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Coke 600 at Charlotte won’t change as NASCAR’s longest race

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The field in the Coca-Cola 600 drives past the front grandstand at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

The field in the Coca-Cola 600 drives past the front grandstand at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

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Speeding up for the Coca-Cola 600

NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte’s annual crown jewel on the Cup Series schedule, isn’t going anywhere. But NASCAR’s schedule in the last two years has undergone radical changes. Given the recent breaks with tradition, it seems only fair to raise the question of the future of the Coca-Cola 600. Stewed in tradition but perhaps facing a future of change, this special report explores the classic race, along with a program of end-of-the-year events. of week.

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NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte’s annual crown jewel on the Cup Series schedule, isn’t going anywhere. As Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith put it, “Moving the Coke 600 would be like taking the Masters out of Augusta.”

“You just don’t do it,” said Smith, whose father, Bruton Smith, brought the race to the Charlotte area in 1960. “It’s a special event. It is a historic event.”

But NASCAR’s schedule in the last two years has undergone radical changes. What used to be sacrosanct is no longer necessarily so in the name of innovation. Bristol Motor Speedway was covered in dirt for the points races for the second year in a row. The Clash exhibition race, held every year in its history at Daytona International Speedway until this season, moved to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where a purpose-built half-mile oval was built over the football field. . The All-Star race, which was regularly held in Charlotte prior to 2020, was held for the second year in a row at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend and drew rave reviews from fans and pundits.

Given the recent breaks with tradition, it seems only fair to raise the question of the future of the Coca-Cola 600, which takes place on Sunday, May 29 at 6 pm (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM). It’s the longest race on the NASCAR schedule that over the past five years has averaged over four hours to complete, earning it a reputation for being both unique and tedious.

But Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports operates Bristol, Texas, and other facilities NASCAR visits in addition to the 1.5-mile oval in Charlotte, indicated the 600 will remain unchanged.

“This event, I like to say, is not getting old. It’s getting more legendary,” Smith said. “It’s just one of those things now that for generations, we’re in a fourth generation of fans coming to the Coca-Cola 600. What a special thing.”

The race format is also likely to stick around for the long term. Humpy Wheeler, a longtime former general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, said last year that he thought the Coca-Cola 600 should feature an earlier start time and 10- or 20-lap heat races instead of its evening start ( which prevents them from overlapping). with the Indy 500) and four-stage race.

“Why not?” said Wheeler, who promoted 35 Coca-Cola 600 races during his career. “You start with those heat races, and once you’re done, you run the so-called ‘main event.’ Maybe the main event is two races of 150 miles each, and then you have a show.

Wheeler was also supportive of the suggestion of a mid-race intermission, which was a feature of this year’s Clash at the Coliseum in which rapper Ice Cube performed during the break, but according to the current general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway Greg Walter, those changes probably won’t happen in the 600.

“I don’t foresee us changing the race and the competition,” Walter said. “But never say never. If that was talked about at some point, I guess we could, but from what we’re hearing, I don’t foresee that happening in the near future.”

Still, there are new elements infused into this year’s event aimed at drawing a crowd beyond just racing. Circle K Speed ​​Street, a music festival that normally takes place in uptown Charlotte, moved to the racetrack in Concord this year as the track aims to increase attendance that was affected by COVID-19 restrictions in the previous two years.

“The fans are super excited. That’s one of the things you’re rethinking, ‘How can we continue to make this a compelling event for each and every year?’” Walter said of Speed ​​Street.

Last year, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper removed coronavirus gathering limits two weeks before the weekend of 600, allowing the track to run at full capacity, but with limited time to sell tickets before of the race, which in 2020 was held without fans in attendance. due to the pandemic. This year, the road course is on its way to being sold out, according to Walter. Before the race last year, he said Charlotte Motor Speedway expected a crowd of about 50,000. (NASCAR and the tracks do not disclose attendance figures.) He called this year’s pace of ticket sales “impressive” and estimated attendance for the 2022 Coca-Cola 600 would reach close to the circuit’s capacity of about 95,000 people, including general admission areas.

