Racing’s pinnacle: Sunday brings the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600

Sports

Formula One. IndyCar. NASCAR.

Breakfast in Monaco. Lunch at Indianapolis. Dinner in Charlotte.

Mimosas. Bloody Marys. Beer.

This is racing’s highest of holy days, and it’s not even close. A motorsports harmonic convergence that doesn’t happen every year but does more often than it does not. Thank the horsepower heavens. That perfect octane-drenched Sunday when one … two … three signature events snap into alignment like the perfect chassis setup, riding the ragged edge of speed from the time that those of us in the United States wake up until we collapse back into our pillows like it was a SAFER barrier. One could literally begin and end their day watching racing while lying in bed. And why not?

You might not care a thing about auto racing. Perhaps you don’t know a lug nut from a walnut. But that shouldn’t stop you from stepping into a full fuel immersion on Sunday. Take a moment … OK, take a day, to lean into the kind of sensory overload that only real race cars — even three very different types of race cars — can provide.

So, grip the wheel. Drop the hammer. Ahoy polloi and boogity, boogity, boogity!

All that stuff that Tom Cruise is doing with a fighter jet in “Top Gun: Maverick,” or what Bruce Wayne did in his new muscle car Batmobile in “The Batman,” or all those stunts that Spider-Man pulled off with all those tricked-out gadgets in “No Way Home,” the unreal action you’ve paid good money to watch this year? These racers do that stuff all the time with zero special effects, and on Sunday they will do it all at once.

The numbers: 90 racers, 678 laps, 1,267.1 miles. Three really big trophies.

It begins with the Monaco Grand Prix (8:55 a.m. ET, ESPN). Since 1929, race cars have snaked their way through the streets of Europe’s most glamorous adult playground, streaking by casinos, skating around fountains and blazing alongside a seemingly endless navy of yachts, upon which men and women bathe in the sun and breathe in the ethanol. It is a race that was first organized by royalty, under the watchful eye of Prince Louis II. A course was laid out through the streets of Monte Carlo nearly a century ago for Bugatti and Mercedes machines that produced 140 horsepower. Drivers in dress shirts, their entire upper body exposed, slinging their automobiles on tiny tube tires through the hard right-hander of the Saint Devote, sliding their way through the Station Hairpin and launching themselves out of Le Tunnel to hurtle downhill toward a vicious chicane that threatened to toss them into the waters of the Mediterranean below.

During Saturday’s practice sessions, Charles LeClerc exited that same tunnel in a 1,000-horsepower Ferrari traveling 185 mph.

Nearly 4,600 miles to the west, more than 300,000 fans will be listening and watching the action from Monaco as they file into the grandstands and infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday morning for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500. They call it the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and it is run at a place they call the Racing Capital of the World, and there is zero hyperbole involved in either one of those titles. The place known simply as “The Speedway” opened in 1909 with a balloon race, a 2.5-mile rectangle built by four entrepreneurs eager to construct a proving ground that could showcase the still-new American automobile industry.

On Memorial Day 1911, a noisy, smoky field of 40 machines producing 100 horsepower barreled through the first turn at speeds approaching 80 mph, wrestling steel Marmons, Fiats and Buicks around a teeth-chattering surface made up of 3.2 million bricks. Only a dozen of the cars made it to the end, led to the checkered flag by Ray Harroun in his bright yellow Marmon Wasp, a car adorned with the first-ever rearview mirror.

During last weekend’s pole qualifying session, Scott Dixon drove into that same first turn in a 750-horsepower Honda at 241 mph.

The people will sing along with the Purdue Marching Band. They will stand and applaud the hundreds of active military members who march down pit lane during prerace. They will gasp when the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds rocket overhead. They will weep when the lone trumpet player fills the air with a haunting yet perfect rendition of “Taps” to honor those who died in the defense of freedom.

