Memorial Day weekend has always been special for racing fans and military personnel alike. If you aren’t racing yourself, chances are you’re watching one of the big events such as the Indy 500 or Coca-Cola 600 or one of the diehards who gets up to watch the Monaco Grand Prix. And if you’re as crazy as I am, you’ll watch them all.
I get up early on Saturday to watch Formula One Qualifying from Monaco and then catch a little of the Indy 500 Parade. Then, after trying to squeeze in some yard work and maybe a cookout with friends, it’s back the the grind and trying to catch up with NASCAR Nationwide races and any other racing I can find. I always get up early on Sunday morning for the first race of the day, which coverage on the east coast starts at 7:30 am. It’s more than a job, it’s tradition. I’ve been watching these races for as long as I can remember and sometimes it becomes more of a chore to keep doing than a pleasure. This year, however, it was mostly a pleasure. Here’s my quick rundown of the events that unfolded and what stood out.
Monaco Grand Prix – Exciting Venue, Lackluster Race
The track and scenery is all that really matters for this race because the racing is usually a case of follow-the-leader. With the current advantage that Mercedes is enjoying at the moment, many thought that Monaco would be an equalizer of sorts due to it’s tight, twisty nature and that it’s not always the best car (but usually) that wins here. Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg went into qualifying like it was the race because 70 percent of the time the winner is the polesitter. In this case it was Rosberg who pipped Hamilton at the last minute with a move that reminded some of Michael Schumacher when he secured the top spot by locking up the brakes and going off the track at the last attempt, with “ironic” consequences, according to Hamilton. Hamilton was virtually speechless in the post qualifying interview and said he was going to take a page out of his racing hero Ayrton Senna’s book when they lined up for the race.
The race was tense at the start but once Rosberg got out front he was in control of the race and the rest of the field was just trying to stay in touch with the front two Mercedes. There were some good moments for sure, but it was mostly a typical Monaco Grand Prix. With so much focus on Mercedes, many of the other teams were clearly overshadowed. Ferrari had what looked to be a promising start with Kimi Raikonnen jumping ahead of his teammate Fernando Alonso and into third position briefly, but in the end it was a backmarker that helped ruin his day. Alonso, on the other hand, put in a consistent performance from a car that is lacking in just about everywhere.
So Rosberg is back on top of the World Championship standings for now, but I don’t think that will last for long as he has yet to truly out qualify and out pace Hamilton in a heads up battle. Rosberg is clever, however, and as long as the team allows them to continue fight each other race after race, it could be one of the more exciting seasons since the Prost-Senna era.
Indy 500 – The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is Back
By nearly all accounts, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 has reasserted itself back on the racing map with its latest edition. While many argue that the cars are ugly and cars are cookie-cutter, there’s no doubt that the fans have come back to help make this race be what it used to be before the acrimonious split in 1996. For the last five years, I’ve attended at least one of the events leading up to the race but never the race itself. That will come someday I’m sure. But for now, I’m content to watch the run for the run for the pole and the race on television.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was denied a shot at a final-lap victory in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race because of a yellow flag for a single-car incident in Turn 1. Third place was his career high in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident wanted more.
A similar situation materialized in the 98th edition, but this time Hunter-Reay was the one drinking the milk in Victory Circle.
Hunter-Reay, driving the No. 28 DHL car for Andretti Autosport, held off three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves by the second closest margin of .0600 of a second in a six-lap shootout to claim his first Indy 500 victory. Marco Andretti finished .3171 of a second back for his third third-place finish in nine starts.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Hunter-Reay, who is the first American winner since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. “This (race) is American history; this is better than a championship. I hope the fans loved it because I was on the edge of my seat.”
Hunter-Reay had the car to beat all day and showed his car was handling well on several occasions with passes in traffic and dicing for the lead with Andretti and Castroneves.
Kurt Busch finished an impressive sixth-place and earned the prestigious Sunoco Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award at Monday night’s Victory Awards Celebration at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was the first NASCAR driver to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award since Donnie Allison finished fourth and earned the award in the 1970 Indianapolis 500. Busch ran the “double” but came up a little shy of his goal of 1,100 racing miles.
Coca-Cola 600 – Jimmie Johnson Breaks Winless Streak
While many fans and pundits of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing seemed overly concerned about Jimmie Johnson’s lack of wins this year, the six-time series champion said repeatedly that a victory would come.
And on Sunday night, he proved to them he was right. Johnson, driving the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, led a dominating 164 laps and beat Kevin Harvick to the finish line at Charlotte Motor Speedway by 1.272 seconds to win the Coca-Cola 600 for the fourth time.
The victory was Johnson’s seventh at CMS, breaking a tie with Bobby Allison for most victories at the 1.5-mile track in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points races. Johnson’s 67th career win, eighth most all-time, broke an 11-race winless streak to start the season, matching the longest such drought of his career.
“It’s great to win, but believe me—and I promise you—all the hype and all the concern and worry, that was elsewhere,” Johnson said. “That wasn’t in my head… We’ve had great races, and we’ve had opportunities there in front of us and had stuff taken away.
Kurt Busch’s Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 double ended early when the engine of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet erupted on Lap 273. Busch completed just 271 laps (406.5 miles) at Charlotte, leaving his car owner, Tony Stewart, as the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles of the same-day double.
“To feel the stock car right after driving the IndyCar is a day I’ll never forget,” said Busch, who finished 40th. “I can’t let the mood here, with the car, dampen what happened up in Indy today. That was very special.”
Fans who watched all three of these events from start to finish deserve some recognition, too, in my opinion. It’s a long day of racing, almost an overload some might say. While the weekend is about honoring those who have served and paid the ultimate price for our country, the racing community has done much to make sure we the fans don’t forget what it’s really about. As I packed up the grilling tools, I couldn’t help but think it was worth getting up for and already started to plan a trip to next year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis.