The Frontstretch: It Isn't Auto Club Speedway's Fault by Kurt Smith -- Friday October 9, 2009

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It Isn't Auto Club Speedway's Fault

Kurt Smith · Friday October 9, 2009


Auto Club Speedway gets a vicious rap from a gaggle of fans and media, including many writers on this website. And in defense of the Auto Club Speedway people, and the limited amount of fans that do attend races there, the speedway itself really doesn’t deserve all that.

ACS does have glaring flaws. The weeper problem made for a ridiculous race last February. Its location makes it difficult for North Carolina-based teams to make the trip, especially coming after the physical and mental exhaustion of the Daytona 500. No other venue so frequently has had to throw cautions for litter or even a falling traffic signal on the track. It’s easy to question why Fontana hosts two events every season when just looking at the attendance alone doesn’t justify it.

Without having taken away the Labor Day race from Darlington, Fontana might still be the brunt of a lot of criticism for these flaws, and rightly so, but I doubt the animosity would be near as severe as it is.

When Dale Earnhardt was still intimidating his way around the racetracks of NASCAR, he was featured in a Busch beer commercial showcasing Busch’s collectors-edition “Great Tracks of NASCAR” cans. (Imagine such a promotion today—it would likely include many tracks that are in NASCAR’s sights for losing a race.) In the ad he spoke about Darlington Raceway, saying “everything they tell you about Darlington is true and then some.” If that’s true, given what people already say about Darlington, it must be one hell of a track to race on.

Auto Club Speedway in Fontana has had a bevy of problems, from weepers to falling caution lights, but its biggest has been the sore feelings of the fans and media for intially taking away the date once reserved for the Southern 500 at Darlington.

The character of the Lady in Black isn’t often disputed. The driving is different. The shape is different. And the walls look different after a race. Darlington has hosted some of the classic races in NASCAR history, with a 2003 event showcasing what may have been the greatest finish ever.

To call the Darlington May race the Southern 500 now, while probably well-intentioned, is almost an insult, and a reminder that this wonderful racing venue lost its celebrated event to a characterless track in southern California. Like with Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Darlington fans were heartbroken at the injustice of a major sport uprooting its circus and moving it to the Los Angeles area. In both cases those responsible will never be forgiven by some, which is understandable.

Ebbets Field and Darlington Raceway were abandoned, or semi-abandoned in Darlington’s case, for economic reasons. A South Carolina market that had been in a decline and whose population is today largely Myrtle Beach tourists simply couldn’t support two NASCAR races a season anymore. Of course it doesn’t help that the new track isn’t drawing flies either, and it appears that NASCAR spat on a 50-year tradition and alienated thousands of fans for nothing.

Since the departure of the Labor Day race from Darlington, Auto Club Speedway’s fall race will always represent either the brutal reality of economics in sports, or the greed of the France family, depending on your worldview. Rockingham also lost both of its races to inferior venues, as did North Wilkesboro. But when people think of NASCAR disregarding tradition, disrespecting the sport’s roots, or sucking all the character out of the sport with larger speedways that put too much space between racecars, the usurping of the Labor Day race by Auto Club Speedway will always be near the top of the list as NASCAR’s most egregious offense. On the surface economically it may have made sense, but as intangible as something like fan reaction may be, it shouldn’t have been difficult to expect NASCAR’s core audience to be outraged at the disregard for a long standing tradition. You would think they would have moved Darlington’s May race to California at first, and then gauge the reaction. (Or maybe put the CoT in the Nationwide Series first and ironed out the numerous kinks before moving it to Cup, but that’s for another article.) But they didn’t and so here we are.

All the same, it isn’t quite fair to suggest that the racing is worse at ACS than it is at any other intermediate speedway. There’s been a few good ones at Fontana just like there have been a few good ones at Michigan and Kansas. ACS is only a mile shorter than Daytona or Talladega, and teams can make the cars go as fast as they want at Fontana. Forgive me for saying it, but while Daytona and Talladega may have far more history and charisma than Fontana, this columnist will take the racing without the plates any day of the week.

