The Frontstretch: The Track Too Tough To Watch: How To Change The Boredom At California With One Simple Fix by Danny Peters -- Tuesday February 24, 2009

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The Track Too Tough To Watch: How To Change The Boredom At California With One Simple Fix

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday February 24, 2009


As you’ve likely read plenty of places over the past 48 hours, the Auto Club Speedway is a much maligned venue – arguably the least popular of the twenty-two tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Interest is sparse, attendance is — to put it politely — “not the best,” and in general fans breathe a sigh of relief when the haulers pull out of the West Coast circuit and head for the dubious delights of Sin City.

There are many miles to be run and many races to scratch off the slate (thankfully) before we return to Fontana; but like it or not, the Auto Club Speedway is going to matter much more than ever before in 2009. Like it or not, the track is moving up in the NASCAR hierarchy — and slap bang into the ten-race Chase to decide the sport’s 2009 Sprint Cup champion. The switcheroo of race dates with Atlanta and Talladega from the ’08 schedule means that the next time Cup cars fire up at Fontana, the stakes will now be significantly higher with its second 500-miler shifting to a brand new race date in mid-October. Yes, it’s completely correct to say Labor Day Weekend had been an important race for Chase hopefuls in the last five years — but there’s a huge difference between two races before and four races into the “hallowed” Chase format. As a result, the race will, by necessity, take on a far greater importance in the context of the wider season as a whole. The question is whether the fans will react to the elevated status of the Los Angeles Media Market’s primary Motorsports venue and finally cause a sellout. But with the best opportunity yet in Auto Club’s 12 years as a NASCAR track on her plate, you can be sure Speedway President Gillian Zucker will be doing everything she possibly can to hype this thing Hollywood-style and pack the stands.

The trouble is, though, that the racing at Fontana is inherently less exciting than at many of the other Cup tracks (apologies to one of FS’ most dedicated posters, Kevin in SoCal, for bashing the venue again — but it’s true). That means despite the geographic proximity to millions of “potential fans,” Fontana remains a tough sell – especially in this economy.

So, how to you fix the race track without spending millions of dollars on repairs? I’m with Michael Waltrip, who mentioned what was then deemed a radical idea at the start of the 2008 season. His plan would be to turn the Auto Club Speedway into a Restrictor Plate track, evening up the racing at a 2-mile oval which has qualifying speeds fast approaching 190 miles an hour.

After enduring yet another snoozefest at Auto Club this weekend, I think Waltrip’s plan is an idea that has merit. The change would provide an instant one-two punch to the start of the season, with two almost guaranteed to be exciting “picture perfect” finishes. The change would up the proportion of plate tracks on the slate from four to six; but given the relative positions of the plate races in the schedule, it would work out well. In fact, teams and crews could now concentrate on the restrictor plate program for two straight races at the outset of the season, rather than going from one extreme to the other in racing terms (along with the hassle of traveling 3,000 miles out West following NASCAR’s Super Bowl).

So, would the change in racing style resonate and “fill in” some of those gaps in the grandstands in October? Well, you’d figure the fans would respond to the more “primal” nature of restrictor plate races rather than rain-addled hours of strung-out, sleep-inducing racing. At this point, any idea packaged in the context of livening up the racing is worth trying for a track struggling to bring in more fans.

The change would also give us two plate races in the Chase – something the rank and file traditionalists might blanch at. But let’s be fair here; when NASCAR implemented the new system, they gave up all pretense at crowning the best driver over the course of an entire season — so why not two wild card events in the final ten? It would up the ephemeral “excitement” quotient, that’s for sure.

For now, though, restrictor plates out West remain just a pipe dream and are very unlikely to happen. So, in the absence of snarling 30-strong packs tearing around the two-mile circuit, we’ll likely see a similar style of racing to that we’ve seen in the past 18 events — which, as I stated earlier, isn’t really the best.

In other news… four thoughts on the nascent season to date:

Jimmie’s back at “The Track Too Tough to Watch”
By his own very high standards, a ninth place finish is a “ho hum” effort for Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway – despite the 74 laps led and a second place qualification effort. The back-to-back-to-back Cup Champ won his first race he ever attempted in his home state back in April 2002; since then, in thirteen tries, he has a lowest finish of 16th. His last seven attempts indicate his crushing dominance in California: 2nd, 11th, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 9th place yesterday. It’s highly appropriate, some might argue, that the corporate-bearded drone is at his most relentlessly efficient at the “Track Too Tough to Watch.” But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the road to the 2009 Sprint Cup crown goes through Jimmie J. Drivers finishing above him should be in very good shape — even this early in the season.

