The Frontstretch: Quality Racing at Auto Club Speedway May Not Be Such a Good Thing by Doug Turnbull -- Monday February 22, 2010

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Quality Racing at Auto Club Speedway May Not Be Such a Good Thing

The Cool-Down Lap · Doug Turnbull · Monday February 22, 2010


The Daytona 500 has often been a hard race to follow for Auto Club Speedway since assuming the Sprint Cup tour’s second race date of the season in 2005. Extended green flag runs on the track’s flat, lengthy surface caused race leaders to push their leads to unexciting amounts and the rest of the field to build nice cushions between each position. Combine the poor racing with sometimes unfavorable weather conditions and a fan environment that is, shall we say, not so crazy about NASCAR and embarrassingly low attendance numbers at the track and it is easy to see why Auto Club Speedway can’t hold a candle to the 500.

The California contingency was not even the fan base most disenchanted with Fontana. A majority of NASCAR fans had Auto Club Speedway on their bad list after NASCAR took the Southern 500 race date away from Darlington and awarded the Labor Day weekend staple to California in 2004. This turned a negative wave into a tsunami that has eroded away at any remaining popularity the track had managed to hold on to. And with everyone still buzzing off of the intensity of the racing in last Sunday’s Daytona 500, many felt that Sunday’s race would give a punch in the gut to a suddenly rejuvenated fan base. As things turn out, this did not come close to happening.

The Auto Club 500 proved to be an exciting race: 13 leaders swapped the lead 26 times; Kevin Harvick nearly caught race winner Jimmie Johnson for the win; Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton drag raced to a photo finish for 2nd place; the late restarts were absolute mayhem mid-pack; fuel mileage was a factor, but did not decide the race; teams raced the rain, but rain didn’t stop (except for one brief caution period) or postpone the race; multiple manufacturers and organizations ran well; the leader never pulled away to an abominable advantage. The race seemed to pass by efficiently. It was not a test in stamina to watch. It was a solid, exciting event with several folds in its plot.

Despite hosting a great race on Sunday, Auto Club Speedway will never be touted as one of the great NASCAR speedways.

Sunday’s race almost did not unfold that way. At one point, there was a chance that the race would be delayed by rain, decided by fuel mileage, and won by Jimmie Johnson after the four-time champ led the most laps and regained the lead after managing to pit under green and beat the pace car off of pit road when the caution came out. And while Johnson won his 48th career Cup race in the No. 48, the Auto Club 500 will be remembered by the close finish and the surprisingly competitive two and three-wide racing through the pack. It was a shot in the arm to the management and proponents of Auto Club Speedway’s viability as a NASCAR track.

In truth, much of the same issues with the Fontana track remain, despite the great race. It still holds two race dates, though the second one has been moved from the Labor Day date to a more temperate October setting. And, despite track president Gillian Zucker’s numerous appearances on NASCAR programming and the Hollywood-littered commercials during races, the California grandstands Sunday were at significantly less than capacity. Auto Club Speedway has caught so much bad press that just the mention of California sparks the gnashing of teeth amongst new school NASCAR fans and traditionalists alike.

And this is why Sunday’s good race is not good in the long run. NASCAR needs to scale back its commitment to keeping the circus in California twice a year when race fans are demanding and pining for more races at tracks like Darlington and Rockingham. With this weekend’s event stepping in line with the “2010 Breath of Fresh Air NASCAR Rebirth”, people will start forgetting why they abhorred the track so much. Track proponents will tout the loop statistics and blame the impending weather that day on the poor number of fans in the seats and the television spinsters will enforce that effort. With the good comes the bad.

As an analogy, think about what would have happened to the opposing forces of George W. Bush two years ago had Bush and his allies suddenly instituted a few policies that Democrats would have wanted. What if Barack Obama suddenly reneged on some of his and his allies ambitions? What would that do to the “Tea Party Movement” and the Republicans’ potential resurgence in Washington? It would slow. Feelings would taper from the opposing sides and propagandists on the suddenly benevolent side would swoon over their own understanding.

As much as NASCAR needs good races and good racing at all of its tracks, this sudden short term success at ACS throws a sheet over the elephant in the press box (or wherever it stands) at the track. NASCAR instituted several changes in the last couple of months in response to a fan uprising and many media outbursts. If these same reverberations quiet to murmurs about NASCAR’s presence in California, the much coveted moving of one of its race dates to a racier track with a more appreciative fan base may never happen. Maybe we should pray for rain and an untraceable, enlarged motor for the No. 48 team at Fontana in October.

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Mike In NH
02/22/2010 08:44 AM

I have to be honest, it could be the buzz of the Daytona 500, but the race yesterday just didn’t hold my interest. Part of it could be the TV guys, who would talk about exciting back pack racing to the finish the last few laps while showing the leader and his safe cushion, but it wasn’t particularly exciting to me.

Regardless of how good the racing is, when the stands are half empty (and they’re not the biggest stands in NASCAR, either), it’s time for a change. NASCAR should at least move a more exciting venue to the second week of the season so it isn’t such a contrast with Daytona, and thus the season’s momentum isn’t interrupted.

With Vegas the following week, not far from SoCal (in Western terms) and more exciting to watch, plus being in a city where you can make a weekend of it and find other things to do, it’s time for the second date at Cali to go, or at least to move away from Daytona and Vegas on the schedule (I prefer the former).

They should put Vegas on the second week and Atlanta the third, etc, moving up the races that lead to Texas, then (if you must have 2 Cali dates) put Cali after Texas and before Talladega. That way the weather in Cali will be better too. Or, use that pre-Talladega date for a race elsewhere and let Cali keep 1 Chase date.

Stephen HOOD
02/22/2010 10:39 AM

California seems to me to be a momentum killer for NASCAR. They probably do the second race out there because the weather is more predictable than say, Richmond. I spent the day in the yard, checking in now and again knowing I could get the results on Speedtv over dinner.

Kevin in SoCal
02/22/2010 11:16 AM

Fontana’s capacity is around 92,000, which is one of the larger attendance numbers of all the NASCAR tracks. There were more than 46,000 in the stands, that’s for sure.

Michael in SoCal
02/22/2010 12:24 PM

I was there this weekend, and my guess on the attendance based on my view from the grandstands (from near pit road exit) was about two thirds capacity, which would be around 60,000. Plus the infield, which was definitely full of motorhomes.

02/22/2010 03:03 PM

If it was an exciting race, it sure didn’t translate to TV. It was a test of stamina to watch on TV. I’ll probably find something more exciting to do during the next race (like watching grass grow). The demand by NA$CAR that the networks only report “happy” or good information makes the whole thing seem as phony as professional wrestling.

02/22/2010 05:40 PM

I live out here and have been to the race twice, not sure I would go again. Just not a very exciting race. I would much rather see another short track race than see 2 races per year out here in Calif.

02/22/2010 06:49 PM

I attended a race in Fontana a few years ago and it’s just as boring in person as it is on television. Surprisingly though I gave this race 3 beers. That’s most I’ve ever given a race at this place.

02/23/2010 10:42 AM

Why? Oh, WHY is it so important for the fan to worry about track attendance? When my football team is 5-4, I don’t start talking about the seat count. Nor do I discuss the bleachers at the ballpark.

There is racing out there, folks! It may not be what you like, but it IS racing. NASCAR has tried to give ya’ll the racing you have SAID you wanted…and still you bitched! The race is what it is. If It’s too boring, go back to monster trucks. NASCAR started with multiple-lap leads and large gaps between cars. It was the Nascar we grew up on. It involved different tracks, with different skills required, and different results. Why do you bitch about it now?