Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Which Memorial Day Weekend Race Is Best?

This Sunday, May 28, is Motorsports Christmas.

Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix kicks off the day, followed by the NTT IndyCar Series’ Indianapolis 500 around midday, and then the day is capped with NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.

All three races are among the most prestigious in each of the respective series, but which one is the best?

This week, we enlist the help of Frontstretch‘s open-wheel team, as Michael Finley and Tom Blackburn defend the series of their beat.

Monaco: First in Line, First in Legacy

I’m not going to pretend Monaco is the best race on the day; it almost certainly will not be this year.

But at the same time, that’s what makes Monaco what it means.

In the triple crown of motorsports, the Monaco Grand Prix is easily the hardest to win. For starters, it’s the most exclusive of the three in the modern age.

It’s not that difficult to get on the grid at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, maybe a sports car race or two. The Indianapolis 500 is harder, but there are still plenty of pathways toward it.

In the last 10 years alone, there have been a few NASCAR stars, some FIA Formula 2 and 3 drivers who switched over and a surprise Fernando Alonso cameo here and there.

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Racing Nirvana

With modern F1, it’s almost impossible now to come from anywhere outside its very expensive ladder system. The drivers starting on the grid on Sunday have had untold millions of dollars invested in them from the time they were small children in karting, specifically for the task of being an F1 driver.

Nobody can simply parachute in to just compete to win in Monaco anymore. F1 drivers have to devote themselves strictly to F1. If Kyle Larson wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next year, he cannot just hop into a car at Monaco like he’s Tony Stark.

The other part that makes Monaco the hardest race to win is the difficulty of the racetrack itself.

Racecar drivers are a special sort. But there is one driver among them who was the most special: Ayrton Senna.

Senna’s status as a three-time champion already affords him the title of one of the greatest in F1’s history. But it was his skill at making the treacherous Monaco course look easy that allows him to outrank his stat line whenever writers bring up their best-of lists.

Monaco demands a driver focus their entire being at all times. It is incredibly easy for a driver to lose concentration for just a fraction of a second and end up in the barriers. And no driver was better at becoming one with track and car than Senna. At Monaco in 1988, he outqualified teammate Alain Prost by almost a second and a half. And Prost is also one of F1’s greats; he wasn’t exactly a pushover.

Senna’s six Monaco wins are still the most of all time by any driver. With how big modern F1 cars are now, it’s almost impossible to overtake in normal conditions, meaning attrition is the only reliable way to move up the running order.

A win at Monaco cements a driver as an all-time great in racing. For the NASCAR fans reading this column, winning at Monaco is a bit like winning at Sonoma Raceway. Sure, the race itself is a bore, but the track requires such finesse and skill that you can’t help but be impressed by how good a driver the winner is.

And of course, they do it in front of the highest of society. F1 has always been a sport of the wealthy and powerful, and Monaco is that taken to the extreme. Kansas it is not.

It won’t be the most exciting to watch on Sunday, but it will be the must-see. -Michael Finley

Nah, Indy’s Better

The Memorial Day Classic. The 500-Mile International Sweepstakes. The Indianapolis 500.

It’s a race with a legacy stretched out over two centuries. The record book for the 500 starts with a race run in 1911 on Decoration Day – before it was known as Memorial Day – a holiday that was then celebrating the service of Union Veterans from the Civil War. Pretty rich history there.

Compared to the two other races held on the same day, it’s a challenge to see how Indy isn’t considered above the rest.

For starters, the Indy 500 is the most important race in its series with increased national awareness out of the three. When comparing television ratings, the 500 will see a massive jump – approximately 4 to 5 million viewers – compared to other IndyCar races during the year. That difference in regular viewers vs. those tuning in just for the Indy 500 shows how the race is embedded in the national conscious.

Also, the radio broadcast rates high, with over 20 million listeners in 2017. For NASCAR, last year’s Coca-Cola 600 race had 3.8 million. The race on network TV prior to that had 4.6 million at Talladega Superspeedway, and the average broadcast for FOX, NASCAR’s TV partner for the first half of season, was 3.6 million viewers. So the 600, from the viewers’ standpoint, is an average race.

