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How the Coca-Cola 600 became a crown jewel event for NASCAR

The history of big event auto racing in Charlotte goes back nearly a century.

The Charlotte Motor Speedway opened in 1960, but it was not the first superspeedway built in the Charlotte area. 

Decades before NASCAR became a reality; a 1.25-mile board track was constructed just outside Charlotte in Pineville. The track boasted long sweeping 40-degree banked corners and incredible speeds. The facility was built using 3,000,000 board feet of lumber. 

The inaugural event was scheduled for October 25, 1924, and entries featured many Indy 500 champions. Tommy Milton won the 250-mile event at a speed of 118.17 mph, 20 miles per hour faster than that year’s Indy 500.

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Financial problems plagued the track, including the expensive upkeep of the racing surface. The final events were held in 1927, with the shadow of the Great Depression in the future; the board track era was over in Charlotte.

Following World War II, the nation was ripe for new sporting events, and the southeast was especially ripe for motorsports.

When NASCAR held its first events in 1948, the Charlotte area was already a hotbed for racing. The area’s red dirt tracks and numerous county fairgrounds were prime spots, and the moonshine legacy of the nearby mountains made for a winning combination.

On June 19, 1949, NASCAR held its first “Strictly Stock” race at the Charlotte Speedway located on Little Rock Road near the Charlotte airport. The Strictly Stock Series became Grand Nationals in 1950 and evolved into the Cup series of today.

In the 1949 season for the stock car series, three of the eight races were run in North Carolina – Charlotte, Hillsboro, and North Wilkesboro.

Auto racing was booming in the Charlotte area. Seven different tracks in the Charlotte area hosted Cup events before Charlotte Motor Speedway opened, and 21 other tracks in North Carolina hosted Cup events before CMS.

The construction of purpose-built superspeedway tracks in the south took a decade to gain momentum.

In 1950, Darlington Raceway became the first paved superspeedway to host a 500-mile NASCAR Cup event. Harold Brasington’s creation captured the imagination of the stock car racing community. Still, it would take nine years before the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway would usher in a new era for NASCAR. 1959 also found the construction of new speedways at Charlotte and Atlanta underway. Both tracks faced severe financial, construction, and weather hurdles.

Charlotte Motor Speedway was scheduled to host its inaugural event on Memorial Day weekend in 1960. When the completion of the track made that race date impossible, it was rescheduled three weeks later to June 19.

Why 600 miles? Memorial Day auto racing had belonged to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for nearly 50 years before CMS was built. How would a stock car race ever gain traction against the Indy 500? Track owners Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner wanted to create a bigger, longer race. It was an ambitious undertaking, but Smith and Turner were never shy about taking on a challenge.

Far from an artistic success, the rough, uncured track surface caused numerous problems for that first race. Six of the sport’s most prominent stars – Richard Petty, Lee Petty and Junior Johnson among them — were disqualified for cutting through the quad-oval grass for pit stops to replace blown tires. 

Jack Smith held a seven-lap lead on the field with less than 50 laps to go before a chunk of the tracks surface ruptured his gas tank. Joe Lee Johnson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, earned his second and final career win with a four-lap margin of victory over Johnny Beauchamp. Only 18 of the 60 starters were classified as running at the finish of the five and a 1/2-hour event. David Pearson finished 10th, with 33 laps behind.

Six races later in the 1960 season, Atlanta Motor Speedway held its first event, a 300-miler won by Fireball Roberts.

A new superspeedway was built at Rockingham in 1965, then a late boom at the end of the decade saw Talladega, Michigan, Dover, and Texas World Speedway host NASCAR Cup events before 1970.

How did the Charlotte Coca Cola (World) 600 gain its status as a crown jewel event with this speedway boom?

Some of the early designations given by the media of the crown jewel events named Darlington as the oldest, Daytona as the biggest, and Charlotte as the longest. It wasn’t until 1969, when LeeRoy Yarbrough captured all three events in the same season, some recognition was given to that accomplishment.

In 1985, then-series entitlement sponsor Winston initiated a new million-dollar prize program to recognize the crown jewel events and added a fourth event to the crown, the Winston 500 at Talladega. The crown was made of the oldest, the biggest, the longest, and now the fastest. Simple task – win three of the four events, and a million-dollar prize would be yours. Never dreaming that could be accomplished, Bill Elliott earned the honors in that 1985 season to forever be known as “Million Dollar Bill.”

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The four Crown Jewel events were established and remained so until 1994 when Indianapolis and the Brickyard 400 were added to the schedule. Over the next few years, Winston changed its awards program to the “No Bull 5,” and the rotation of events were moved to different occasions. 

The status of the Coca Cola 600 as a crown jewel event only grew from its auspicious debut. As the NASCAR racing community migrated to the Charlotte area, teams and businesses looked at the area as its hub. If you are a singer/songwriter, you want to go to Nashville; if you’re going to work in the NASCAR industry, you move to Charlotte.

The Coca-Cola 600 has been a showcase for superstars and upset winners. NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson (1961), Jeff Gordon (1994), and Bobby Labonte (1995) all earned their first career win in the 600, as did Matt Kenseth (2000), Casey Mears (2007), David Reutimann (2009), Austin Dillon (2017).

PHOTOS: First-time winners of the Coca-Cola 600

Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip has more 600 wins than anyone with five. Jimmie Johnson has four, while Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Pearson have three wins each in NASCAR’s longest race.

With their shops just minutes away from the speedway, Hendrick Motorsports is that all-time win leader for teams with 11 victories.

The 600 has clearly defined itself as a crown jewel event. It has epitomized the toughness of driver and machine to endure in the most trying circumstances that sport has to offer in a showcase arena.