Commentary

There is no better Sunday all year

Updated: May 21, 2009, 4:03 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- There is no longer such a thing as the greatest race in the world. But in sum, this weekend remains the best all year in motor racing.

It is Memorial Day weekend in the United States, Ascension Day weekend in Europe.

Sunday will mark the 93rd Indianapolis 500, the 72nd Grand Prix of Monaco and the 50th Coca-Cola 600.

That's 215 extravaganzas in all -- since 1911 at Indy, since 1929 through the streets of Monte Carlo, since 1960 at Charlotte.

There is tradition whichever way you turn.

None of the three is a bad place to be. My trouble is always that whichever one you're covering, you're not at the other two, so there is a sense of missing something.

There's nothing quite like the prerace circus here at Lowe's Motor Speedway, the mock battles and fireworks bombardments and airborne school buses and exploding stunt cars -- and then the race itself, the longest journey, from daylight deep into night, in all of oval-track racing.

But then there's nothing quite like the morning helicopter ride across the bay from Nice to Monaco, then walking deserted streets for hours because the locals don't bother to rise until noon, to perch on the terraces and in the windows of the grand hotels, and even high up in the granite cliffs around the city … and finally at 3 p.m. local time (Monaco starts its race when it pleases, FIA guidelines be damned) comes the formation lap and then the shrieking of the engines on the grid.

[+] EnlargeMonaco Formula One Grand Prix
AP Photo/David VincentThere is simply no more beautiful a place to race than Monaco.

And there is nothing like the moment Jim Nabors and the throng sing the final strains -- "When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash/Then I long for my Indiana home" -- and the sky fills with balloons and the tremendous roar goes up from the most mammoth grandstands on the face of the earth … and in minutes they start engines for what is still officially called, simply, the 500-Mile Race -- for it was the first one of that distance, ever, anywhere.

Each is unique, and so wherever you are, you are missing two unique races.

Satellite TV has helped some. Here at Lowe's (née Charlotte) Motor Speedway on Sunday, crewmen and drivers will watch Monaco with great enthusiasm, for they adore the Formula One mystique and the high technology. Then they'll watch Indy with equally high enthusiasm but for a different reason -- just because it's Indy, the 500-Mile Race.

At Indy, they'll watch Monaco before their race and Charlotte afterward. At Monaco, they'll watch Indy, but the NASCAR race doesn't start until the wee hours of Monday, European time.

This is the one time of the year when racers from the three major forms in the world openly express interest in, and admiration for, one another.

Maybe that's my favorite part of the last Sunday in May. I've always loved all three forms, pretty much equally.

Indy-Monaco-Charlotte. That used to be the shorthand for the weekend. Now the order of importance is open to debate and bickering.

Which should be on top?

[+] EnlargeLowes Motor Speedway
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonNothing beats the pageantry at Lowe's Motor Speedway before the Coca-Cola 600.

That's been hard to say, in these 13 years since the Indy 500 was toppled from the pinnacle by the onset of an American civil war in open-wheel racing. Peace was restored fully only last year -- far too little, far too late to restore anything like the prestige Indy cars enjoyed before the disastrous CART-IRL split of 1996.

Worse for open-wheel, the schism occurred just as NASCAR hit its steepest growth curve, so that its Cup division would become, undeniably, the No. 1 motor racing series in the U.S.

So now the order of importance depends on who and where you are. In the U.S., the order is probably Charlotte, Indy, Monaco. In the rest of the world it's Monaco, Indy, Charlotte.

F1 and NASCAR have clearly emerged as the two biggest racing series in the world, but they're very much like soccer and the NFL. F1, like soccer, rules everywhere in the world but in the United States. NASCAR, like the NFL, is dominant in the United States but nowhere else.

Monaco is beyond doubt the loveliest race in the world. But the nature of the venue makes crowds of more than 50,000 virtually impossible -- there's simply no place to put them. And the street circuit makes passing all but impossible, such that barring mishap, the driver who leads in the first corner at the start goes on to win.

The 600 isn't remotely the biggest race in the world because it isn't even the biggest in NASCAR. It's maybe third or fourth on the Cup tour in prestige, despite how the teams hallow it because they get to sleep in their own beds all weekend.

Indy -- poor, precious old Indy -- now towers only above all other events in a troubled, perhaps even dying, league, the IndyCar Series.

Little noticed, last offseason, series founder Tony George made a chilling remark in New York, to the SportsBusiness Journal Motorsports Marketing Forum.

[+] EnlargeIndy 500
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMore than 300,000 fans see the Indy 500 in person, many from the grandest grandstands on earth.

He said "there won't be a 2013" for IndyCar, if the series isn't profitable by then. The inference drawn recently by the Indianapolis Business Journal was that George might shut the series down.

But you know what? The Indy 500 has survived two world wars, the Great Depression and several upheavals in its structure. Who's to say it wouldn't emerge better off, as an independent race, without having to carry on its back a series that for 13 years has failed to rise above upstart status?

Formula One is deeply troubled entering Monaco this year, with Ferrari and Renault threatening to quit the series if the FIA doesn't lift the $60 million per team spending cap it has proposed beginning next season.

NASCAR's television ratings are down by double-digit percentages this season, races aren't sold out, only the top teams are fully funded and now there's the murky controversy that makes NASCAR look despotic, its refusal to reveal what substance Jeremy Mayfield tested positive for.

But time and again, down through the decades, one or two or all three of these races has been troubled, threatened. Yet they roll on, through the most telling statistic about their resilience: 93rd Indianapolis 500, 72nd Grand Prix of Monaco, 50th Coca-Cola 600.

That's staying power, on the greatest motor racing weekend of them all.

It's the one time of year I envy the race fan, who doesn't have to be in anybody's garages or on anybody's pit lane. You can be in all three places, from 9 a.m. to midnight, equipped with a far faster device than any supersonic jet -- your channel changer.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.