CHARLOTTE, NC. It’s a little known fact that the four greatest races in the world all take place during the month of May. We’re talking about the Kentucky Derby, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 (aka, the Indy 500) and the Coca-Cola 600. All four have everything to do with the need for speed. But all four are wrapped up in legend and tradition as well.
One of May’s four greates races involves horses. The other three are more about “horse power.” We’re talking about demon drivers piloting some of this planet’s most exotic motor vehicles. The list ranges from stock cars to open-wheel, open-cockpit formula cars — better known as Indy Cars — to international Formula 1 racers.
Thoroughbred horses are the stars of the Kentucky Derby
Let’s begin today’s column with a hat tip to those ever-popular four-legged thoroughbred horses that racing fans love to bet on. The best of them will star in the annual Kentucky Derby. America’s long-time Great Race is always held in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May. What we also refer to as the “Run for the Roses” was actually the brainchild of Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of John Clark of Lewis & Clark fame.
In 1925, New York sports columnist Bill Corum was the guy who first dubbed the derby as the “Run for the Roses.” That’s because officials traditionally drape the winning horse with a garland of red roses, the official flower of the event.
Originally launched back in 1875, the 2019 edition of the Derby celebrates the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. The annual event marks the first leg of professional horse racing’s “Triple Crown” of three races. That short list also includes the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, both of which follow the Derby in order.
Also dubbed the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the record finish time in the history of the Derby was established in 1973. The winner that year was the legendary horse Secretariat, who completed the 1.25 mile distance in the record time of 1:59. On the other hand, the slowest Derby winner was Stone Street, who took 2:15 to achieve the same distance on a muddy track back in 1908.
Fillies and their famous hats
The first of only three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby was Regret in 1915. It would be 65 years before Genuine Risk would be victorious in 1980. She was followed by Winning Colors in 1988.
As with each of the four major races we highlight in today’s Myth Trivia edition, the Kentucky Derby is filled with local tradition. Two of the most popular are the wearing of outlandish hats and the singing of Stephen Foster’s appropriately entitled My Old Kentucky Home.
Initially it was the ladies who got into the outrageous hat act. This high-fashion tradition arose somewhat naturally, since May marks the traditional celebration of spring. And since women back in the day wanted to show off their latest, most fashionable and most lavish springtime bonnets. But perhaps surprisingly, even in today’s PC times, ladies attending the Derby continue to enjoy this tradition.
However, more recently, men stepped up and demanded hat equality. As might be expected, many of their hats have become increasingly more outlandish.
As for the Derby’s signature hymn. Written in 1853 by Stephen Foster, My Old Kentucky Home, was adopted as the state song of Kentucky in 1928. Since that time, the University of Louisville Marching Band has proudly played the song as everyone sings the first verse and chorus.
Jockeys and odds
Just for added trivial fun, the youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton who was only 15 in 1892 when he crossed the finish line. It’s record that will never be broken because jockeys must now be at least 16 to compete.
And for you heavy bettors, the longest odds to win came in 1913 when Donerail was victorious at 91 to 1.
Monaco Grand Prix Formula One race
On the international auto racing scene, we’re willing to bet you didn’t know this trivial nugget. Since Monaco thrives as a tax haven where every second person is a millionaire, many Formula One drivers have residences on the French Riviera, the renowned home of the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo.
However, it follows that another key reason for living there however, is Monaco’s zero-tolerance policy towards paparazzi. Now there’s an idea.
As for racing, the Moncao Grand Prix is definitely the “Champagne Circuit.” Its famous 2.08 mile, 16-turn track actually runs through the narrow streets of Monte Carlo. As such, it remains the only Grand Prix race that does not adhere to the mandated minimum distance of 189.52 miles. Ergo, at 161.88 miles, Monaco’s 78 lap Formula One race is easily the shortest on the Grand Prix calendar.
Even so, each year the Monaco Grand Prix requires constructing a whopping 22 miles of safety rails and 3.78 square miles of wire-catch fencing. The tiny, wealthy country also deploys 3,600 tires for additional barriers when preparing the course for the race.
Furthermore, Monaco features both the slowest corner, known as the Fairmont Hairpin (30 mph). It also boasts one of the fastest stretches in F1 racing, the flat-out kink in the tunnel (161.5 mph).
Monaco Grand Prix fun facts and factoids
- The inaugural year of the Monaco Grand Prix was 1950. In that race, Juan Manuel Fangio captured the very first checkered flag in an Alfa Romeo.
- Since then, Ayrton Senna has the most victories, claiming his first of 6 trophies in 1987 and winning five straight races from 1989 – 1993.
- Senior citizens fare well at the Monaco Grand Prix too considering that Louis Chiron was 55 in 1955 when he became the oldest Formula One driver to win the event.
