Commentary

C'mon, people, is anyone really gonna miss that extra 100 miles?

The best part of a 500-mile Sprint Cup race? We have time to mow the grass and clean out the garage before the real action begins, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: August 2, 2008, 2:51 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

We who love racing have a problem that we need to address, and this weekend at Pocono Raceway, that dependency will be on display for the world to see … for at least 3½ hours.

No, Mr. President, I'm not talking about our "addiction" to oil.

And no, Mr. Cruise, I'm not talking about the need for speed.

I'm talking about our obsession with the number 500. As in, why exactly are we enduring 500 miles of racing this weekend?

"Are races too long?" Jeff Burton answers the question by repeating it. "Some of them, yes. Some races you're so busy in the car you don't realize you've been out there for four hours. But in others you'll swear that you must be near the end and the spotter clicks in and says, 'One hundred laps to go.'"

Same goes for the fan at home watching on TV, or the guy sitting in the searing summer sun in the grandstand. Do we really need to be tied down for four hours every week?

When Major League Baseball games last four hours, fans react as if they are being tortured and the league tells the umpires to get their act together.

If a regular-season Sunday afternoon NFL game lasts more than three hours, commissioner Roger Goodell's office is likely to send out the National Guard.

So why do NASCAR track owners insist on keeping races such as this weekend's Pocono event eternally stuck on the five-century mark? Eighteen of this year's 36 Cup Series events have "500" in the title. That's at least eight too many.

"There's something romantic about that No. 500," says former Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler. "When stock car racing was desperate to capture the imagination of sports fans, they did anything they could to conjure up images of the Indianapolis 500. And the number was the easiest way to do that."

NASCAR's first speedway race was a 500-miler. With its inaugural Southern 500 in 1950, Darlington was unabashedly trying to be the Indianapolis of the South. Track founder Harold Brasington attended the Indy 500 in 1933 and decided he wanted to bring that kind of huge racing event to his backyard in South Carolina. Seventeen years later, amid screams of "Look at this moron," he did it. The screams stopped.

When I was running in the Busch Series, I used to love watching Cup races on Sunday. I could watch the start and then, during the middle, I had time to go take a shower and take my kids to the mall or something and still get home in plenty of time to see the finish.

-- Randy LaJoie

In 1959, Bill France Sr. opened his new superspeedway in Florida and threw the green flag on the Daytona 500. One year later, Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner, eager to open their brand-new Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's) with a bigger bang, rolled out the World 600.

Those three races lasted an average of 5½ hours, and although the finish of the first Daytona 500 was a classic, the events were mostly exercises in boredom.

"It felt a lot like the 24 Hours of Daytona," recalls Hershel McGriff, who finished ninth in that first Darlington event, 26 laps down to winner Johnny Mantz. "You just rode around trying to survive, and every lap, you'd ride by the flagman thinking, 'Please throw that checkered flag soon.'"

Today's 500-ish events might not be quite that brutal, but their lengthiness all but ensures that the middle 300 miles or laps are all but meaningless. Even the most die-hard of NASCAR fans has to admit that the middle stanza is reserved for mowing the grass, checking projects off the honey-do list or taking a nap.

"When I was running in the Busch Series, I used to love watching Cup races on Sunday," says two-time Nationwide champ Randy LaJoie. "I could watch the start and then, during the middle, I had time to go take a shower and take my kids to the mall or something and still get home in plenty of time to see the finish."

So, why not save us all the trouble and trim the 500s to 400? Would it really damage the credibility of this weekend's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 if it were the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 400? Or do we really think that Bristol would suddenly have trouble selling tickets if its night race were the Sharpie 400 instead of the Sharpie 500?

I'm telling you, we wouldn't miss it. Besides, we've been here before. In the mid-1990s, tracks began to trim their races from 500 miles to 400. Rockingham and Dover both trimmed 100 miles off their races, and even Darlington dropped a C-note from its 35-year-old spring event. They cut race times by as much as an hour or more, and guess what? No one even noticed.

"We sold fewer hot dogs," remembers then-Rockingham president Jo DeWitt Wilson. "Other than that, everyone seemed pretty pleased."

Especially the competitors.

"No one loves Rockingham more than I do," says Kyle Petty, who earned three of his eight career wins at The Rock. "But it didn't bother me one bit to get out of the car an hour earlier than we had been."

Under my new "End The 500 Madness" plan, three races would remain at 500 miles or more due to a grandfather clause -- Daytona, Darlington and Charlotte's May race. Everywhere else -- Atlanta, Bristol, California, Martinsville, Pocono, Talladega (I'm including the Aaron's 499) and Texas, plus Charlotte's fall event -- goes to 400 or fewer miles/laps.

Any racetrack executives who fear going into some sort of sleepless, apoplectic state without their beloved "500" printed on their tickets may choose to take what I like to call the Phoenix Plan -- in which 500 is perfectly OK … as long as it stands for 500 kilometers -- just as Phoenix International Raceway has always done. PIR races are 312 laps, good for 312 miles and, yes, 500 kilometers. And its past three races have lasted 3 hours, 1 minute or less.

Our teachers always told us we eventually would switch to the metric system. Why not start this weekend?

I've got 500 reasons why we should.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

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