Despite playing host to Kyle Busch‘s 200th NASCAR national touring series win on Sunday (March 17), Auto Club Speedway underwhelmed on many accounts.
The Auto Club 400 was attended by roughly 35,000 people — filling just over half of the 68,000 seats. Then there was the reaction on Jeff Gluck’s “Was It A Good Race?” poll which gave it a 37 percent approval rating.
Was Fontana a good race? 37 percent of you said Yes. That’s the lowest of the four Fontana races in the poll and ranks 106th out of 117 races polled overall. Full results chart: https://t.co/kxcBMhnLPj
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 19, 2019
This race and reaction comes just after NASCAR President Steve Phelps said everything is on the table when it comes to schedule changes beyond 2020. That leads to this week’s 2-Headed Monster question: Should Auto Club Speedway lose its lone NASCAR date? Frontstretch’s Michael Massie and Wesley Coburn debate.
Just because there are a lot of people in the vicinity doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to put a race there.
IndyCar raced at Auto Club Speedway from 1997-2005 before giving up for a while and trying again from 2012-15. The Gander Outdoors Truck Series raced there from the track’s opening until 2009, while the K&N Pro Series West called it quits after 2006.
Hollywood celebrities visiting looks good on TV, but unless they’re involved in a racing-related project, like Pixar working on the Cars trilogy or Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights, there is little value in the splashy guests if they don’t care about the sport?
Southern California is more geared towards drag racing when it comes to cars. And let’s face it, racing of any kind is far behind college and pro football, basketball, baseball, hockey or even soccer in terms of the area’s interests. NASCAR can’t compete against USC, UCLA or the X Games — not to mention the Angels, Chargers, Clippers, Dodgers, Ducks, Galaxy, Kings, LAFC, Lakers or Padres. The sports scene is way too crowded already.
Also, Auto Club is a clone of Michigan International Speedway — why is it necessary to have a pair of two-mile ovals than don’t race all that differently from the parade of 1.5-milers? How much sense does that make? The schedule is already way too long at 36 races and roughly 10 months straight. Honestly, neither of those tracks offer much in the way of great racing, when the most compelling highlight offered in promotions is, “The track is…. really, really wide!”
Scrap Auto Club Speedway since not that many fans attend and the racing isn’t all that great. Its spot in the West Coast Swing can be filled in by Sonoma Raceway’s date, which would (theoretically) provide an open weekend during the summer.
A two-decade experiment in a very nontraditional market was a good idea, but the racing on the track and the lack of attendance in the stands mean it’s time to call it quits. -Wesley Coburn
Don’t Run Away From LA
The Auto Club 400 this past Sunday sucked, but we shouldn’t give up on Auto Club Speedway just yet.
The track is NASCAR’s only link to the Los Angeles market, one of the two biggest in the country. By removing the Fontana track from the schedule, NASCAR would be abandoning SoCal. It would be a premature move that would deem the sport’s LA expansion as a failure.
Remember how much of a bright spot it was for the sport when NASCAR first went there in 1997? Jeff Gordon’s victory at the new track was a popular one, California’s car culture latched onto the venue and NASCAR racing in the area was an instant success. The track wouldn’t have gotten a second race date in 2004 if it hadn’t been performing well — 120,000 people attended the 2003 race won by Kurt Busch.
The track provided great racing too. Jeremy Mayfield beat out Bobby Labonte by three-tenths of a second in the 2000 race, and Rusty Wallace topped Gordon by two-tenths the following year. Elliott Sadler edged Kasey Kahne by two-tenths to win the Fall 2004 race while an even faster Mark Martin settled for third. The closest margin of victory at the track came in 2011 when Kevin Harvick beat Jimmie Johnson by one-tenth.
Speaking of Johnson, Fontana is where the legend of “Old Seven-Time” began with Johnson picking up his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in the 2002 race. Kyle Busch also won his first race at the track.
The point is that Auto Club Speedway built up a formidable reputation in its first decade or so of existence. That reputation did not decline because the track is bad for racing. In fact, the track’s surface has aged so well that it is a rough, bumpy course that is difficult on drivers and tires. The extreme tire wear can produce interesting races given the right circumstances.
So the track is not the problem — the cars are. There used to be good racing at intermediate tracks, but then NASCAR introduced the Car of Tomorrow, followed by the Gen 6 car. Both cars were and are so aerodynamically dependent that it makes racing side by side nearly impossible. Then, NASCAR decides to use this current high downforce package with tapered spacers on the car. The result is we have a bunch of really slow cars that can’t pass each other. Why would California residents buy a ticket to see that when they could see the same thing on their highways for free (barring any tolls)?
Getting rid of the track wouldn’t solve the problem — we’d end up with the same problem in a much smaller market. But if NASCAR finally fixes the racing issues with its Gen 7 car, which is supposed to launch in 2021, then maybe we can finally have a can’t-miss show at the track that is entertaining enough to draw in the LA crowd.
And if that doesn’t work, then when it comes time to repave the track, let’s just bulldoze the thing and put a short track in its place. –Michael Massie