It was rather audacious at the time, but then many of the things that have happened at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the past 50 years have been at least audacious and occasionally bordering on the absolutely ridiculous.
The speedway’s founders – Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner – decided to open their new track in a big way. The 1.5-mile speedway’s inaugural event, originally scheduled May 29, 1960, would be 600 miles in length, providing an unprecedented challenge for the 11-year-old Cup (then Grand National) series.
The concept was so imposing that, as matters developed, it didn’t happen as scheduled. Construction and financial problems delayed the first race until June 19 of that year. And, even though the green flag finally fell on the first laps of racing at CMS, the problems were far from over.
The track’s fresh new asphalt had not had time to cure. Cracks formed in the surface during the race, and, more significantly, big chunks of asphalt popped out of the track as the 600 wore on.
Some teams eventually put wire screens across car radiators to keep debris from clogging the grilles.
In any case, it was a wild marathon. Joe Lee Johnson eventually won, but only after veteran driver Jack Smith saw a seven-lap lead disappear when an asphalt piece ripped a hole in his gas tank late in the race. Friends remember Smith crying in the pits that day, and the failure to win one of the biggest NASCAR races to that date haunted him until his death.
Although shorter races at other tracks often last longer on the clock than the 600, the event long ago became the definition of long-distance racing for the Cup series. And the nature of the marathon has taken on added drama with the late-afternoon start time of recent years, making the race a day-to-night affair.
Winning the 600 is considered one of the major accomplishments of any NASCAR season.
“It’s the toughest race, and you really want to give it your very best lap after lap,” said Kurt Busch, winner of last Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race at CMS. “But, maybe if you can leave a 10th [of a second] here and there, the laps will seem to click by quicker. You won’t be so fatigued at halfway and still have the stamina you need for the final portion of the race.
“There have been plenty of times where I’ve had really good cars during the day and I don’t get all the way to the end and be able to race them hard.”
Drivers typically shoot to stay in or around the top 15 for the first 500 miles while keeping their cars in shape for the final hundred-mile run to the finish, deep in the night.
“You have to figure out how to be at your very best at night under the lights,” Busch said. “It’s a real marathon – 600 miles – out there, and you have to stay on top of a continuously changing track. You really have to get your car handling well on the long runs.
“Then you have to consider all those restarts that we’ll likely have as the race winds down. It’s definitely the biggest challenge that we face in our sport.”
The marathon nature of the race and the fact that the track surface changes from day to night mean that cars that show strength in the first 50 laps of the race sometimes aren’t even in the top 10 in the last 50.
“We start in the day and end at night, so your car is not going to be perfect,” said Jeff Gordon, five times a winner at CMS. “If the car is perfect during the day, you’re going to have to make some big adjustments to be strong at night. Or to be perfect at night, you may be way off during the day.
“There are so many challenges – like the length of the event and running day into night – that make it such a tough event.”
It is occasionally suggested that the 600 – NASCAR’s only race of that length – be shortened, but traditionalists support its history and its unique nature.
“What makes some of the best races in the world what they are is because of the tradition, like with the Baja 1,000,” said former crew chief and team owner Ray Evernham. “The same goes for Charlotte. It is the Coca-Cola 600 or the World 600. That’s what it’s been. That’s what it’s always been. It’s the tradition.
“If you shorten it, you’re going to cheapen it. It is long, but, as a racer, I want to win the Coca-Cola 600 or the Southern 500 or the Daytona 500. It’s tradition, so I wouldn’t change it.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.