A.J. Allmendinger was one of the drivers battling Matt Kenseth for a win at Daytona; but in this tough economy, a third place finish in the Great American Race may not be enough to earn him a full season driving the No. 44 Dodge.

Someone, somewhere please sponsor A.J.
How can you not love this guy? His appearance on Trackside Live (my favorite NASCAR show: you really should check it out if you don’t watch it) was an instant classic. His response to Darrell Waltrip’s question “What happened that turned you into a real racing driver?” (meant much more innocently than it’s phrased) was brilliant. “I always was a real race car driver,” said A.J., full of fire and brimstone, “I just had to prove it to you lots.” Well said.

Sunday represented the 46th time A.J.’s strapped into a Sprint Cup car, and the signs are clear to see that the more he runs, the better he gets (the ‘Dinger is a career-high 14th in Sprint Cup points just two races into the year). I fervently hope some sponsor somewhere will step up and fund the Los Gatos, California native — because NASCAR needs more kids like Allmendinger.

Michael McDowell loves to make headlines for the wrong reason
After last year’s barrel roll extraordinaire in qualifying at Texas, Michael McDowell made headlines again this past weekend with a fiery crash in Saturday’s Nationwide race. The driver of the number 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing entry tagged the wall in turn two (via contact) and the back of his car quickly erupted into flames.

To his credit, the wry McDowell noted on his radio scanner, without an ounce of fear in his voice: “It’s completely exploded.” Undeterred by the flaming wreck his car had become, he then drove his vehicle off the track, pulled up next to the fire safety truck, and exited the car like he’d just completed a relaxing Sunday drive. I’d like to pretend I’d be that nonchalant — but I highly doubt it.

The KB Factor
What a performance from Kyle Busch this past weekend, doing something no other driver in history has done by winning both the Truck and the Nationwide races on the same day before finishing third in the Big Show. Yet in a sure sign that fans pick their favorite drivers through blinkered emotion rather than reflective rationality, KB is still lustily booed everywhere — and Auto Club Speedway proved no exception to this rule. I get that he has a touch of the “movie bad guy” about him… but this kid can flat out wheel a car. As with A.J., NASCAR needs characters like “Busch Junior” in a bad way. I hope that as time goes on, Kyle’s fan base grows; he’s the real deal and a future Series champion, no question.

And finally … congratulations to Hugh Laurie, aka FOX’s Dr. (Gregory) House, on being the first Englishman I can remember to give the command to start engines. Hearing those most famous words in motorsport spoken by a fellow countryman made this NASCAR columnist very happy — and not just a little nostalgic for family and friends on the other side of the pond.

Contact Danny Peters

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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Kevin in SoCal
02/24/2009 02:21 AM

I cant see making it a restrictor plate track will make the fans happy either. Many “old-school” NASCAR fans hate the restrictor plate racing too. I’d just as soon give up the Feb date to Iowa Speedway, as I’ve said before, and leave the track with one date like it was before. The track was just fine with one date, and we didnt have this issue. But once NASCAR made the stupid decision to take away a date from Darlington, on Labor Day of all things, and give it to California, is when the problems started.
Thanks for the shout-out by the way. I’ve never fallen asleep to the sound of 43 cars roaring passed me before, but I can see how some people prefer close, tight-knit racing rather than fast, spread-out racing. I, however, dont care where or what, I just want to see a NASCAR race.

02/24/2009 03:38 AM

I like your attitude, bring solutions rather than complaints since it looks like Fontana is here to stay. Not being a restrictor plate fan, I think another solution might be to make it a shorter All Star race format. A couple of short knife fights and a shoot out rather than a lond drawn out ordeal.

Fox made a point about how many drivers were from the state, I just wish they had a better home track to show their stuff on.

Ditto what you said about AJ.

02/24/2009 05:37 AM

I think the only fix to the track is to redo it. Narrow it up a tad and change the banking. Nothing short of changing the track is going to fix the racing. And I am pretty sure it was DW that said making it a plate track is a terrible idea. He said that plates only work at tracks that you never need to lift your foot off the pedal. We’ll just have another race like we did at New Hampshire years ago before the kill switches were mandated.

Changing the date back a few weeks would help too. It is the desert, and deserts have pretty well defined rainy seasons. Whether it has been qualifying, practice, or the race, I think all but one February race has been effected by rain. Moving it back just 2 weeks would decrease the chances of rain by about 90%.

