A Test of Man and Machine

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The Coca-Cola 600

The Coca-Cola 600

by Mike Neff

Racing means many things to many people. There is the spectacle of the entire event, the crowds of people, the sounds and smells, strategy and pure speed. Perhaps the oldest — and most accurate — description that has applied throughout the history of auto racing is that it is a test of man and machine.

One hundred years ago, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted a 500-mile race which set the standard for most major races over the next century — that is, until the ADD crowd of casual fans infiltrated auto racing and started asking for shorter races. And while the Indianapolis 500 remains “the greatest spectacle in racing,” this weekend hosts ultimate test of man and machine for the stock car set, as the Coca-Cola 600 takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

For years the challenge of running a 500-mile race was building a car and all its components that would last the distance — as well as a driver who could persevere. Cars routinely broke during the final 100 miles of races, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when small, seemingly inconsequential parts ended the day of a dominant racecar. Over that last 20 years, the manufacturing processes and material development has resulted in cars that rarely have faulty parts said causing failures. Add to that the systems that are in place that make drivers more comfortable than ever before, and the test of man and machine is not nearly as formidable as it once was — but it is still a test.

Driving a racecar is not an easy task, no matter how many creature comforts are built into a driver’s compartment. Cool boxes and ventilation hoses certainly make the temperatures more tolerable, but they are still quite high inside of a racecar. During a typical NASCAR race a car’s interior temperature can easily soar into the 120-130 degree range. When the cars slow under caution periods, the temps will get even higher because the amount of airflow through the car is reduced. In addition, the cars are made much more aerodynamic, which allows less air to flow into the driver’s area.

In the early years of racing — and especially in the early years of NASCAR — things were not nearly as comfortable as they are now. Drivers had loose seats which allowed them to slide around, forcing the pilot to use shear brute strength to hold themselves as needed to be positioned behind the wheel. The cars didn’t have power steering, either, so the drivers were forced to manhandle the cars around the track with incredible fatigue on their upper bodies. They also didn’t have the efficient cooling systems that engines have in the cars today, which resulted in the overall temps of the cars being very high, further sapping energy from the drivers.

In 1960, Charlotte Motor Speedway held its first 600-mile race, a distance chosen for a couple of reasons. First, track operators wanted to differentiate its event from the others on the NASCAR schedule by establishing it as the longest race held each year. Secondly, they wanted to not only rival, but exceed, the mighty Indianapolis 500.

The early years of the race frequently saw half of the field fail to finish all 600 miles. Drivers had to massage their cars and run race strategies designed to make the machines last until the finish, rather than worry about trying to lead laps during the race. The discipline required to allow drivers to pull away, knowing that his own car had to be run at a specific pace to be able to survive, required great will power because, after all, taking it easy is contrary to a driver’s makeup.

Today, cars are easily able to make race distances — even the annual 600-miler — making the request to shorten races is contrary to the basic premise of major races. If anything, more races should go greater distances so that the potential for failure, driver mistake and strategy have the chance to fully play out. The drivers won’t run flat out for the entire race distance, but that, in itself, is part of the intrigue of racing great distances; different teams are able to employ different philosophies and approach the race with different mindsets.

There are hundreds of short tracks across the United States which host races for many different racing series that run races of short distances. If a fan wants to see a “sprint” race, odds are, they won’t have to go far. However, the elite level of racing should put on a lengthy show to fully allow the cream to rise to the top.

Prior to last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race, Carl Edwards was asked about the short distance of the exhibition race during his weekly media availability. He voiced an opinion inconsistent to what most drivers seem to espouse these days.

“I have been working out. I like those long races,” Edwards said. “You can’t make them shorter. I don’t know if that is what fans like or don’t like. I think there is a vocal group that doesn’t like the long races, but I know as a kid if you turn on the TV on Sunday and watched the 500-miler from somewhere, there was something about that event — it was a marathon of man and machine trying to persevere through this hot, demanding race. I thought that was really neat.

“I think there are other series that run short races and that’s OK. Their races are shorter (but) I like the long races.”

Racing is about having the best machine that is able to run the full length of a race paired with a driver who is able to run the proper pace and keep his car in the necessary condition to last. There are many races on the Cup schedule today that are less than 500 miles, which is a shame. Are fans that complain of races that are too long also going to complain if they have to pay the same amount of money to attend an event that is 100 or 200 miles shorter? Odds are, most are going to expect to pay less because they’re seeing less action. That is not going to benefit the racetracks or the competitors, because purses will be cut in order for the tracks to make money.

Five hundred miles result in some pretty amazing feats of man and machine, and need to be the minimum length of Cup Series races. Imagine 993 laps around the half-mile paper clip of Martinsville. Conquering that would truly separate the men from the boys — and that is what racing at the top level of a sport should do.

For those that don’t want to watch races that stretch for such a trying distance, the Truck and Nationwide series, as well as local short tracks, host events of a shorter fare. But the premier series in the country should continue to run 500-mile races to crown a true champion.

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<p> Athlon contributor Mike Neff examines NASCAR's longest event of the season — the Coca-Cola 600.</p>

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