Tomorrow is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the moment where Formula 1, NASCAR, and IndyCar line up to host some of their biggest events on the same traditional date. While all three races are historically important, only one has put on a consistently excellent show over the past decade. Watch all three of the Indianapolis 500, Monaco Grand Prix, and Coca-Cola 600, but schedule your weekend around Indy.
You know the history that makes the Indianapolis 500 important. It is the oldest major auto race in America, the reason auto racing grew independently in North America over a century and the single event that has kept American open wheel racing alive even in its most lean years. Over 300,000 attendees are expected this year, and that will not even be a record crowd. What makes the modern race special, though, is what happens on track.
Of the past 12 races, all but three ended with the winner in doubt over the final two laps. The first half of the decade saw four classics in five races: 2011, the last race with the old car, ended with a rookie crashing from the lead on the final corner to hand the win to Dan Wheldon. 2012 ended when Takuma Sato made an all-or-nothing move into turn 1, spinning from the inside and handing Dario Franchitti the win. Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay traded the lead four times in the final four laps of the 2014 race, with Hunter-Reay making the winning pass into turn 1 on the final lap. In 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya made the pass for the win with 3 to go.
2016's battle was not between cars, but between one team and its own aggressive strategy. Alexander Rossi won the race with a miraculous fuel save, taking what has become a career-defining victory as a rookie in the hundredth running of the event. In 2017, Takuma Sato made the winning pass on Helio Castroneves with five to go. The 2019 race saw Simon Pagenaud make the winning move in turn 3 on the second-to-last lap. 2021's winning move by Helio Castroneves came with two to go. Last year's race was a standout in that there was no winning pass in the final two laps; instead, Marcus Ericsson threw a winning block on the front straight to keep Pato O'Ward from having a shot at victory into turn 1 on the final lap.
That is nine classics since 2011. By contrast, the races in Monaco and Charlotte have largely been notably bad by the standards of their own series. The Monaco Grand Prix has become worse by the year as progressively larger cars struggle to find places to fit two-wide in passing corners at a track so narrow. The Coca-Cola 600 has generally suffered from NASCAR's struggles to put on competitive races on intermediate ovals throughout that same stretch, although the introduction of the Next Gen car meant that last year's race was at least an improvement. Those tight conditions mean that Monaco is also often plagued by red flags, while reductions in power and additional mandatory cautions mean that the 600-miler in Charlotte now takes an astonishingly long time to actually complete.
IndyCar is the least popular of the three series hosting races on Sunday, but the Indianapolis 500 is the best show in auto racing, anywhere in the world. It would be if it were not a 110-year-old race, it would be if the entire state of Indiana suddenly decided it was no longer an event worth attending en masse. Add in the spectacle and pageantry that made the race so famous and you have the must-watch crown jewel of the racing calendar.
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