The Frontstretch: Fontana: Lacks One Thing That Darlington Has by Tommy Thompson -- Wednesday February 18, 2009

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Fontana: Lacks One Thing That Darlington Has

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday February 18, 2009


When NASCAR resumed racing in southern California in 1997 after previous failed attempts at gaining a foothold for the sport at Riverside and Ontario, the decision seemed at best ill-advised and at worst foolhardy to a large number of longtime and loyal NASCAR fans. However, when in 2004 a second date was awarded the 2-mile race facility at the expense of Darlington Raceway and its Labor Day Weekend tradition, the Southern 500, many felt that the sanctioning body had in effect committed a treasonous act against those that had supported it for years. These events have been a chronic black eye to the Fontana, CA racing facility…and one that has yet to heal nearly four years after NASCAR made its move.

Fans came out of the woodwork to voice their displeasure over the audacity that the sport demonstrated in choosing to abandon their roots and casting their lot with the not-so-stock car-crazy West Coast bunch — just a stone’s throw from Hollyweird. A land a million miles away from the country music-loving, fried chicken-eating, sweat tea drinking fans of the Bible belt – fans that had embraced not only the sport, but considered the Southern 500 almost as sacrosanct to the sport as the Daytona 500.

Of course, NASCAR had their reasons. After all, if you are going to further alienate your fan base on the heels of snatching other beloved race venues from loyalists, it better be for good reason. A move to gain acceptance in a region of the country that contains approximately 21 million potential fans within a 100-mile radius of the track — a number roughly equal to the population of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina combined — was just too tempting to ignore.

Besides, it wasn’t as if the Darlington fans were without access to the sport of their choice. Atlanta, Richmond, and Charlotte were all within easy commuting distance for them, and there would still be one race date at the sport’s first superspeedway. Sure, the loss of a race date would cause a certain amount of angst and anger amongst the diehards, but the risk seemed worth the reward of once and for all establishing big time stock car racing as a viable competitor for sports entertainment dollars in one of the most prosperous areas of the country.

So, how has the plan panned out apart from fan’s incessant anger?

Well… so far, not so good.

This season, California Speedway, now called Auto Club Speedway of Southern California, will no longer have the plum Labor Day Weekend date that they had taken from Darlington not even five years ago. Instead, Atlanta Motor Speedway will benefit from a date change that pushes Auto Club’s second race into late October. The truth is, though Darlington had experienced a steady decline in attendance for the Southern 500, the modern 2-mile Fontana, California track has not lived up to expectations and continues to draw disappointing attendance numbers. As a result, each race there are rows of empty seats that even the most skilled cameraman working the television broadcasts are not able to conceal from the viewing public.

California may have stolen away one of its race dates, but it can never usurp the tradition of the egg-shaped oval known simply as the “Lady In Black.”

Ironically, Darlington, the track a race date was deemed expendable at, has experienced somewhat of a rebirth and has been embraced by the racing community. Darlington’s one remaining race was moved to Mother’s Day Weekend in 2005 — a date previously considered poison for holding a race event — but has now been sold out four years in a row. That’s a turn of events that should make any further assault on the one remaining race date at the “Lady in Black” unlikely.

It is doubtful that Darlington’s remarkable reversal of fortunes and Auto Club Speedway’s lack of improvement were how NASCAR’s management foresaw things developing in five years. There has really been no appreciable increased interest in the sport, which is in midst of a four-year downturn in ratings and attendance overall. However, Darlington, and its 60-year old unique somewhat egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval, located in what was thought to be in an over-saturated market in an area that has for years suffered a downturn in its economy is doing quite well… all things considered.

To borrow a line from late night funny-man David Letterman, I wouldn’t give Gillian Zucker’s problems to a monkey on a rock. Zucker, President of Auto Club Speedway, has for more than four years been charged with developing and growing a stock car racing fan base and improving attendance at the southern California motorsports complex. Apparently, the task has been as difficult as selling Michael Vick memorabilia at a PETA convention would be.

But you name it — and Zucker has tried it. The first women in NASCAR to operate a major NASCAR-sanctioned track cannot be accused of being unimaginative. She has done all the obligatory things: fireworks, rap, new wave, rock, and even a little country music to appeal to the greatly diversified citizenry of southern California. Each event, there are always plenty of Hollywood types parading around the infield on race day. Likewise, a steady stream of Hispanic celebrities have been in attendance, as well as participating in race day festivities.

A hands-on approach that allows fans to contact her directly with suggestions, gripes, and compliments has led the New Jersey native — who, prior to her present position served as Daytona International Speedway’s vice president of business operations and development — to even learn Spanish to better converse with the Latino community. It’s a group which Zucker estimates makes up to 48% of the market she is operating in, one she has to cater to in order to fill the stands each year.

In a 2006 interview, the former promotions executive for the Durham Bulls ticked off two major obstacles that she believes has hampered progress in establishing NASCAR in the region. “First off, there is a stereotype that goes along with the sport that has been overcome in the vast majority of the country, but we still battle it a little bit in Los Angeles,” Zucker said. “Secondly, the traffic. It is a major obstacle in their daily lives. Some people plan their entire day to avoid rush-hour traffic.”

Anyone that has ever commuted the maze of freeways, bi-ways, and on and off ramps of the greater Los Angeles area knows that “stop and go” traffic is a daily fact of life for most that live and work there. These are folks that are much more accustomed to snarled traffic jams than, say, those fans that willingly enter into the inevitable traffic snarls that are part of any trip to a NASCAR event – coming and going.