Yes, they need to fix the cracks. And the traffic signal mounts. But just for the record, let’s not take it out on the Southern California fans that are out there or even on the folks that run Auto Club Speedway. It may be a cookie-cutter, but by definition that makes it just one out of many. As far as the racing goes, it isn’t Darlington and never will be, but neither is Michigan, Chicago, or Vegas. No speedway will ever match the Lady in Black for pure entertainment.

Fans who were justifiably incensed at the move of the Labor Day race may refuse to watch in protest. That’s fine. But inadvertently, at least in this columnist’s opinion, plenty of fans share a sentiment that the racing in Fontana is the worst in NASCAR, when in fact it is no better or worse than it is on any speedway most of the time. It’s not one of my favorite tracks, but the racing there isn’t any different to me than it is at Michigan. And by Fudd, at least they don’t use those blasted restrictor plates there.

NASCAR made a foolish decision based solely on numbers, one of many recent decisions that are far removed from what makes racing fans tick.

But it isn’t Auto Club Speedway’s fault.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I missed Mirror Driving this week and as a result was not able to give my fired-up thoughts on what Brad Keselowski was told at Kansas (“Stop racing Chase drivers so hard”). Why the hell are they even allowed out there? OK, Vito made some salient points about the situation not being unprecedented. But even without a Chase, NASCAR needs to let these guys work it out amongst themselves.
  • Speaking of NASCAR’s brilliant playoff, Ryan McGee at ESPN (the network that covers Chase races) wrote an article once again defending the Chase on the tired grounds that it makes championship battles more exciting. Can’t let anyone get too big a lead, might see a great comeback like Alan Kulwicki’s! Could someone out there argue my point that the Chase gives points to drivers that did not earn them? Anyone? When someone can produce a legitimate counterargument to that simple point, something more convincing than “just shut up”, I’ll shut up.
  • Gotta give some props to NASCAR on their decision to implement uniform start times in 2010. This alone should help the ratings, because I’m willing to bet that many times people didn’t even know when the race was on. Not sure why this required a Fan Council to figure out, but kudos nonetheless, and thanks to NASCAR for making this job a lot easier and allowing me to eat dinner after the race is over and not during it. Things like this make me believe there is hope.

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

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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10/09/2009 12:08 AM

Didn’t Pocano also have a caution light fall off too? Where ever that happened, Fox went into a great piece about showing how much more air turbulance the CoT causes… which has resulted in stuff like lights falling off. So I wouldn’t use that as a big reason of why ACS sucks. Nor the weepers, almost every track has that problem too if they get major rain. Granted, putting a race in California a month before the rainy season is over isn’t a good idea. Rain here is really confined to certain months. It’s a rare storm that breaks the normal season. We’ve gone at least 6 months without rain right now and probably won’t have any for another month. So that is a big window to reschedule that first date in.

As someone who lives 30 minutes away from the track, I’ve probably paid a lot more attention to it than most.

The first several years of racing there I thought was great. Then it just seemed to “weather” in poorly and the racing went downhill. Then came the CoT and plates (ooh sorry, tapered spacers) for Nationwide, and the racing has really just gone to crap there.

I would really like to see one of its dates be given to Las Vegas. It’s only an extra 3 hours drive up the road and unlike Fontana, it is actually filled with hotels, that are cheap, and flights from every where in the country, that are also cheap. And also, it’s Vegas! So the fun just doesn’t start and stop at the track.

The fan expereince at ACS has also steadily declined over the years too. But that’s a story in itself.

ACS really needs to bulldoze the track and redo it if they want to fix the racing. Also, there is almost always a steady wind that blows across the track from the stands. So unless they move the stands, hot dog wrappers, etc., will always be a problem there.

But changing it from being the 2nd race of the year probably will never happen. Where do you think half the drivers are headed right after Daytona? To California to do their commercials for the year. Since the drivers are here, might as well bring their cars along too and have a race while your at it. NA$CAR at its finest.

