How NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 Came to Be the Longest, Craziest Race on Cup Schedule

·5 min read
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
  • When future Hall of Fame driver Curtis Turner and future Hall of Fame track owner Bruton Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959-1960, it was only the second superspeedway in the true South.

  • Organizers decided that not a mere 501 miles as a symbolic snub at the Indy 500 would do, but 600 miles… making it the world’s longest closed-course race.

  • Eventual first-race winner Joe Lee Johnson was five laps behind leader Jack Smith, but still managed to win after a chunk of loose asphalt knocked a hole in Smith’s fuel cell.

Nobody seems to know when it happened in 1960 or who made the decision. It’s lost in history, this mystery of who decided that instead of just another 500-mile stock car race, the inaugural Memorial Day weekend event at the brand-new Charlotte Motor Speedway would go for 600 miles. And not just any ol’ 600—the WORLD 600.

The unprecedented NASCAR event likely was created by one of two men (maybe both) who wanted something special in the heart of stock car country. When future Hall of Fame driver Curtis Turner and future Hall of Fame track owner Bruton Smith built CMS in 1959-1960, it was only the second superspeedway in the true South. It opened 10 years after Darlington, but predated Atlanta by several months and Rockingham by five years. (Daytona Beach isn’t really the true South).

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

The men overcame personal ambitions—egos were often on full display—and more than a year of financial and construction setbacks to get it done. Eventually, after judges and lawyers and “interested financial parties” had their say for more than a decade, the speedway emerged from bankruptcy in relatively good health. Once Smith took over in the early 1970s, the once-struggling track began to expand and improve and became a respected and admired motorsports address.

He and ace promoter Humpy Wheeler—the man never saw a corny schtick he didn’t like—created lavish pre-race shows in front of the main grandstands. They were the first to embrace the military and make it a major part of every World 600 weekend. Incrementally, Smith had an office complex, the spiffy Speedway Club, condos, production studios, VIP suites, and a huge outdoor video screen added. He broke the mold by spending millions to add lights so his major events (like this weekend’s 600) could be run at night. He invited almost major racing series in the world to come play in his backyard. It worked out well for some series; not so well for others.

But first and above everything there were those SIX-HUNDRED MILES!

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Not a mere 501 as a symbolic snub at the Indy 500, but 600 miles… making it the world’s longest closed-course race. Construction issues forced a three-week delay in the first race in 1960—from Memorial Day weekend to June 16—and according to one account “only” 35,000 fans showed, about half of what speedway officials proudly announced shortly afterward. (In time, they put the “burden” of that crowd estimate on the N.C. Highway Patrol).

Not surprisingly, there was scoring controversy, and a handful of disqualifications and deteriorating track conditions played a role in the outcome. Joe Lee Johnson was five laps behind leader Jack Smith, but still managed to win after a chunk of loose asphalt knocked a hole in Smith’s fuel cell, ruining his day. Johnson led the final 50 of the 400 laps in beating Johnny Beauchamp, Bobby Johns, and Richard and Lee Petty.

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Several days later, though, both Pettys, plus Junior Johnson, Bob Welborn, Lennie Page, and Paul Lewis were disqualified for making “improper entry” onto pit road. The official result shows only 54 starters when, in fact, the race actually began with 60. In another shot at Indy, they lined up three-wide and stretched 20 deep on the start.

This weekend’s 63th annual Coca-Cola World 600 likely won’t have those problems. Speedway officials have said the reserved grandstand seats already are sold out. Instead of 60 cars, the grid will include 37, three shy of NASCAR’s allowable 40-car field. Defending series champion Kyle Larson is the race’s defending champion, and although he's had some uncharacteristically bad finishes recently, he’s still among the odd-on favorites. The race will begin at twilight—around 6:20 ET—and drag on deep into the night. Most crews are ready for the daylight-into-night challenge and the changing track conditions that make the 600 different from other Cup Series events.

Perhaps surprisingly, two-time winner and former series champion Kevin Harvick is the only active driver with more than one victory in the 600. Six other active drivers have won it once: Austin Dillon, and former champions Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kurt Busch. With five, former champion and long-retired Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip has the most trophies.

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Seven drivers have gotten their initial Cup Series victory in the year’s longest race: Dillon, Casey Mears, and David Reutimann, plus former champions David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, and Bobby Labonte. If there’s a first-time winner on Sunday night it’ll likely be Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez, or rookie Harrison Burton.

NASCAR's Weekend at Charlotte:

• On a busy Friday afternoon and night, the ARCA Series will practice, qualify, and race for 150 miles; the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will practice, qualify, and race for 200 miles; and the NASCAR Xfinity Series will practice and qualify.

• Things ease up somewhat on Saturday, when the Xfinity Series races 300 miles in the afternoon and Cup Series practices and qualifies late in the afternoon and into the night.

• There are no on-track activities on Sunday until the Cup Series takes the green around 6:20 for 400 laps… yes, SIX-HUNDRED MILES.