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Auto Racing's Greatest Memorial Day Weekend Moments

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Auto racing's greatest Memorial Day moments from the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

1982 Indianapolis 500 – Johncock vs. Mears vs. Awful Camera Work

The final few laps of the 1982 Indianapolis 500 were some of the most amazing laps in the history of the race, which as you can tell by Jim and Sam Posey’s tongue-tied commentating, was something that was not typical of open wheel racing of the era. Rick Mears makes his move a little early on the white flag lap, while Gordon Johncock piles it into Turn 1. ABC gets a little cute with the camera work, which might be the first instance of auto racing turning into a human interest story. A little ahead of its time, but as Mears fights back on the last lap, you can still sense the intensity 32 years later. 

1984 Monaco Grand Prix – The Birth of a Legend

In 1984, Ayrton Senna was driving for the Toleman Formula One team — hardly a major player of that or any era. He qualified 13th, but as the rain began to fall he quickly started catching Alain Prost’s McLaren to the tune of four seconds per lap. Just as he was about to catch Prost, FIA officials called the race due to the weather although, as you can see in some shots, the sun was coming back out. FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre was Prost’s fellow countryman, as pointed out by 1976 Champion James Hunt’s assertion of “French Timing.” Prost stops before the finish line and Senna actually crosses it first. It would prove to be the first of many controversial encounters between the star-crossed pair.

2005 Coca-Cola 600 — Johnson and Labonte Five-Lap Fight

You know things are about to get real when Larry Mac goes up two octaves and starts belting out “hah-sahds” and “sahd-bah-sahds” left and right. The 2005 Coke 600 featured a record 22 cautions for an agonizing 103 laps as track officials had to repair a pot hole in Turn 1 after someone had the bright-assed idea to start screwing with the best track on the circuit. The beginning of the end of DEI as we know it was on display as well, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took out teammate Michael Waltrip — and then himself — on the frontstretch. Menawhile, Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson light it off for the final five-lap shootout. Johnson finds a way to get it done (without making contact) to grab his third Coca-Cola 600 win, and fourth win in five races at CMS.

1970 Monaco Grand Prix – Bad Brake for Brabham

The racing world lost one of its heroes from the golden age of motorsports this week. Sir Jack Brabham passed away on Monday at the age of 88. In an era where each year it was not uncommon to lose two or three drivers in fatal accidents on race courses lined with trees and criminally unsafe, Brabham won the Formula One World Drivers championship three times — 1959, 1960 and 1966; the latter marked the only time a driver won as both owner and driver. He was about to cruise to the biggest prize on the circuit in 1970 in Monaco, but just a few hundred yards from the finish, he blows the final turn. Check out the camera work — downright Bruckheimeresque given the era. He hands the win to Jochen Rindt, who would go on to win the World Championship that year posthumously, dying in crash during practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

2011 Indianapolis 500 – Wheldon’s Win

The greatest weekend in racing was a tough one for the National Guard-sponsored machines. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel coming to the checkered flag while leading in the Coke 600 and J.R. Hildebrand was about to win his first race — and first Indy 500 — coming through the final turn. He faded high to pass the lap car of Charlie Kimble, got out of the groove, and the car took off for the wall. Dan Wheldon managed to skirt through, winning his second Indianapolis 500 while leading the fewest laps (1) in the history of the event. Tragically, it would be Wheldon’s final win, as he was lost in a terrible accident in the season finale at Las Vegas later that year.

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1974 World 600 – Petty + Pearson x Yarborough = Instant Classic

Bud Lindemann’s Car & Track series chronicled the major NASCAR races of the late 1960s through the ’70s. In the 1970 World 600, three drivers with a total of 388 wins and 13 titles between them — Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Richard Petty — staged one of the most classic battles NASCAR has seen. Things get interesting at the 4:40 mark when Pearson and Yarborough get together. Check out Cale’s classic comb over and Bud’s era-appropriate cheesy quips and soaring music score. Here’s an idea: next time a race is rain delayed, just show these instead of three hours worth of interviews with guys trying to ham it up for the camera that aren’t funny. How about Bud’s “One To Grow On” lecture at the end — and that gorgeous butterfly collared shirt.

