The Coca-Cola 600 is not too long … but some other races are

Memorial Day weekend traditionally brings about the longest race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule when drivers and teams make their way to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600. But in a time when the sanctioning body has shown a willingness to make changes to its racing slate, the question of whether or not the 600-mile distance of one of the sport’s most notable events is too long might be considered.

Let’s just start right here by saying the Coca-Cola 600 should never change. After all, this race, along with the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500, is one of the ‘Crown Jewel’ events on the NASCAR schedule and is not to be tampered with. It is a part of the lore of the sport. This race is a history maker because of its tradition along with its Memorial Day date and the recognition that goes with that. It is not just a part of the racing calendar, it is a centerpiece of the racing calendar.

But beyond the three races mentioned as crown jewels, there is need for some change regarding the distances of some Cup Series shows.

I am an old guy(54) and I think like an old guy. Yes, I actually remember seeing Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Waltrip and Allison in person and am well aware of the traditions of the sport. And one of those traditions was to have long races so that the men and machines could be fully tested not only for speed but also for durability. But the reality is, those days have passed.

Granted, the Next Gen car has shown some reliability issues during the early part of its first season but there is little doubt that as engineers and crew members gain more understanding of the machine over time, those issues will begin to fade away and the car will prove to be as bulletproof as its predecessor was. The teams and equipment in NASCAR are so good that the cars just don’t break down like they did in the 1970s and 1980s.

And as far as the physical testing of the drivers goes, these guys are in great shape. They workout routinely with personal trainers, they eat right, they hydrate, and they rest appropriately. Also, they have cool suits, power steering and other comforts that the guys mentioned above either never had or didn’t have until the very end of their careers. Quite simply, they don’t wear out behind the wheel as quickly as their forefathers did.

So the idea of having long races to serve as tests of man and machine is far less relevant than was the case 30 or 40 years ago.

Even with that said, why mess with the tradition of ‘500’ being a key number in terms of race distance?

Whether folks my age want to admit it or not, the world is changing to fit the lifestyles of younger generations. If sports leagues, including NASCAR, are to survive in this changing world, they will have to adapt. Obviously, if the NBA, the NFL, and the MLB cannot convince young people to follow their sports, their days of remaining a significant part of the American or even world landscape will be numbered.

More than just the idea of racing needing to attach itself to a younger demographic is the fact that, like it or not, NASCAR and other forms of motorsports are now ‘Made-for-TV’ happenings rather than being centered on the fan experience at the track. Make no mistake, attendance is still important but the real money is now made in the selling of TV rights and the commercial revenue that is derived from the broadcasts.

This is even becoming true in the so-called grassroots levels of racing as numerous streaming services now air live coverage of dirt and pavement racing events from local shows up to the big national events.

Using other sports as a guide, a window of approximately two to three hours seems to work best. Anything longer than three hours can be difficult for the person who may have an interest but is not necessarily a die-hard fan to follow. NBA games typically fit within that window. The NFL and MLB have been, over the past few years, working on ways to speed up their games, and thus, reduce the amount of time that one has dedicate for viewing.

With all of this in mind, the need for races of 500 miles or 500 laps in length seems to be diminishing.

Is there really a need for 500 miles at Talladega to get to the same inevitable conclusion that would be reached if the race were 400 miles? There is going to be some jockeying for position during the day with a wreck or two mixed in. But as the laps wind down, cars are going to begin shuffling until a massive crash occurs with three laps or less to go before a survivor(I mean winner) is determined.

After watching last week’s NASCAR All-Star Race, I can’t think of any reason for a race to go for 500 miles at the Texas Motor Speedway, which will be the case in September. Perhaps a 400-mile race would not allow for enough carnage or enough follow-the-leader.

To carry that point further, considering how the Cup race at Martinsville Speedway went earlier this year, 500 laps seems a bit unnecessary. While that track and its events do have a lot of history behind them, neither of their races are the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600.

The recent Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 on the paper clip-shaped half-mile ran for 2:40:30, which in the freezing cold of that evening, seemed much longer. The Xfinity 500 slated for October 30th of this year will, obviously, be a 500-lap affair. Last year’s fall race at Martinsville ran for 3:42:48 and that’s too long.

The race held on the newly configured Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this season covered a distance of 500 miles. That event lasted for just a shade under four hours. Again, that’s too long when the 400-mile distance that will be used there in July would suffice.

The 400-mile race at AMS last July took up just under three hours.

I am a history teacher by profession and because of that have a fondness for things that are old and traditional such as the 500-mile race. But at the same time, history teaches us that we are often called upon to change with the times in order to survive. It may be time for NASCAR to make a change for the purpose of keeping younger audiences engaged, and thus, survive.

As a father of three teenagers and a high school teacher of more than 30 years, I can assure you that the attention spans of young people are not what they were when I first started in my chosen profession. Years ago, I would have never written something like this piece. But now, I have come to realize that the world isn’t geared toward me and if some things such as NASCAR are to continue into the future, change will be necessary.

Keeping the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 at their traditional distances would make them special if no other races ran to those lengths. And the reality is, there is no need for any other race to run to those distances.

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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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