- When Olivier Panis drove to the Winner’s Circle in 1996, he became the first French driver to win in a French car (Ligier) at Monaco in 66 years. Better yet, starting 14th in 1996, Panis also had the lowest position ever to win the race, although only four cars actually finished that edition of the race.
- For the record, the fastest lap ever turned at Monte Carlo belongs to Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari in 2004 at 1:14.439.
- Just for grins, drivers who complete the 78-lap event shift gears over 4,000 times.
The Indy 500
Now we proceed from champagne to milk as we return to the U.S. for the Indianapolis 500. Located in – surprise! – Indianapolis, Indiana, this annual racing event happens in the world’s largest spectator sporting facility. It boasts over a quarter of a million permanent seats.
So big is Indy, many claim that Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, Churchill Downs, the Colosseum in Rome and Vatican City all can fit inside its oval (253 acres).
Though you may find it hard to believe, the first Indy 500 (then known as the “International Sweepstakes”), held on May 30, 1911, crowned Ray Harroun as the victor. He won the honor by negotiating the trace at an average speed of “just” 74.602 mph.
Some 66 years later in 1977, Tom Sneva became the first driver to turn a lap at more than 200 mph.
Once nicknamed the “Brickyard,” the Indy’s racing surface consisted of 3.2 million street paving bricks in 1909. Today, the modern asphalt track retains one symbolic yard of the original historic brickwork. You can see today, still conspicuous at the Indy’s start-finish line.
Ladies, trophies and a jug of milk
As with the Kentucky Derby the women occasionally get into the racing fray. But not with hats. With racing cars. In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first of 10 females to compete in the annual race. Closer to the current era, Danica Partrick still owns the highest finish for a woman: Third-place in 2009.
The sterling silver Borg-Warner Trophy that’s awarded to each race’s winner, was first commissioned in 1935. That original trophy, created a cost of $10,000, is considerably more valuable now: over a $1 million.
But besides that cool trophy, each year’s winning driver allegedly treasures something even more. We refer to one of the favorite traditions of the Indy 500. That tradition traces its genesis back to 1936, when Louis Meyer requested a bottle of buttermilk after becoming the first three-time winner. Since 1956, each winner now drinks a bottle of milk in Victory Lane.
In 1946, the pre-race tradition of singing Back Home Again in Indiana has followed that of the Kentucky Derby. Jim Nabors, perhaps better known as “Gomer Pyle,” sang the song live just moments prior to the opening ceremonies in 1972.
We conclude our Indy 500 trivia grab bag on one unfortunate note. Due to the high speeds clocked in this race – speeds that have steadily increased over the decades – 14 drivers have been killed during competition at the Indy 500 thus far.
The Coca-Cola 600
Finally, we arrive at the somewhat lesser-known Coca-Cola 600. The youngest race in this collection, this one began in 1960. Organizers originally staged this race to compete with the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend. However, only later, in 1977, did all parties agree that both races would run on the same day.
The Coca-Cola 600 is a NASCAR stock car event held annually at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina. It currently bills itself as the longest race in the world on an oval track. The race commences with dropping the green flag in late afternoon. It now finishes under the lights, leaving approximately a one-hour break between the end of the Indy 500 and the start of the Coca-Cola 600.
Initially, few drivers competed in both races. They included Tony Stewart, who finished both events in 2001, driving a total of 1,100 miles in roughly 7 hours.
In 1977, two of racing’s most iconic drivers captured victories on the same day. That year, legends A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty took the honors. Foyt won won his fourth Indy 500 that year, while Richard Petty took home his second Coca-Cola 600 trophy.
The Coke 540 and NASCAR racing under the lights
Just three years earlier, the Coca-Cola 600 shortened its race to a controversial 540 miles due to a nationwide fuel shortage. Despite that, the event featured a record (up to that point) 37 lead changes. The mark that stands today was established in 1979 at 54.
Now one of NASCAR’s few night races, the Coca-Cola 600’s first experiment under the lights began in 1993.
In 2016, Martin Truex, Jr. not only ran the fastest Coca-Cola 600 in history at an average speed of 160.655 mph. He also led an astounding 392 of the 400 laps for a record distance of 588 miles. The following year, 2017, Danica Patrick became the first woman to ever lead the 600. She held top spot for 7 laps.
It’s easy to see why the month of May could well be the fastest month on the calendar. From champagne to milk and beer, starting in May, everything is “coming up roses.” For racing fans, the month begins with horses and ends with horsepower.
— Headline image: They’re off! Kentucky Derby, date unknown. Image via Wikipedia entry on the Kentucky Derby. Courtesy: Kentuckytourism.com.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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