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Why Is the Coca-Cola 600 600 Miles Long?

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What’s Happening?

The NASCAR Cup Series gets set for a Crown Jewel race this weekend, the Coca-Cola 600. The 400-lap, 600-mile endurance test is, by mileage, the longest race of the NASCAR season, routinely taking upwards of 4 or even 5 hours to complete. What inspired Bruton Smith to make the Coca-Cola 600 as long as it became? The answer may not be clear, but it plays into everything that makes the Coca-Cola 600 so special.

  • Bruton Smith, the founder of Speedway Motorsports Inc., founded Charlotte Motor Speedway. Smith came up with the idea of a 600-mile endurance test, something NASCAR had never tried before.
  • The race has evolved significantly over time. From competing directly with the Indianapolis 500 to forming the final third of what many consider the “Greatest Day in Racing.” The race’s traditional slot of Memorial Day weekend makes it one of NASCAR’s most patriotic race weekends.
  • Fans love the Coca-Cola 600, one of the most hotly anticipated races of the year. It tests a driver’s endurance unlike any other.

1960-1974: The Origins of the Coca-Cola 600

Throughout the early days of NASCAR and American auto racing, 500 miles was the standard endurance race distance. That was inspired by the original Indianapolis 500 in 1911, created as an endurance test for cars of the time.

NASCAR followed suit with its first 500-mile race, the Southern 500, two years after the sanctioning body was formed. Bill France decided to start another 500-mile race later that decade on his brand new 2.5-mile (same as Indy) Daytona International Speedway, which became the Daytona 500.

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As you can see, Indianapolis had a fair amount of influence on NASCAR’s early days. NASCAR was trying to capture the magic of the Indianapolis 500 for the Southeastern audience. The Southern 500 even originally included a 3-wide start like Indianapolis.

Now, enter Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960. Bruton Smith’s track was originally given a date on Memorial Day weekend, the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500. Thus, the World 600 was born.

To answer our original question, why did they make it a 600-mile race? No one really knows, but, to an outsider, it could be an obvious attempt to one-up the Indianapolis 500. However, one thing is for certain, it was done to give the Cup Series a new kind of endurance test.

Regardless, the World 600 was and still is the longest oval track race in the world. Keep in mind that in this era across IndyCar and NASCAR, half the field routinely dropped out of 500-mile races due to mechanical problems and unreliability. A 600-mile race was unthinkable, but, Charlotte hosted it. The battle with Indianapolis raged on as well.

1974-1992: Charlotte vs Indy

From 1960 until 1973, the World 600 and the Indy 500 happened on different days. The World 600 was always the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while the Indianapolis 500 was held around Memorial Day but never on Sunday. That changed in 1974.

The Indianapolis 500 has been scheduled for the Sunday before Memorial Day every year since 1974. As such, The World 600 was scheduled for the same time. However, it’s hard to say these races were competing with each other in the early days.

Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, the Indy 500 was shown nationally on network television, albeit on tape delay until 1986. The Coca-Cola 600 wasn’t shown on national television until TBS started broadcasting the race in 1988.

While the Coca-Cola 600 mattered more to Southeastern stock car racing fans, the Indianapolis 500 had the entire country’s attention. However, as NASCAR grew even more in the 1990s, an ambitious idea for a related race forever changed motorsports on Memorial Day weekend.

1993-Present: Moving the “600” to the Evening

In 1992, Charlotte Motor Speedway added lights in a desperate attempt to save the NASCAR All-Star Race. The lights were a big hit, and they made for one of the greatest stock car racing promotions ever, “One Hot Night”

In 1993, Charlotte began using the lights for the Coca-Cola 600, the premier NASCAR event of the year, which was held one weekend later. This was a welcome change as it moved the race from the heat of the day to an evening affair with cooler temperatures.

It also gave the Coca-Cola 600 a whole different dynamic. The endurance test was not only about getting the car to the end of the race but also about keeping up with the rapidly changing track conditions. It’s common to see one driver be dominant early in the Coca-Cola 600 only to fall back late in the race. For example, the 2022 Coca-Cola 600 saw different winners in each of the four stages.

This also impacted how the Coca-Cola 600 worked with Indianapolis. Rather than competing directly, the two races happened on the same day at different times.

This was and still is great for motorsports fans. Two “Crown Jewel” motorsports events happen on the same day. When combined with the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix in the morning, it creates what many call “The Greatest Day in Auto Racing.”

It also impacted how NASCAR drivers looked at Indy. NASCAR drivers were left out of Indianapolis throughout the 1980s and early 1990s because of the Coca-Cola 600. Now that both races were happening at different times, drivers could attempt both.

Since 1994, there have been 9 attempts for drivers to complete both races. Tony Stewart is the only one who has completed all 1,100 miles, which he did in 2001. Kyle Larson will look to make attempt number 10 this weekend.

Why is the Coca-Cola 600 miles? Nobody knows, but, the constant tug-of-war with Indianapolis and the endurance test it creates plays into how we view the event today. Regardless of the truth, what an impact this race has had on motorsports as a whole.

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