Race Weekend Central

Returning East, California Love from a Longtime Critic

The political science major in me has a hard time believing what I’m seeing on the left coast in 2018. Whether you agree or disagree with those populating and governing California, be it their strong challenges to federal immigration policy, their staunch campaign to maintain their autonomy in setting environmental policies or rampant talk of secession on numerous fronts, the Golden State has taken the mantle as a bastion of states’ rights, the most rebellious state in the union. It’s as big a 180 as I could possibly imagine when thinking back to when I graduated in 2008.

The same can be said for racing at Auto Club Speedway.

In 2008, I willingly and heartily took shots at NASCAR parades on the wide banks in Fontana. Fast forward through 10 glorious years of aging asphalt, and now I find myself looking forward from Atlanta Motor Speedway to Fontana, eagerly awaiting the finale of NASCAR Goes West.

And that newfound appreciation for Fontana goes beyond watching Goodyears getting shredded at high speed. Auto Club has become one of the more unique stops on the NASCAR tour, and it might have a thing or two to teach major league stock car racing across the country.

One year ago, I made my first visit to the track I used to bash. There’s nothing remarkable about the facility or even the food and tents populating the frontstretch grandstand. But that Sunday’s 400-miler was memorable, and not just because the track put on a great race that saw Brad Keselowski come from 40th to second after a first-lap incident, or because I won three figures upon my return to Las Vegas that Monday thanks to a Kyle Larson win.

What was surprising was the attitude, the edge that was palpable among the crowd and in the marketing on display while at ACS. Pre-race ceremonies heard Auto Club openly touting itself as a single-event racetrack, having lost its second race date after the 2010 season. ISC management at the track loudly and proudly boasted of having the best race fans in America, and the surprisingly healthy crowd ate it up.

Despite having lost its second date seven years ago, there was almost an anger in the way the fans present embraced their only Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series date. And all of this was from a crowd that understandably (it is southern California) looked nothing like at the tracks back home in the South.

The completely unscientific takeaway from all this? The folks running Auto Club Speedway know their fan-base and sold their event. NASCAR was out West, and that was all that needed to be said.

Taking a defiant pride in having one race after spending almost a decade as one of the most maligned tracks to race stock cars, ACS took pride in its fans and went as far as to paint it on a wall (who ever thought they’d live to see “Bienvenidos” painted on a retaining wall as it was on Sunday?!)

Hearing this messaging when I was at ACS (and seeing a damn good race that was worth the price of admission to boot), I will openly admit that racing at Fontana made a lot more sense to me. Again, aging asphalt will fix just about any on-track woes that a track will have. But the marketing put out by ACS was shockingly on-point, a radical departure for the track that laughably tried in 2006 to attribute swaths of empty grandstands to fans shopping under the bleachers (for the record, having been on the ground at ACS, there’s no way that was true; there’s no shopping to do!).

Perhaps the more important (and again unscientific) takeaway from my 2017 visit was that this defiant streak seemed to be putting butts in the seats. Thanks to NASCAR’s self-serving and completely transparent decision to stop publishing estimated attendance (transparent in how self-serving — or deluding– a decision that was), I have no way of knowing whether that’s correct, and sadly, last Sunday’s crowd seemed to have dropped off from where it was a year ago.

But when comparing Auto Club to the tons of empty seats I’ve seen firsthand at Richmond Raceway or even at Daytona International Speedway for any race that doesn’t have 500 in its name, the fact is that Fontana of all tracks appears to be holding its own even as NASCAR’s downturn continues. That’s no small accomplishment for a track in a region of the country that Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself said in 2007 “could care less.”

There are lessons to be learned here. Just as Indianapolis Motor Speedway sells the Indianapolis 500 completely independent of the larger IndyCar Series season, there’s something to be said about selling a unique regional event instead of selling week five of a 36-race marathon. In stock car racing terms, let’s not forget that Eldora Speedway still sells out for the Camping World Truck Series five years later. Unique events sell.

And in an era of NASCAR where schedules are being committed to years in advance and new tracks are finding it harder and harder to earn dates, one can’t help but think NASCAR needs to explore adding some flex dates to its regimented schedules.

That flex scheduling item ties into something that Auto Club Speedway can’t take as much credit for: its aged surface. Though ACS deserves lots of credit for the steps it has taken (remember Atlanta has an even more abrasive race surface, a single race date and a location more than 30 miles outside the urban center it serves while struggling to fill a smaller grandstand), those steps have been taken in conjunction with an on-track product that has gotten markedly better over the last decade. Maybe it’s time for NASCAR to explore shuffling repaved tracks off the schedule for a couple years.

Auto Club Speedway should also be commended for creating its own niche experience after being put in an impossible and arguably unfair situation 15 years ago when it succeeded Darlington Raceway for NASCAR’s Labor Day weekend. Los Angeles is not Darlington; a symmetrical 2-mile oval is not the Lady in Black, and the Pop Secret 500 is not the Southern 500.

When one considers that Fontana was tasked with selling twice as many race dates, one of which was at the expense of a true crown jewel race in the heart of stock car racing country, it’s no surprise that trying to race twice a season at Fontana was a failure.

After all, if one needs any further proof that attempting to force culture where it doesn’t exist won’t sell seats, they don’t have to leave the state of California or even the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Just look at the NFL’s Rams and Chargers upon their return to LA last year; the Rams were continually outdrawn by the University of Southern California Trojans college football team, while the Chargers couldn’t sell out a 25,000-seat soccer stadium. It’s like the NFL forgot that 20 years ago Los Angeles had two football teams, and nobody wanted to see them then, either.

Loud and proud, right or wrong, California is fighting tooth and nail in 2018 to do its own thing. The same can be said for Auto Club Speedway, and it appears to be working. NASCAR would do well to turn left and have a look.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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