After watching the victor douse himself in milk, a tradition that dates back to 1936, when winner Louis Meyer gulped down buttermilk to soothe his overheated tummy, the Indy 500 fans will stumble back to their campsites, hotel rooms and bars to watch the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 1960, ornery future billionaire Bruton Smith and even more ornery future NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Curtis Turner bulldozed and dynamited a 1.5-mile oval into the countryside north of Charlotte, then a sleepy Southern town. Speedways were still a new concept in stock car racing and 500 miles was considered the limit of where those cars and their drivers could go. So, in an effort to steal some hype from Indy and Daytona, Smith and Turner chose to make their race 600 miles long. They called it the World 600. They wanted to run it on Memorial Day weekend to compete with Indianapolis, but the track wasn’t ready. So, on June 19, 1960, an endless line of 60 stock cars producing 325 horsepower, many fitted with cow catchers and chicken wire to ward off chunks of crumbling asphalt, hauled off into Turn 1 at speeds of 140 mph. Joe Lee Johnson won in a Chevy, outlasting a field of Thunderbirds, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, 42 of which failed to finish the 5½ race.

When this year’s field of 40 fight their way into the first corner, they will be pushed there by nearly 700 horsepower and at speeds of 180 mph.

Is Monaco too old, too slow and the course too crowded? Yes. Just this week Red Bull boss Christian Horner said as much.

Is an Indianapolis Motor Speedway layout designed for tin-can jockeys at a time when fans still used horse-drawn buggies to get to the track not exactly the best fit for today’s missiles-with-passengers? Probably. During Friday’s final practice, Colton Herta‘s airborne, upside-down crash was a reminder that we’re watching earthbound rockets that are barely being held to the ground.

In the age of NASCAR’s bulletproof Next Gen car and ultradurable engines steered by ultrafit drivers, is 600 miles the true measure of endurance that it used to be? Not a chance. And are the days of full-throated, combustion-powered, fossil-fuel-based automobiles headed to the same fate as the dinosaurs whose remains they now burn? Absolutely.

But none of that is the point. The point is that this Sunday is still the coolest of the cool. So cool that when Hollywood makes movies about this day, it calls in the legends. James Garner for Monaco (the first 15 minutes of “Grand Prix” are better than most entire racing flicks). Clark Gable and Paul Newman for Indy (“To Please a Lady” and “Winning”). And Charlotte? It got Elvis (“Speedway”).

Monaco, Indy and Charlotte aren’t revered because of what they are now. They are cherished because of what they have always been. And if there is any lick of sense inside the helmets of those who run racing, that will never change. It should never change. This day is a reminder of why. The greatest of days.

The day when Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton can travel in the tire tracks of Ayrton Senna, Graham Hill, Michael Schumacher and Sir Stirling Moss, knowing that their view of Monaco is still the same as theirs. The day when Marco Andretti can follow the line run around Indy by his bloodline, grandfather Mario and father Michael. When rookie Jimmie Johnson can lean on legend Scott Dixon, when A.J. Foyt can shake hands with Rick Mears, who can shake hands with Helio Castroneves, and the living members of the four-time winners club can connect the 500 from 1963 all the way to today, in an instant. The day when a NASCAR field full of 20-somethings will roll down the same Charlotte backstretch where David Pearson, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt all streaked toward victory.

Every racer on Sunday — all 90 of them — wants to win a trophy. But even more than that, they want to know how they compare to their foot-in-the-throttle forefathers. This day, these races and these places are that measuring stick. Every winner. Every loser. Every racer who lost their life. This day is about every single one of them.

It’s about wearing the wreath in Monaco. It’s about hugging the Borg-Warner Trophy at Indy. It’s about doing the hat dance and hugging your loved ones in Charlotte.

Casino Square. “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Speed Street.

Sir Jackie. Super Tex. The King.

Formula One. IndyCar. NASCAR.

Drivers, start your engines. Fans, start your remotes. Everyone, start your memories. All. Day. Long.

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