Matt McLaughlin · Thursday October 7, 2010
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh, while Brian and the Big Man tear this city in half…
This weekend, the Cup Series will compete for what will presumably be the final time at Fontana in the fall. Doubtless, other longtimers like me are going to be feeling the same way… good riddance to bad rubbish. Listen, I have nothing against L.A. or California, nor Californians. But this is an experiment borne of disaster that has failed miserably, and it’s all I can do not to bang out “I told you so” in bold print and all caps to end this paragraph.
Fontana was born to fail just like its sister track Michigan has lost relevance over the past couple of decades. Built on the site of a toxic waste dump, the former Kaiser Steel plant, the track was envisioned as a joint use facility like most other cookie-cutters built in that era. The thinking back in the day was that a race would have to host both open-wheel and stock car events to turn a profit. As such, the banking of the track was higher than was ideal for the open-wheel cars, but far flatter than was ideal for the heavier stock cars with their narrower tires.
Roger Penske, who also owned Michigan at the time, was the original architect and owner of Fontana. That seemed natural, since he was a big-time player in open-wheel racing and in the NASCAR series. In a highly unusual move, then-NASCAR head honcho Bill France, Jr. agreed his series would hold a Cup event at the track before the first spade full of earth was turned to construct it. No track had ever been promised a Cup date before it was built.
But between the announcement of plans for the track and its opening, something momentous occurred in the open-wheel ranks. The ill-considered split between the IRL, owned by Tony George of Indianapolis Speedway and CART, run by most of the team owners in that series, tore open-wheel racing asunder and destroyed its once proud tradition – at least here in the States. Salvos were fired in both directions, and the end was both sides ended up with little more than scorched earth and hurt feelings as public interest in both series hit the hopper. As such, even as stock car racing’s fortunes peaked, the idea of a dual-use facility like Fontana went the way of bag phones and leisure suits. Open-wheel promoters would be lucky to draw enough fans to pay for the parking lot attendants for the afternoon.
NASCAR was king on the U.S. auto racing landscape by default, and it seemed they couldn’t build grandstand seats fast enough to keep up with demand. The problem was some of those fans paying for those high-priced, newly-constructed grandstand seats were beginning to complain the on-track action wasn’t all that compelling. They began to think perhaps the new emperor had no clothes, as distasteful as the idea as Brian France parading naked down the frontstretch at Fontana holding a scepter and wearing a tiara might be for any of us to imagine.
Along the way Penske, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, agreed to sell Fontana as well as Michigan to the ISC, the France family-controlled-track-owning-incestuous twin of NASCAR. And lo and behold, by some strange coincidence, suddenly the track found itself hosting a second race date.
CART was out of the picture by that point. The CART season finale in 2003 was scheduled to be held at Fontana, but ticket sales were so abysmal the race was canceled even after what tickets could be sold had been. The original reason given for cancellation was wildfires in the area, but tellingly the race was never rescheduled and the track was absent from the 2004 CART schedule.
So guess what happened in 2004!
Fontana got its second race date, but in a huge PR blunder NASCAR stripped the Labor Day date from Darlington, a historic track where the Cup series had been running since 1950 and a cherished institution to the fans, and gave it to Fontana. The howls of protest from longtime fans was immediate and deafening, but it fell on deaf ears at NASCAR. NASCAR president Mike Helton cited “Realignment” and huffed angrily that NASCAR wasn’t abandoning a tradition with the old Southern 500, it was “starting a new tradition” at Fontana. (“Starting a new tradition” is sort of like a sign I once spotted along a rural Vermont highway en route to a car show, “New antiques made daily.”) Some consider me a lightning rod for disaffected old-time NASCAR fans, and perhaps I am. But the most passionate, vitriolic, and angry tidal wave of email I have ever received concerned the sacking of the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend and moving it to Fontana. The outraged email far outstripped the hate mail readers directed at the sanctioning body for the Car of Horror and the Chase combined. Far and away. A lot of those hardcore fans wrote me that losing the Southern 500 was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. They were done with the sport and never coming back. And every time I see those ever-dwindling TV ratings and all those empty seats at NASCAR tracks, it occurs to me a lot of them weren’t kidding.
I didn’t disagree with those readers and I was as disagreeable as any of them concerning the loss of my favorite race on the schedule, the Southern 500. I told my then bosses as a form of protest I would not cover another Labor Day weekend race until the event was moved back to Darlington and I haven’t. Those bosses threatened me, saying if I wouldn’t cover the race as per my contract I’d be fired. I told them to tape the pink slip to the speedometer on my Harley, because I wasn’t going to waste a good three-day weekend covering a bad race at a putrid track.
