LAS VEGAS — Which was tougher: qualifying for the Indy 500, jetting to partake in the Monaco Grand Prix and then zipping back to race in the 500, or completing all 1,100 miles of the 500 and Coca-Cola 600 the same day?
Sir Jackie Stewart accomplished the former during a 16-day stretch in 1966 in which he won Monaco and nearly won Indy. On May 27, 2001, Tony Stewart achieved the latter. Nobody else has pulled off either feat.
“Tough question,” says Ron Kantowski, my ace gearhead source. “I would think Jackie Stewart’s was most impressive because of the car that he raced and that dangerous era, compounded by traveling overseas.”
Since Sunday is the Greatest Day in Motorsports, featuring the 79th Monaco Grand Prix, 106th Indianapolis 500 and 63rd Coca-Cola 600, I tapped Kantowski for other insights, especially the three victors.
(At books that allow multiple-race parlays, $100 invested in his trio would earn about $8,480 if all win.)
Kantowski, 65, is the former slick second baseman for the Whiting (Indiana) High Oilers who has attended 34 Indy 500s. His old man wasn’t an aficionado, but every race day he’d slink into his hammock and tune the Philco to Sid Collins.
“The Voice of the 500,” Kantowski says. “It was such a big deal, Dad even listened to it. I can’t even change the oil in my car. Embarrassing. But I love the whole aura of racing.
“It’s something I don’t understand. You’re born with it, I guess. I’m fascinated by these guys and the risks they take to go fast.”
He moved to Las Vegas in 1987, turned race cars into a beat and has penned sports columns for its two main papers, since 2010 for the Review-Journal.
He sat shotgun to Mario Andretti in a special IndyCar at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2005.
“Eight laps. We hit 193 [mph],” Kantowski says. “Scared the [expletive] outta me.”
At the 1989 Mirage grand opening, he chatted with Sir Jackie for 90 minutes. “Thrill of a lifetime,” Kantowski says.
He inquired why the early-1980s Caesars Palace Grand Prix failed.
“Because you can’t hold a Grand Prix in a bloody car park.”
MONACO GRAND PRIX
James Garner experienced the most fun he ever had on a movie set while filming “Grand Prix” in 1966. “Hell,” he wrote in an autobiography, “it was the most fun I’ve ever had, period!”
He did his own driving in director John Frankenheimer’s big-budget extravaganza, in which the crew filmed during F1 races in Europe, including the crown-jewel Monaco.
Alberto Ascari had sailed his Lancia into Port Hercule in 1955, replicated by Paul Hawkins’ Lotus in 1965. In “Grand Prix,” Garner and his Formula Three BRM, dolled up to resemble an F1 beast, wind up in the drink.
Kantowski hails the film’s re-mastering.
(F1 will race through Vegas streets in late 2023. Station Casinos already has posted winning-team odds: Red Bull at 11-to-10, Ferrari 9-5. And if someone lands in the Bellagio fountains? “That,” Kantowski laughs, “would be a great prop.”)
The tight 76-lap race through Monaco’s hills leaves no room for error, Sir Jackie wrote. Some believe it’s an anachronism that should disappear due to scant passing spots.
“It’s flawed, but it’s glorious for it,” racing journo Matt Beer wrote.
Its decibel levels, echoing high off luxury villas and hotels, are indescribable, former Scorpions drummer Herman “Ze German” Rarebell told me in 2006. A 20-year resident, he said it felt as if they were racing in the living room.
Different drivers have won the last four Monaco races. This season, Max Verstappen has won four F1 races, Charles Leclerc the other two.
“I pick whoever gets to the first corner first,” Kantowski says. “Max or Charlie? I’ll go with Max.”
Kantowski’s pick: Max Verstappen (+120 at DraftKings).
Over the last dozen 500s, only Takuma Sato has two victories. Yet, he’s 18-1 at DraftKings, 2019 winner Simon Pagenaud is 25-1 and four-time victor and defending champ Helio Castroneves is 28-1.
Kantowski watched Scott “The Iceman” Dixon rule qualifying last weekend, when the Kiwi touched a record 234 mph to win the pole.
Dixon, 41, is a six-time IndyCar season champion who won the Indy pole in 2008 and that race. He also won poles in 2015, ’17 and ’21, with a best finish of fourth. Says Kantowski, “To me, he’s so overdue.”
Kantowski’s pick: Scott Dixon (+500 at DraftKings).
Not being a gearhead, the greatness of Tony Stewart revealed itself to me in researching this story.
“You’re very, very content to lay your head on a pillow,” he told AutoWeek about his 2001 Indiana-to-Carolina logging of 1,100 miles. “And even when you do that, it still feels like it’s not stopped moving yet.”
Robby Gordon, John Andretti and Kurt Busch also have started both races, flying via two choppers and a private jet from Indy to make the Coca-Cola start at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.
Busch attempted the twin-bill in 2016, finishing sixth at Indy — the car was good enough, he told Kantowski, but the driver wasn’t — and his engine blew in Concord.
The last five 600s have featured different winners. Martin Truex Jr. has two triumphs in the last six iterations. He has six top-eight finishes in 2022 but no victories, and Kantowski calls him “snake-bit.”
Kantowski’s pick: Chase Elliott (+550 at DraftKings).