Kevin in SoCal
10/09/2009 01:01 AM

I’ll always agree with the rest of the die-hard fans that trading Darlington for California on Labor Day was one of NASCAR’s biggest mistakes in recent years. But remember, ACS was not asking for a second date like Kansas or Las Vegas, or even one date like Kentucky. NASCAR made the decision to give the track a second date, so its not the track’s fault. And I’m happy to see Michigan get mentioned. It’s always seemed strange to me that California gets dumped on for having spread out parades, but yet Michigan is never mentioned for the same thing. They’re both almost identical. I dont understand.
I’ll be at the track this Sunday, and I’m going to enjoy the race. I hope the rest of you watch with an open mind, instead of expecting another parade. Then again, that would depend on what ESPN decides to show the TV viewers.

10/09/2009 01:33 AM

Im guessing people dont rag on MIS as much because is has been around 30 years longer. Id also add it cant help that other 1.5 mile tracks that are similer keep showing up.

10/09/2009 06:45 AM

I’ll rag on MIS. I live 2 1/2 hours from the track, but won’t attend a race there…because the racing is so dull! I’ve driven 12 hours to Bristol for many years rather than go to MIS. I can see the equivilant of the MIS race watching northbound traffic on I -75 any Friday. And now Kansas, another yawner of a track, is going to get a 2nd race because they are going to build a casino? Yeah, that’s smart.

The Turnip!
10/09/2009 07:50 AM

Yep! I am still as dumb as a “TURNIP”!

How? Glad you asked.

1st. we “congratulate” NA$CRAP for changing the starting times of some races!


2nd., we congratulate NA$CRAP for doing a “double wide” re-start!


So that it may make it easier on our lifestyles, quote: “and thanks to NASCAR for making this job a lot easier and allowing me to eat dinner after the race is over and not during it. Things like this make me believe there is hope.”

WOW! Now we can eat dinner in peace AFTER that idiotic NA$CRAP race is finished!

WOW! NA$CRAP is sure headed in the right direction!


TOKENISM does not make good racing!

Oh, and did you see where a “FRANCE” was arrested for drug possesion? And all he could tell the arresting officer was “WE OWN THIS TOWN”!

Gee, we didn’t know that now did we?

MMMM, come to think of it, wonder why his drug test results were never published?

Bill B
10/09/2009 08:31 AM

California should have one race. The Labor Day weekend race should still be at Darlington. If NASCAR would just make those changes all the griping regarding California would go away. I don’t think most fans would mind one visit to California a year. I will note that the same could be said about Pocono and Michigan too, so don’t think I am picking on California. The only reason California is at the top of the list of “hated tracks” is because of the Darlington angle. Had Darlington not lost the traditional Southern 500 race on Labor Day Weekend fans might be picking on one of those other tracks that produce boring races 9 out of 10 times.

Kevin in SoCal
10/09/2009 12:37 PM

Carl said: “Im guessing people dont rag on MIS as much because is has been around 30 years longer.”

That is my guess too. There is a definite East-coast bias, as well as Michigan having been around forever and is one of the “classic” tracks. How come we dont hear about boring racing at Charlotte like we do at Chicago or Kansas? Is it the high banking, like at Texas and Atlanta?
Also, from what I have read, when Riverside was around it was one of the better road courses and fans loved it. But Ontario was a copy of Indy and fans hated it. It looks like its all about the banking for the stock car fans. ACS needs to put in progressive banking, something like the current 14* on the bottom, 16* in the middle, and 18* on top.
The drivers love California because its wide, with two grooves, and they dont have to drive very hard to keep from wrecking each other.

10/09/2009 12:38 PM

ACS is only a mile shorter than Daytona or Talladega”

Ermm, everyone does realize that ACS and MIS are TWO mile tracks, right? Only half a mile shorter than Daytona/‘dega. And thus also not quite the same as the rest of the 1.5 mile ovals.

Bad racing IS the track’s fault. Especially at ACS which has less banking (and less mid-pack racing) than even MIS.

Kevin in SoCal
10/09/2009 12:44 PM

Bill, I would gladly give up one of ACS’s dates if NASCAR is smart enough to give that date to Iowa. Judging by what we’ve seen there in ARCA, Trucks, and Nationwide, its an awesome track well deserving of a Cup date.
I would flip-flop Atlanta and ACS’s spring dates, so that the teams dont have to drive across the country after Daytona, and then give ACS’s fall date to Iowa so we have two short-track races in the Chase.