But something amazing happened once Fontana got its second race date. Ticket sales fell off a cliff. The Labor Day weekend race didn’t sell out. The spring race didn’t sell out. In fact, I’d venture to say both races combined failed to sell as many tickets as the one race date did in NASCAR’s salad days. Making things all the more ironic was the fact that NASCAR stripped Darlington of a race date because of unsold seats. Yes, Fontana has more seats than Darlington, but that only makes things look that much worse on TV when the crowds are so sparse. “Perception is king” is an old L.A. media axiom. FOX and ESPN can do their best not to show the grandstands on Saturday, but the size of the crowd at Nationwide races at Fontana is so embarrassing it looks like they paid winos on the strip two bucks and a bottle of MadDog 20/20 to fill some seats.
Enter into the picture Gillian Zucker, track general manager at Fontana. She’s the prototypical Don Henley “bubble-headed bleached blonde that comes on at 5, she’ll tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye…” Confronted with all those empty seats, Ms. Zucker famously postulated race attendance was actually quite good, but those TV shots of empty seats were only evident because so many fans were under the grandstands shopping at the track’s many pavilions. Yeah, I’m going to spend a hundred bucks on a grandstand seat at a stock car race, then spend half the afternoon at the track’s Galleria looking for a deal on a Gucci evening clutch or a bootlegged reasonable facsimile thereof smuggled over the Mexican border.
Pity Ms. Zucker, who was thrust into her job with a background of stick and ball sports but not a clue about stock car racing or the fans who loved the sport. My guess is if shown a picture of both, she couldn’t tell which one was Tim Flock and which one was Jocko Flocko. Despite growing sentiment from racers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (who was actually winning races and posting top-5s way back then) that the racing at the track was boring and it needed to be dug up and reconfigured, she was still in full Marie Antoinette mode. Digging up race tracks and reconfiguring them was terribly expensive, and it involved dirt and other gross stuff.
She knew what the fans wanted. They wanted a Wolfgang Von Puck gourmet eatery. (Wherein they could show off their Gucci clutches.) They wanted misting stations. They wanted bilingual signage directing them to their seats. They wanted upscale shopping. They wanted a glimpse of whatever “B” list celebrity they could post bond for the weekend that would agree to stop snorting coke for the afternoon to make appearances. (I think this weekend, the casting call has gone out for over-the-hill porn stars and any surviving members of the original Partridge Family to be on hand. Ladies and gentlemen, RU-BENNN KINNNN-CAIDDDDD! Worse yet, Ponch from CHIPS. Oh, wait a second, they already tried that). Almost certainly the Guv-enator won’t be there again. Even if Austria is effectively landlocked, Arnold knows to flee a sinking ship. Hell, I doubt Lindsay Lohan’s peeps would let her wave the green flag this weekend.
Here’s what it comes down to, Gilly-bean. Bistros, discount shopping, and views over the backstretch be damned right along with your demographics on the size of the media market. Race fans want good racing. They want to see passes for the lead. They want to see race cars running side-by-side for the lead in the waning laps. They want to see racing. That’s why they call them racing fans and not the Galloping Gourmets.
Back in the day, folks of my ilk and I were told to pipe down and accept the new NASCAR reality. The Southern 500 was history. NASCAR was tired of us blue jean-wearing, beer-swilling, blue-collar bubbas. They were after a more upscale clientele, and if we choose to give up our seats to the race there were waiting lists of newer, hipper more affluent fans wanting to take our place. Well like the Southern 500, those waiting lists are relics of the past, and blocks of seats big enough to land carrier-based aircraft in are now the norm. Ms. Zucker continues fiddling why Rome burns, questioning how the track never has grasped the SoCal attitude. Like the Athenians Saint Luke writes about in the Acts of the Apostles, Southern Californians in general and foreigners there have no time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty. And in the sunny environs of Lala Land, NASCAR is old news. Nobody wants to be seen in last month’s hippest club if it’s half full.
I take a tremendous amount of satisfaction in Fontana losing one of its two Cup race dates. After all, I’ve been told all these years it was never going to happen, the media market was too important. The loss of the Labor Day weekend date might have stung track officials a little, but the loss of a “Chase” date to Kansas City was a less than subtle admission things at Fontana are so broken they can’t be fixed. But as I see it, the job is only half done and won’t be completed until Fontana is off the schedule all together and the Southern 500 is returned to its rightful place, Labor Day Weekend. That’s never going to happen, they tell me. Funny; they said the same thing about Fontana losing its second Cup date.
Who will decide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine, because there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here, we satisfy our endless needs, and justify our bloody deeds, in the name of destiny, and in the name of God, and you can see them there…
On Sunday afternoons, they stand up and sing about, what it’s like out there, they called it Paradise, I don’t know why, you call someplace Paradise… kiss it goodbye… Don Henley
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