytona, you have Indy, and Charlotte has got to be right there.  Just the feeling that you have Memorial Day weekend starting off with a 600 mile race.  It’s a whole different ball game when you go into the nighttime at that race.”
Talking about the importance of the Indianapolis 500, 1986 winner and now co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, Bobby Rahal recently said, “Your life as a driver, at least for me, you could say “before Indy and after Indy”. You’re always introduced as Indy 500 champion. I won three IndyCar championships and that’s always the second thing they say when introducing you, so I think that shows the level of importance it’s given by everyone.”

This weekend marks the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500, and the 50th running of the Coca Cola 600.   Mercifully  racing, while still a very dangerous sport, has become infinitely safer than those long ago days.  The evolving technology of creating the car, wringing ever more power out of an engine and the talent to make the package perform feats that normal drivers cannot begin to accomplish, never ceases to amaze and fascinate.

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