BTW, does anybody realize that the next race, Vegas, is located in the very next county over? I’ve always said that the dates were too close together for tracks so close to each other, but I didn’t realize it was in the next county. LOL

Which also brings up the attendance issue. Why spend a ton of money to go to Fontana when you can wait a week and go to Vegas? Where do ya think everyone is during 3 day weekends? I think the moving of the Labor Day race might just prove that.

02/24/2009 07:20 AM

Tracks like Fontana always have the entire field strung out from the drop of the green , and thats why the races are percieved to be boring . When the green flag is dropped at the start , or on a re-start the fifth or sixth place car on back is down by 6 to 8 seconds to the leader after only a few laps . And i’ve noticed that even if they run the same lap times as the leader they often are never able to improve their position without beating another car off of pit road . That doesn’t make for very interesting racing . Maybe the track needs to be reconfigured . Maybe the restictor plate idea would work . But in all of the interviews i’ve seen by Zucker and NASCAR they seem to feel that plates won’t work ( mind you she has no intention of actually trying them to find out , she instead plans to rely on NASCAR computer models that say it won’t work ) and the only track reconfiguring shes interested in is changing the race dates .
I don’t paticularly care whether the place draws a crowd or not . I’d just like to see the changes made that will actually give the fans a good show .

02/24/2009 08:46 AM

First off, don’t espect any, “common sense” resolutions from nas$car regarding The Fontana folly. It’s their toy and they ain’t gonna let you play with it. It is what it is and the only way it’s going to change is if the whole thing comes down around their ears. They have not and will not listen to their fans. “Viva Las Vegas”

M. B. Voelker
02/24/2009 08:58 AM

NO WAY! on the plate idea.

If they can’t bulldoze the thing and build a short track instead how about adding a couple chicanes or some esses to the straightaways?

Big, wide, smooth, fast tracks produce lousy racing because they’re too easy. They need to do something to make the track hard to set up for and harder to drive.

The more the drivers’ skill is brought into play the better the racing.

02/24/2009 09:09 AM

Dig it up and start over or fill it up and go fishing.I do not care if it is a cha$e race the only way me and many people(the way it is now) will watch it is on fast foward so sponsers are not going to get their monies worth not that na$car cares or they would have never given it a 2nd date

02/24/2009 09:12 AM

Plates? What a horrible, horrible idea. I can’t think of anything worse than having all the cars that close together for 500 miles at a track with banking that flat. When the cars start to handle poorly, they push and float upward in the corner. This is okay when you’re by yourself—you just diamond the corner, ease up on the R/F and do some more laps. If this was plate racing it would be 3-wide constantly, WITHOUT room to diamond, and catastrophe will occur.

The track is actually a ton of fun to lap—by yourself. A real challenge with tons of speed. But 3-4 wide racing at a track like this is not the same thing as 3-4 wide at a place like Atlanta—it’s contrived, because the lines aren’t necessarily all competitive.

It’s just a poorly designed track, and keeping the cars close isn’t going to help. Increasing the bank would, I suppose, but then we’d have Yet Another Boring Tri-Oval.

Here’s an idea… how about make it excessive banking, with the groove way up high? We’d have our Darlington fall race back! :P

02/24/2009 09:17 AM

A restrictor plate would change the race from a snoozefest to a don’t bother to turn it on race.

02/24/2009 09:21 AM

Danny, one big reason people don’t like KB (besides his arrogant punk-a** mouth) is all you media guys hyping him all the time! None of you people seem to be able to write a column or do a interview etc. without bringing him up no matter how far the stretch to do so. Just let it be!

02/24/2009 09:59 AM

Just tear it down and build a Bristol and a Richmond side by side and switch between then for the two races.

02/24/2009 10:12 AM

Don’t make an artifically contrived competition by mandating plates!

NASCAR has enough rules and races in place that deny the best teams the performance edge they’ve worked for. Get rid of the top-35 rule, get rid of the “lucky dog”, get rid of the restrictor plates trying to equalize hard worked for horsepower advantages, and finally realize, awarding 5 points for leading a lap under caution is INSANE!

The Fontana race was excellent and dramatic. At 500 miles, it ran hard enough that weak sister motors revealed themselves, the demanding track sorted out the pretenders from the contenders, and the multiple grooves allowed for drivers to really work at making passes.

Racing is a team sport. Places like Fontana and Pocono demand the utmost from every aspect of the teams. It’s too bad that fans critical of Fontana don’t realize and appreciate that the venue creates a different race from Bristol, Daytona, or Watkins Glen.