1989 Indianapolis 500 – Fittapaldi vs. Al Jr.: One of Them Racin’ Deals

Some of the greatest speedway action — slingshots, dive-bombs, slide jobs — all while gunning for the biggest race on the planet and the first purse in excess of $1 million (in 1989 dollars). ABC figured out the production and camera work by showing a split-screen view of the wives in the closing laps, as compared to the 1982 head-shaker. Emerson Fittapaldi dominated the race, but as Al Unser Jr. hits lap traffic with two to go, Emo makes it all up. Let these two guys tell you all about one of the most memorable moments in motorsports history. 

2002 Coca-Cola 600: Martin’s Million Dollar Move

In 2002 it had been a span of 73 races since Mark Martin last won a race, and by 2001 it actually got him to thinking about doing something else. Entering the Coca-Cola 600, he had a shot at a million dollar bonus, but there was an obstacle in his way: protégé, Matt Kenseth. Dogged over the final 30 laps, Martin slices and dices his way through lap traffic, dodging a spun Mike Skinner with three laps to go, then going three-wide into Turn 1 to gain some ground on his teammate. Slaloming through more lap traffic, Martin passes nine cars in the final three laps to secure the win and the one million dollar prize. Not sure what’s going on there in the grass afterwards; Martin doing donuts after a win is like Barry Sanders spiking the rock after going 60 yards for a TD.

1988 Monte Carlo Grand Prix – Pride Comes Before the Wall

1988 would prove to be Ayrton Senna’s first championship winning year, and the Monaco Grand Prix would be the race that defined him. As a teammate to Alain Prost, who was ruling the roost in Formula One at the time, Senna put him and the entire sport on notice at Monaco, knocking him off the pole  — by 1.4 seconds! Not .140 seconds … one POINT four seconds. In the race, as Senna explains, he was lapping two seconds a lap faster than his teammate and having an out of body experience in the process. Ayrton and Alain weren’t exactly the chummiest of mates, and if the qualifying drubbing wasn’t enough, Senna really wanted to stick it to him in front of his fellow Frenchmen. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, that led him to stick it in the barricade, even with the race well in hand. Check out the in-car footage back when manual shifting was required. He was known as the man who could make a car dance with his hands; too bad he moshed this one into the stage.

1994 Coca-Cola 600 – Another Legend in Born

A year earlier, he looked like Todd from "Beavis & Butthead," trading in a green Duster for a rainbow clad Lumina, with a perfectly coifed mullet and impeccably trimmed creep ‘stache. But at the 1994 Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR fans were witness to the birth of a brilliant career. Starting from the pole, Jeff Gordon led the first lap but would have to wait another 300 circuits before seeing the lead again. In a race dominated by Rusty Wallace and Geoff Bodine, Gordon would take the lead with nine laps to go, using a quick pit stop strategy to score what would be the first of 89 wins to date. Check out the now unflappable one as a babbling, sobbing ball of emotion. Hopefully Broke didn’t get this car in the divorce.

1992 Indianapolis 500 – Closest Finish in History

The 1992 Indianapolis 500 was one of the most memorable races ever. It started off unseasonably cold — 48 degrees with winds of over 20 mph coupled with mist and light rain. It was so cold that polesitter Roberto Guerrero spun out as his cold tires broke free when he tried to warm them up, ending his race before it even started. A few moments later Philippe Gache suffered the same fate. Lyn St. James became only the second woman in history to compete in the 500, finishing 11th and winning Rookie of the Year. Michael Andretti dominated the race leading second-place Al Unser Jr. by over 28 seconds. Suddenly though, he lost power, handing the lead and race to be decided between Unser and Scott Goodyear. The margin shows as 0.043 seconds, the closest finish in the history of the race — and one of the greatest calls in sporting history.