10/09/2009 01:13 PM

They need to blow that track up and put in another Richmond or Bristol type track.

Kalifornia is another open-wheel track…NOT a nascar track. BORING! And now it’s in the chase?!? What kind of “favors” is that girl out there providing for Brian?

Until changes are made I will NEVER watch that race.

Kevin in SoCal
10/09/2009 01:32 PM

Billie, which is better? California on Labor Day and Atlanta in the Chase, or vice versa? California isnt going anywhere for a while, so be happy that its no longer on Labor Day weekend. By the way, what other races dont you watch?

Bad Wolf
10/09/2009 01:49 PM

I’m watching the police in a low speed chase of a pickup on Fox news right now. It has more action and is more exciting than a “race” at California, and there is no booth crew to screw up the action and plug products.

The Turnip
10/09/2009 02:30 PM

Hey “billie”! Your:
“What kind of “favors” is that girl out there providing for Brian?”

MMMM, your of course assuming it is girls King Brian likes?

I guess anyway!

Michael in SoCal
10/09/2009 03:25 PM

Kevin – Right on about Iowa. Get that place a Cup race already. Are you listening Nascar? Two people who actually attend races at Auto Club Speedway are all for ditching one of the races and giving it to Iowa. More short track racing! And less cookie cutter D-shaped or qual-oval tracks too while we’re at it. Let’s get some weird twists & turns out there, like they had at Trenton Speedway when it was kidney shaped. I love the strange dogleg out in Phoenix. And Darlington’s different turns make for awesome racing. As Gob Bluth would say ‘Come on!’

Kevin in SoCal
10/09/2009 03:51 PM

If you have to blame someone, blame Roger Penske. He built the track back in 1996 as a dual-purpose for both stock cars and open-wheel cars. Then he sold it to ISC after the open-wheel cars stopped racing there.

Bad Wolf in Iowa
10/09/2009 04:27 PM

Please don’t get a Cup race at Iowa Speedway untill the C.O.T. is put out to pasture. It would take Rusty a half year to get the stank of that turd off his track.

The only race I sat down and watched this year was the Nationwide from Iowa Speedway, and it was a great race. I’m thinking of going to that race next year, unless Nascar in it’s infanite wisdom saddles them with the Car of Tomorrow.

10/09/2009 06:03 PM

Does anybody here actually LIKE NASCAR racing? SHEESH!

California is a different kind of race. The track is long and wide,so there is no reason for the cars to anywhere near each other. The race is more strategy than rooting and digging. the cars get strung out and it’s more about how smooth a driver is, and how well the car is set-up than it is about the driver’s will. I’ve always equated it to skating’s ‘school figures’, it’s more precise than exciting. You need to have both Bristol and Cal to see a team’s range, and I watch for them both to know how well a team runs.

Lets get more positive, people! all your griping gave us the 1.5 milers, so be careful what you wish for.

Bad Wolf
10/09/2009 08:14 PM

The complaining started AFTER the changes and addition of the 1.5 and 2.0 mile cookie cutter tracks. It was the lure of easy money and new fans that drove the powers to be to change the very heart and soul of Nascar into the lowest common denominator it is today.

MiK said it all when he in a round about way compared California to figure skating.

10/09/2009 09:51 PM

Bad Wolf, dead on. “Today’s Fans” just don’t seem to get why the older, core fans are so disgruntled.

10/09/2009 10:05 PM

One thing that I did not see in the article or feedback was the number of cookie cutter tracks, makes this type of racing boring to many fans, myself included. I don’t believe ACS races are any worse then say Kansas, Chicago or the others. To me it is more a lack of support by the people in So Cal.

Kevin in SoCal
10/09/2009 11:36 PM

wcfan, I think the first speedways were Charlotte, Atlanta, and Michigan. I feel like I’m missing one. Then came the cookie cutters in the 90’s such as Texas, California, Las Vegas, Chicago, Kansas, Miami, and Kentucky.
And there are other tracks with two dates that are not sold out both dates. Atlanta is the first one that comes to mind, and does Daytona sell out in July?

Duane in NC
10/10/2009 09:27 AM

ACS did not ask for the second date. Why would that be necessary? NASCAR and ISC are of the same entity. A France is in control of both.

