I had someone ask me a few weeks ago when I said that Darlington was my favorite race track, “So the Southern 500 is then your favorite race, correct?” Well, that’s not the case. Sure, I love Darlington, always will, as there’s no track like it on the circuit.
But, if you were to put together the entire aspect of a race, both leading in and afterward, my favorite race all year is the marathon that is the Coca-Cola 600.
The reason…the pre-race.
I say this because this race does more than just do the traditional pre-race of introducing the drivers, doing the parade laps, etc. With this race happening on Memorial Day weekend, something more becomes the focus. This race…no, actually instead I’m going to say this experience, focuses on those that have served, and continue to serve, in the Armed Forces.
Fans start getting into their seats early to see their drivers wave to them, but then the focus goes away from the racing, just for moments, but the bigger picture is revealed.
I was at this race in 2006 and 2007, and got to see first-hand the feeling one gets in the presence of so many soldiers. They perform training exercises right on the infield, giving the people an aspect of their training that each must endure and put to use when they are defending our freedom. Then the pre-race ceremonies begin, fans coming to their feet and removing their caps, except for the veterans in the stands (I will explain this in a second).
The invocation is said, and the 100,000-plus fans in attendance say “Amen” as one. At this point, this is when the Charlotte Motor Speedway sets itself apart from everyone. With nearly 10,000 troops lining the front straightaway, a bagpipe group plays Amazing Grace, a tradition that never seems to get old. Once it’s complete, seven soldiers march onto the stage, with another in the front giving commands.
“Right face…” he says, and the soldiers face them, guns in hand. “Ready,” all load their rifles…”Aim,” all point forward…”Fire,” and all go off. It’s repeated two more times, giving the 21-gun salute.
Once the soldiers are at attention, out comes the trumpet, for possibly the most emotional part of the entire ceremony. The playing of “Taps” to honor the fallen men and women brings tears to everyone, including those that knew some veterans and current soldiers personally. The National Anthem follows, and the soldiers on the track salute the flag, as it is revealed on the infield as well as flying around the track. Some fans sing along, some have hands over their hearts, but some are still wearing caps.
That’s not a sign of disrespect, because each one that was wearing them was also giving the salute, being veterans themselves and honoring the country they defended.
This year’s pre-race had a touching addition as a Bald Eagle flew across the track, from one handler in the stands to another on pit road, a fitting addition to the greatest pre-race ceremony in NASCAR.
I say this is an experience because in all honesty, television and radio never does it justice. It’s something that one has to be there to truly appreciate, because the sense of pride goes up, patriotism is at its peak, and long before the green flag waves, the weekend is made. Once the checkered flag waves, the fireworks cap off a night in which the race is not the big picture, because in reality it’s honoring the men and women currently serving, and also those that have served and given the ultimate sacrifice.
I don’t always want to play favorites, but in this case there’s no question that the race I look forward to each year is on Memorial Day weekend, because the race is still big, however every aspect leading into the green flag is as big, if not bigger, than the race itself.
Happy Memorial Day everyone, and to all the soldiers here and abroad, along with those that have served for the United States, I say thank you.
RESULTS: 1-Harvick 2-Kahne 3-Kurt Busch 4-Hamlin 5-Logano 6-Newman 7-Stewart 8-Bowyer 9-Truex 10-Ambrose
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Edwards 15-Kenseth 22-Johnson 29-Patrick 35-Gordon 36-Keselowski 38-Earnhardt Jr. 39-Kyle Busch
CAUTIONS: 11 for 61 laps. Lap 70-74 (Debris-T3 and T4), 115-119 (#13 Accident-T4), 123-130 (Debris-FS, RED FLAG 1-10 mins, 40 secs, RED FLAG 2-16 mins, 22 secs.), 243-248 (Debris-BS), 259-266 (#88, 16, 7, 93 Accident-T3), 305-309 (Debris-T1), 313-318 (Debris-T4), 320-324 (#10, 2 Accident-T3), 327-331 (#43, 55, 24, 47, 17, 13, 21 Accident-FS, RED FLAG 3-9 mins, 13 secs.), 335-338 (#48, 42, 20, 27, 14 Accident-T4), 386-389 (Debris-FS).
LEAD CHANGES: 24 among 12 drivers. Hamlin 1-6, Kenseth 7-23, Kahne 24-44, McMurray 45-46, Keselowski 47-48, Kahne 49-74, Kyle Busch 75-79, Kahne 80-115, Kyle Busch 116-175, Kahne 176, Keselowski 177, Kenseth 178-242, Kahne 243, Kenseth 244-273, Kahne 274-318, Kurt Busch 319-326, Harvick 327-340, Kahne 341-363, Harvick 364-366, Newman 367, Stewart 368-373, Edwards 374-380, Menard 381, Kahne 382-389, Harvick 390-400.
TIME OF RACE: 4 Hrs, 35 Mins, 49 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 130.521 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 1.49 Seconds
POINTS: 1. Johnson, 445 points; 2. Edwards, -32; 3. Kenseth, -51; 4. Bowyer, -60; 5. Kahne, -75; 6. Earnhardt Jr, -81; 7. Harvick, -83; 8. Menard, -98; 9. Truex, -109; 10. Keselowski, -110; 11. Kyle Busch, -113; 12. Almirola, -117