“When you think of historical events, you think of the Kentucky Derby. You think of the Indy 500, events that have been in the same place for decades,” said Walter. “The fact (is) that we have this culture of being constructively discontented. We can’t do the same thing each and every time, even though we will have a hugely successful race next weekend for Memorial Day weekend.”

Walter said the circuit worked with Speed ​​Street promotion groups and producers, such as the 600 Festival Association and CSM Production, to relocate the music festival. The concert lineup includes performances by Flo Rida, the Steve Miller Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who will perform throughout the weekend. Those shows are interspersed with other on-site activities, such as a Ferris wheel and stunt shows featuring the Globe of Death bikers, extreme pogo and BMX, as well as appearances by drivers in fan areas. The track will be just as busy as the fan zones, bustling Friday through Sunday with practices, qualifying and ARCA, Truck, Xfinity and Cup Series races underway. Several team racing stores in and around Concord and the greater Charlotte area will also be open to visitors.

“We just decided to make it easier to make it like a one stop shop for those who come here for the big race weekend,” said Walter. “We’ve actually painted streets… all the streets angle towards the back where you’ll have a big stage and almost this musical city that’s going to be there. a lot of activity. We scheduled it a lot for the fans.”

Walter also highlighted pre-race traditions that honor the military, such as special performances of “Taps” and the national anthem, as fan favorites. Cup driver Austin Dillon, a North Carolina native who won the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, said those traditions are part of what makes the race special to him.

“It’s an iconic weekend, being Memorial Day weekend, seeing all the different branches of the military, the men and women who protect this country,” Dillon said. “I always get emotional about that race, the national anthem and the show that takes place before it, and I really pay tribute to everyone who has fought for this country. … It is a very special race and I hope it never goes away.”

By Tuesday, Walter said his team will assess the success of this year’s race and the chances of modifying it for future years. The racetrack recently received a $13 million grant from the state as part of its Motorsports Relief Fund, which aims to fuel the recovery of tourism. The money is required to be used for infrastructure improvements such as grandstand upgrades, pedestrian walkways, restrooms, and “a variety of other facility needs,” though a specific application for the money has yet to be defined. The next 600 could further help SMI identify appropriate uses for those funds. A strong turnout could also help Charlotte Motor Speedway’s push to bring back the All-Star race that once took place there for a long time.

In 2020, the exhibition race featuring NASCAR’s top drivers moved from Charlotte to Bristol Motor Speedway amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in North Carolina before moving to Texas the following year. At the end of last Sunday’s All-Star race, NASCAR ruled that a late caution came before the checkered flag, forcing an overtime race. The eventual winner, Ryan Blaney, lowered the wicket net thinking he had won before the last restart, then struggled to retrieve it, prompting widespread criticism of the officiating and the venue of the All-Star event, which many feel has been lost. become obsolete in recent years. years.

Walter said Charlotte wants the race back on her schedule.

“I think the All-Star Race going back to where it started at Charlotte Motor Speedway is certainly possible,” said Walter. “We will continue to make a compelling case that we can host it again.”

“It’s something that is a huge economic engine, if you will, for our region and our community,” he continued. “So we will continue to work on everything we can to bring him back to Charlotte.”

A successful Coca-Cola 600 could help put on an event that is marketed as more than just a race, especially if it can pull off the right mix of innovation and tradition.

This story was originally published May 27, 2022 5:00 a.m.

NASCAR and Charlotte FC Beat reporter Alex Andrejev joined The Observer in January 2020 following an internship at The Washington Post. She is a two-time APSE award winner for her coverage of NASCAR and a National Auto Racing Press Association award winner. She is the host of McClatchy’s “Payback” podcast about women’s soccer.
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