Long before the current crop of rabid fans came along, Daytona, T’dega… were exactly the same as Fontana is now. When the plate rule was introduced after Allison almost landed in the stands, the wreckfests of pack racing started an era that little boys playing “let’s wreck” in the sandbox could relate to.

NASCAR isn’t going to change a thing because the essential component… demanding competition to decide a winner, is in place.

L Taylor
02/24/2009 10:23 AM

I believe that many of the less entertaining race on the Nascar circuit are not caused by the COT, bland drivers, late starts, super teams, etc.

They are a direct result of the new breed of racetrack built over the last 10-15 years.

3400 pound racecars don’t need to be on tracks this large.

I miss bullrings, call me a geezer if you want, but stockcars should be raced on tracks that do not require so much downforce.

What is more fun than watching 40 guys root and gouge? Than seeing a driver make up 2 or 3 laps and win? Or seeing a car win with the fenders knocked off?

We need rivalries. Think these drivers would be so laid back after 6 weeks of bangin?

02/24/2009 10:42 AM


“Big, wide, smooth, fast tracks produce lousy racing because they’re too easy. They need to do something to make the track hard to set up for and harder to drive.” was true, why wasn’t every driver at the front and why weren’t there 200 passes for the lead?

I think it’s the dead opposite. Places like Fontana are extremely difficult to setup for and keep the car competitive. Only the best teams and drivers figure it out, adopt their style and car to the track and go on to win.

The more the drivers’ skill is brought into play… the more he dominates!

02/24/2009 10:48 AM

Danny, When are you going to have an original idea?
First, the only way to fix Fontana is plate racing. Michael Waltrips idea. Can’t you come up with your own ideas? Not that Nascar is going to listen to you or any one else.

Second, and this is what bothers me the most. You could not even say The Daytona 500. You had to say Nascars Super Bowl. I’m so tired of hearing the broadcasters, columnists, and reports. Everyone for that matter, compare Racing with other sports. I think Racing has been around long enough that people know what you are talking about. The Daytona 500 has been going on since 1959, the Super Bowl since 1967. So poeple know what you are talking about Nascars biggest race when you or anyone say Daytona 500. I wish you and the other reporters would realize that Nascar fans are not so stupid that we have to be reminded how big the Daytona 500 is. And we don’t need Any of our other races compared to any other sporting events. They don’t use comparisons why should we?

02/24/2009 11:12 AM

Best way to fix Fontana? Turn it into a Mall and NA$CAR needs to buy Irwindale and add seats.

Used to go to Fontana. It sucks big time. Very expensive and the no cooler policy sucked.

Bill B
02/24/2009 12:16 PM

No, no, no! We already have four too many RP races. I would rather see them pulling 1000 pound trailers behind them then give a green light to more RP races.

02/24/2009 12:23 PM

Make it a road course race and have some rain tires in the pits just in case.

Kevin in SoCal
02/24/2009 12:33 PM

Fred @ 6:37am said: Whether it has been qualifying, practice, or the race, I think all but one February race has been effected by rain. Moving it back just 2 weeks would decrease the chances of rain by about 90%.

Uhm… no. The rain only happened last year, and this year we had sprinkles. 2005, 2006, and 2007 were rain free.

02/24/2009 12:44 PM

Is the thought of plate racing at Cali trying to bunch up the field? I don’t think so. They’ll still parade around but doing it longer, thus making a more boring race.

No plates at Cali.

The answer is to dump one date. Give a third date to Bristol.

Brian Frane Sucks
02/24/2009 01:15 PM

Keep the front stretch stands by the finish line, bulldoze the rest of the track, build a 3/4 or 7/8 track exactly like Rockingham (asphalt and all), build seats around it like Bristol, and enjoy. As it is, this track and Pocono are the sorriest excuse for racing venues exist today. Brian France doesn’t care though, because he can tout to the antitrust ISC board that NA$CAR is in the 2nd biggest market in the US, despite the atrocious racing. Sorry Kevin in Socal, but you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken sh!t.

Carl D.
02/24/2009 01:19 PM

Restricter Plates? I should have known that ridiculous idea would have originated from Mikey. Michael Waltrip’s total number of NON-restrictor plate wins is, not suprisingly, zero.

You can’t gimmicky-up the race to make it exciting. The track is what it is and the cars of today are what they are. Most importantly, however, is that Brian France is who he is, and the reality is that we, the fans, are stuck with Fontana twice a year.