Monaco’s 2022 domestic viewership, meanwhile, was 1.61 million, which is far short of the record 2.6 million at the Miami GP earlier in the season. Granted, the race starts earlier in the morning, but it doesn’t grab the national attention as a domestic race like Miami or Austin.

Then there’s its international acclaim. In 2017, former F1 champion Alonso decided to skip the Monaco GP to race in the Indianapolis 500. In 2024 year, Cup champion Larson will try to qualify for the 500, hoping to join the likes of John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch in running the prestigious Indy-600 double. Two-time F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi jumped to IndyCar in 1984 so he could race at Indianapolis, doing so until retiring in 1996. Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, started a road- and street-course schedule in the 2021 IndyCar season, but after his first May at the speedway decided to give it a shot in 2022.

All these examples show the lure and acclaim the Indianapolis 500 possesses. If a driver has a similar pull to NASCAR, it would be for the Daytona 500. Monaco might entice a driver to attend, with its glamor and posh surroundings. But to race in it? The 24 Hours of Le Mans seems to have more appeal, as evidenced by NASCAR’s Garage 56 program this year.

And who could forget the Borg-Warner Trophy? There is no trophy in racing like it. This year’s Indy 500 winner will have their face sculpted in silver and attached to join the legacy of prior champions. The winner will never be forgotten, their likeness forever immortalized as part of the history of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

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Scott Dixon and the Indy 500: Bad Luck or Curse?

No doubt about it. The Indianapolis 500 is the greatest race in the world. – Tom Blackburn

Coca-Cola 600: Save the Best for Last

The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has become the best race of Memorial Day Weekend.

It’s the best way to end the day. It starts with the most boring race (Monaco) and then the racing gets progressively better until it ends with the climax that is the Coke 600. Plus, it’s the longest race of the three, and bigger is always better, right? That makes the Coke 600 the greatest test of both man and machine of the day.

It’s also the ultimate trial for crew chiefs, as the race starts in the heat of the day and ends at night. A key component to winning is keeping up with the changing track and being ahead on adjustments.

I’ll admit, the race had a lull from about 2012-21. There were many snooze-fests in that span. But it had great races prior to that, and the pre-race shows put on by then-CMS GM Humpy Wheeler were legendary. Dale Earnhardt Jr. described them as being “almost … as big as the race.”

Now, since NASCAR brought on the Next Gen car, intermediate racing has been the best in the series.

Last year’s Coke 600 might’ve been the greatest I’ve ever watched. It featured three-wide racing, a Chris Buescher flip and an overaggressive battle for the lead that allowed Denny Hamlin to swoop in and steal the win with a last-lap pass.

This year’s event is expected to be just as competitive, and the rumor is Speedway Motorsports is looking to pull off some Wheeler-esque stunts this weekend.

While the Indy 500 is known for having parity, the Coke 600 has had 10 different winners in the last 11 races. At the same time, it’s a race where the greats of NASCAR have shined, with Darrell Waltrip leading the way with five wins and Johnson right behind with four.

The Coke 600 is the only race of the day that allows for cars to actually lean on each other without ending both drivers’ days.

But most importantly, the Coke 600 does the best job of honoring those that died protecting the United States. Every car has a fallen soldier’s name above the window. Families of fallen soldiers are invited to the track. There are tons of beautiful patriotic schemes, and there’s even a moment of silence where the race is stopped at halftime.

The race’s name was the coolest of the day when it was called the World 600 from 1960-84, but Coca-Cola 600 isn’t a bad name. At least Coke has stuck around as the title sponsor since 1985.

Of the three races this Sunday, I am most excited for the Coke 600. – Michael Massie

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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5 Comments
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Dawg

Indy, hands down!

DoninAjax

Massie wants a job in NA$CAR.

Carl D.

Indy. Then Charlotte. Then Monaco, but only for the scenery.

Madonna

Charlotte race is the best.

Larry

I place ‘em Indy, Monaco, and then the Coke last. I’m sorry, but Coca Cola 600 is a TERRIBLE name. That’s right there with the Weed Wacker Bowl.

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