NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: It Isn’t Auto Club Speedway’s Fault

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.

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, ACS’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 ACS 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 ACS. 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.

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