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 to 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, Calif. 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, sweet 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 fanbase 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 fans’ 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 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.
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 ACS’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 funnyman David Letterman, I wouldn’t give Gillian Zucker’s problems to a monkey on a rock. Zucker, President of ACS, has for more than four years been charged with developing and growing a stock car racing fanbase 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.
But you name it – and Zucker has tried it. The first woman 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, ACS 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 p.m. 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 fanbase 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 ACS 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.