- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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500 miles is great. 600 miles is better.
Driving 1,100 miles in a matter of hours? That's Memorial Day perfection. But sadly, because a very small number of people can't seem to grasp the big picture, no one will have the chance to see if they have what it takes to complete America's two most grueling races in a single day.
The Indianapolis 500 by day and the Coca-Cola 600 (I still prefer to call it World 600) by night, from the cradle of all motorsports to the cradle of NASCAR in one dizzying, glorious marathon of speed. For real racers, "Double Duty" is an oil-covered badge of honor. But since 2004, those badges have been boxed up and hidden away.
"I wish I'd had the chance to try the Indianapolis and Charlotte double," Bobby Allison said during his visit to the Darlington race on May 9. NASCAR's third-winningest driver also made two Indy 500 starts in the early 1970's. "It seems kind of silly that they won't let anyone do it now."
Yes, Bobby, it does.
Between 1994 and 2004, three different men completed the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double, the immortal payoff for a month of logistical headaches, ridiculous travel expenses and …
"Fun," says John Andretti, the first to pull off the double in '94, finishing 10th at Indianapolis and arriving in Charlotte just in time for the green flag, only to be rewarded with a blown engine and a 36th-place finish. "It was hard, but man it was fun. I think for a true racer all you want to do is race every lap you can. And racing at Indianapolis and Charlotte? What else would a racer want?"
These days they just want a chance.
In 2004, Robby Gordon made his fifth and final attempt at the double. The following year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made sweeping changes to its May race calendar. Chief among those alterations was the decision to move the starting time of the 500 for the first time since 1963. In the hopes of grabbing a larger west coast television audience, the green flag was shifted from noon eastern to 1 p.m., which tightened the already too-tiny window between the finish of the 500 and the 5:30 pm start of the 600. As soon as the announcement was made, every racer who'd already started drawing up plans to attempt another double promptly tossed them into the garbage.
This year the closest thing we'll have to a driver double will be attempted by driver-turned-owner Richard Petty.
"The schedule was already too tight," Gordon says now. He would know. After weeks of booking cars, golf carts, helicopters and planes (he also offered Double Duty Tour travel packages for hardcore fans, who eagerly snapped up tickets) three of his double duty attempts ended up stressfully squeezed by rain delays at Indy. "No matter where you qualified at Charlotte you always knew that you would have to start in the rear of the field, because you were going to miss the prerace drivers meeting. That's how tight it was. Taking an hour away immediately made it impossible."
And that is precisely why the time shift made no sense.
"This is dumbest thing I've seen the Indianapolis Motor Speedway do," native son Tony Stewart told the Indianapolis Star at the tim. (In their defense, the move was made in conjunction with ABC.) Smoke successfully completed the double twice. In 2001 he completed all 1,110 miles and finished in the top five in both races, creating a month-long media windfall for both events.
"What made it not so fun was all the media hype," Stewart recently admitted. "The writers wondering if I was too out of shape and the cameras constantly following us around for weeks got old. But from the track and the Indy Racing League perspective, you have to wonder if it was smart to just cut off all of that media attention, especially when we're all so desperate for sponsor exposure on both sides of the sport."
Though he swears that he's done with doubles, one can't help but wonder if Stewart, the newly-established NASCAR team owner, wouldn't be tempted to field open wheel rides for himself and teammate/employee/fellow USAC sprint car veteran Ryan Newman. Newman is still smarting from 2008, when he wasn't even allowed to seriously entertain a proposal from then-boss Roger Penske, who floated the idea of letting Newman try to back up his Daytona 500 victory by becoming the first driver to win both 500's in the same year.
Even if he'd blown up on lap one, the attention heaped onto the Indy 500 would have been the most non-Danica attention they'd gotten up there in a long time.
Imagine the cross-country love fest that would take place in living rooms around the nation as they dug in for a full day of racing across two time zones and two television networks. Imagine the electricity in the air as Stewart, Newman, Andretti, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Junior and -- what the hell? -- Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy and yes, even Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick all took the checkered flag at Indy to the thunderous applause of 350,000 and then boarded a charter jetliner together for Charlotte. One hour later, they'd arrive at the Lowe's Motor Speedway via a fleet of helicopters, landing in the infield grass to the thunderous applause of 200,000.
Think of the storylines, the cross-promotional opportunities and the sponsorship money to be made. This isn't the 1990's anymore, when the largest American racing leagues were slugging it out for national supremacy. During these lean economic times, shouldn't everyone be working together for the common good?
Aren't these potentially landscape-altering possibilities, or even a third of these possibilities, worth changing the schedule back to the way it was? Back one measly hour?
The perfect opportunity to make that change will be 2011, the centennial year of the Indianapolis 500. Why not take measures that will all but guarantee that the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will field the most star-studded field of 33 in the unparalleled history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
"As many NASCAR races as I started, those four races I started at Indianapolis gave me a thrill like no other," says Cale Yarborough, who finished a career-best 10th in the 1972 Indy 500. "Sitting on the grid and listening to the marching bands with no roof over my head, just sky … I hadn't had that feeling since I'd been in the Soapbox Derby back in Timmonsville, South Carolina. It seems like an awful shame to deny these guys today a chance to experience that."
Then the three-time Cup champ smiled, winked, and pointed to the stock cars being pushed to the grid. "I tell you what. If the Indy Car people won't let these guys do it, tell them I'd be willing to take their place."