“The drivers love California because its wide, with two grooves, and they dont have to drive very hard to keep from wrecking each other.”

This in a nutshell is what is wrong with the racing there. These guys are making millions on top of millions so they damn well better be having to race hard. They earn a spot in the upper ranks because they are known for being hard and good drivers but then the organization gives them something that’s equivalent to pre-school to race on.

“California is a different kind of race. The track is long and wide,so there is no reason for the cars to anywhere near each other. The race is more strategy than rooting and digging. the cars get strung out and it’s more about how smooth a driver is, and how well the car is set-up than it is about the driver’s will.”

You just described F-1 racing. It only takes 5 or 10 minutes of viewing those events before I am channel searching again. Why would I tune into Cup racing for the same style of racing. And I sure as hell won’t spend my hard earned money to attend an event of this nature. If engine builders were still being recognized then maybe ACS might have some appeal. Now you just have Rousch powerplants against Hendrick powerplants…whoopee.

I’m someone who use to endure figure skating and snow skiing on Wide World of Sports just for a fifteen minute broadcast of Daytona or Darlington. I listen to the races when there was no TV coverage. I learned to walk around the perimeter of a track. Today…I may listen to a race if I’m in my truck riding somewhere. I definitely don’t go out of my way to watch it like I use too. Yeah, the racing is closer today but so was IROC and look where that is now. I know they got strung out back in the old day but back then those guys worked day and night on their own equipment and built their own engines so you were watching more than just a driver. If they didn’t do it all then they were right there beside them during the long nights. Now you hear drivers say that they try to stop by the shop two or three times a week. Not the same. The guys you see in the pits these days are hired guns and usually has nothing to do with the building of the car on the track. Back then, whoever turned a wrench on a car at the track also turned the same wrench in the shop.

If you want to see me at a race track then you best be at Orange County Speedway, South Boston Speedway, Ace Speedway, 311 Speedway, Concord Speedway or Martinsville Speedway (non-Cup weekends). I pay to watch them at those levels but once they hit Cup they get someone else’s money…not mine.

10/10/2009 10:15 AM

Kevin, first off have a good time at the track this weekend. The track you maybe are missing I believe is Texas World that was MIS sister track. My point was it is the number of cookie cutter races on cookie cutter tracks that turns myself along with many of other fans off. Many of the older pre cookie cutter tracks had there own style and configuration, even if they were basically the same size. Case in point Bristol, Martinsville, Nashville (fairgrounds), North Wilksbrough and old Richmond were all approx 1/2 mile tracks but each were different in lay-out and the racing was different. If every 1/2 mile track was the same I would be grumbling about that also, I enjoy watching a different race every weekend, not the same race on a different track. This is not a shot at ACS or any other track, only at the number of races at the cookie cutter tracks.

The Turnip
10/10/2009 01:58 PM

If any of the “newbies” EVER want to know why us “old-timers” continually rag on NA$CRAP these days, just watch the California “race” this weekend!

Case closed!

(and I still maintain that is is the CARS & the rules, NOT the tracks, that create the extremely poor racing these days!)

These tracks were designed and built to provide multiple racing lines, but the design & aerodynamics of the cars prevent this from happening.

I remember MANY exciting laps at Michigan, back in the day, 2, 3, 4 wide at times, maybe not all 43 cars on the lead lap, but who cares when you have a quality race going on between drivers THAT WANT TO WIN!

And now we have points racing! And now we have the POS!

THAT, my friends is what is causing the problems!

10/10/2009 09:15 PM

Frontstretch….all complaining, all the time.

Kevin in SoCal
10/11/2009 02:17 AM

So who watched the Nationwide race? See, ACS can put on a good show. That race was awesome! Too bad there were so few people in the stands to see it.
I hope Sunday’s race is just as good.

10/13/2009 12:42 PM

Boring racing, took the Labor Day event from Darlington, those are all good points; however, another reason I hate this track is all the Hollywood-esque attention they seem to give it. I could care less ‘bout who’s at the track (and this goes for ALL races, not just this one). You think some of the celebs are just trying to start making it ‘trendy’. We’re past that… as the kids’ say ‘That is SO 2005!’

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