Sadly, Zucker probably is correct in her observations that there are a good number of elitists in southern California; but surely, 100,000 fair-minded race fans in a state rich in auto racing history can be found. Besides, the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California has been California-nized as much as possible to erase any hint of the southern states. A Wolfgang Puck restaurant, a Hollywood-themed campground, sushi, and this year even a 3:00 PM start time have been used to lure fans out from L.A.

But those aren’t the problems that are preventing the speedway to gain traction and become a must-see event for residents of the area. The races are, by and large, unexciting — and too many are just downright boring. A generic, all-purpose 2-miler that has multiple racing grooves allows competitors to pass one another without a battle for position – or, as it is known in some circles… RACING!

So, the reason for the resurgence of Darlington Raceway and the stagnation at Fontana is…exciting racing. On the one hand, you have the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” and on the other, the track that is “tough to stay awake at.” Darlington management, once awakened by the loss of a race date, went to work to put the fans back in the stands. And without the advantage of a prosperous local fan base, or a dense population to draw from, they promoted the most important attraction any race venue can have… exciting racing.

Like past races at Fontana, the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway will not be sold out. The racing will be fast, unexciting passes will be made; and at the end of the day, southern California spectators will once again leave unimpressed and uncommitted to the track or the sport.

And…That’s my view from Turn 5.

Contact Tommy Thompson

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02/19/2009 01:52 AM

As someone that lives about 30 miles from the Fontana track (ACS), I used to never miss a race, now I have no intentions of going any more… for an assortment of reasons.

The racing itself. The first couple years the racing was great with cars going 4 wide at times. Since the track has become “weathered in” it just turned into a boring track.

But besides the racing, it is still cool to actually be at any track and watch a race in person. But ACS has continually made it a worse and worse fan experience every time I show up to the track. The traffic is a problem, but it’s not the terrible LA/Riverside traffic that is the problem. It is the poor design of the parking lot and the roads leading to it. And every race they switch the routes around so you end up back tracking 5-10 miles to finally get in line to park. I’m really not joking about this.

Then they have put serious restrictions on what you are allowed to carry into the track. I used to bring a normal, school sized, backpack. Which held my scanner, headphones, camera, suntan lotion, and binoculars. Now you are limited to a 6×6×12” soft sided bag/cooler, and a clear plastic bag 18×18×4” (which really can only hold the program guide that you have to buy to get that bag to begin with). You are allowed to hang your scanner, binoculars, etc. all over your body, but that is a pain. Women are still allowed to bring purses in, and very large ones too. I asked if I could bring a purse in too and the security guy’s response was only if I was a woman. He was pretty rude about it, and also, that isn’t quite fair is it?

Then there is the handicapped seating, which my father qualifies for. What’s nice about it is that it is the very top row. Best non-suite seats going. On Cup days, only people with handicap or suite tickets can use the elevators. While I personally don’t really need to use them, it is nice to be able to avoid a long climb up to the top row at least a couple of times out of the day, especially if it is my 3rd day in a row there. But every time I try, they are very rude to me about it since I am not in a wheelchair. (And anyone that is always gets priority onto the elevator, by me and every other person I have ever seen use them.) But I always end up having to argue with them and have to demand them to call their manager over so they can explain to me why the pass that says I can use the elevators doesn’t allow me to use them. They usually give in at that point… but it is something that shouldn’t even be an issue to begin with.

Starting last year, they started enclosing the sales trailers located in the parking lot too. So you can’t show up on Friday and pick up some of your favorite drivers swag without purchasing a ticket. I’m not sure if this is typical at most tracks, but for 11 years it wasn’t a problem, and now it is.

Then the final straw for me was the fact that I am a smoker, but I am courteous about it. They have now completely banned smoking in the stands, and also beneath the stands (concession level). And for those of you that have never been there, the stands start about 4 stories above the main parking lot/infield level. So it is quite a hike in order to go have a smoke. They did have a year when there were smoking sections beneath the stands, but I guess they were too packed for someone’s liking (and they were packed).

And if I sound like I am whining here, I really haven’t even touched half the things they have “killed” over the years… pit passes, concession prices, quality of the concession stands, etc., etc., etc.

Hell, the “drag strip” they have there is just K rails set up in the parking lot. Plus it is angled uphill 3 degrees.

So as you can tell, this NASCAR fan is no fan of ACS. I would like to see the track closed and another date added to Las Vegas (it’s only an extra 3 hour drive.)

02/19/2009 07:07 AM

Fred: Don’t ever go to Kentucky… they won’t allow you to carry in anything; nada… zilch.

The more that racetracks make these moves prohibitting us to bring our survival stuff, the more I tend to use my recliner on raceday.

02/19/2009 09:25 AM

Bobb is right!, That is the reason I gave up my 2 season tickets I had since the track opened…….every year they get worse…..and don’t even get me talking about parking and consessions etc.

Kevin in SoCal
02/19/2009 01:31 PM

Even I voted that CA doesnt need two dates at the track. It was doing just fine with one date, and we didnt have any problems. This all started with NASCAR’s stupid decision to take the date away from Darlington on Labor Day and give it to CA. The track sold out or almost sold out with one date. This two date thing has obviously failed and its time to give the second date to another worthy track. I vote Iowa, as we sure could use another short track on the schedule. Hopefully the Nationwide and Truck races they added in Iowa this year are a success, and Iowa gets a Cup date next year. I’d gladly give up CA’s Feb date to Iowa, as it would eliminate the CA-LV races being so close to each other, and eliminate the teams having to travel across the country right after Daytona.

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