I’m almost convinced that A.J. Allmendinger is the real deal, but I refuse to call him “The Dinger”. It sounds to much like Digger.

Doug in Washington (State)
02/24/2009 01:27 PM

Plate racing won’t work in Fontana with the current banking. Maybe with 30 degrees, but not with the insanely small 14 degrees.

A couple ideas that would never fly but could pack up the field (at least on restarts):

1) Double wide restarts just like the start of the race. The long leader line causes some of the strung out racing solely because you’re so far back.

2) How about Triple-wide restarts? The track is so wide it’d support it. The only real racing at these “downforce” tracks is at the restart anyway, before they all get strung out. If you want bumping and banging…

Pulling a date would be a good idea- but I sure wouldn’t give the date to a track that has 2 already. Give it to Rockingham, or Nashville, Milwaukee, Memphis, Iowa, Road Atlanta, ANYWHERE except a 1.5 Mile track. ALL the 1.5-2.0 mile tracks could stand to lose a date. None of them produce decent racing.

02/24/2009 02:29 PM

Le Mans, Truck, and Drifting are all superior to Sprint Cup. Waltrip needs to retire.

02/24/2009 02:42 PM

plates wont necessarily help this track – although it could be interesting to see the ponies run comfortably 4 abreast at a track that very much resembles runway 2Left at LAX.

02/24/2009 04:25 PM

I know people bash California but I really don’t see much of a difference from Fontana to any of the 1.5 mile cookie cutter tracks. Since NASCAR, (lets face it they do own most of the tracks in a roundabout way), moved towards these types of tracks and away from many differnt types of tracks on the schedule the racing has become pretty dull throughout the year. Like Kevin I too like the sound of 43 cars but I don’t care for this contrived form of racing. True the drivers are going at a high rate of speed and are trying their best to win but with all the tracks being the same, the cars being the same, the top-35 rule, and any other lousy “rule” that NASCAR has come up with has pretty muched sucked the life out of the “product” which got them to the stage they are at now..which is something refered to as “racing”. Someone may want to remind Brian that that is what NASCAR was founded on, not pre-race shows that go on far too long.

02/24/2009 05:46 PM

Don’t change it….just take one away. Then do the same at the rest of the tracks that have multiple races. In this economy they better start looking for the markets with some money. Such as New York?? WTH they barely sold out Daytona and certainly won’t come Pepsi 400 time. You track mongers take your boat loads of money and fix the staples of old Nascar The Rock and North Wilksboro and get back to some racing. Then while your at it start the damn races before half the day is over and if you want Keith Urban to sing do it the day before and put on a real concert and do it for free then. If you and FOX would’ve cut out all the bullshit(Diggershit) before the 500 that race gets run before the rain.

Sorry Danny season has not started the way I wanted!

02/24/2009 06:05 PM

California needs to stay on the schedule until a track get built (Tulare) in California’s San Joaquin Valley…I have to make 6 and 10 hour (1-way) trips to Las Vegas, Fontana and Phoenix to get my Nascar live fixes.
P.S. I refuse to move to NasCarolina.

big alice
02/24/2009 10:14 PM

I believe what Elliot Sadler said about changing to plates at california…you’d HAVE to make some changes to the track also.

I like the idea of getting rid of a California race, especially when you could add a Kentucky or Iowa, EITHER would be much better than the California snooze fest.

Ditto for AJ from me too.

02/24/2009 10:46 PM

As far as NasCarolina…I can agree with that. Take and build these tracks in other places or find these tracks already built and improve them and use them. If Andy Hillenburg can find the resources to do it and succeed he should be applauded and at least be considered for a truck or Nationwide race. Grow Nascar big, come lets make it the “sport” well when you can’t fill all your seats something is now wrong. Maybe Nascar should consult Jerry Jones of the Cowboys. That is a man who can market and make money. Last I looked the seats are filled too.

big alice
02/24/2009 11:14 PM

Was bobb watching the same race as the rest of us?? dramatic??! excellent??!
Not this year. Not last year. In fact, I’ve seen EVERY Fontana race and EVERY single one was crap. Same as old days pre-plate daytona?? You gotta be kidding. I’ve been a fan for well over 30 years and with the exception of maybe the old Ontario track, Fontana has been the most boring crappy racing in the entire history of nascar…not just cup, but the trucks and other series too. It’s been like that from the very first race, and if it were not for it’s location, they would delete it from the schedule. The reason the seats ain’t filled is painfully simple…it is hands-down the WORSE race all year, bar none.

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