Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: So Long, Auto Club Speedway

After this weekend’s races at Auto Club Speedway, the curtain dropped on the two-mile, D-shaped oval after 33 races. The track will be off the schedule for at least the 2024 season and possibly 2025 for a reconfiguration project that will change the speedway into a short track.

After the sale of much of the land surrounding the former California Speedway that was reported Friday (Feb. 24), there are suddenly more questions and answers about the track’s future, though it appears that part of the redevelopment will include parting for race events. A final rendering of the new track layout has yet to be released, adding to speculation.

Whatever the future holds, though, the last NASCAR Cup Series winner on the old ACS, Kyle Busch, has been crowned, 26 years after Jeff Gordon took the first trip to victory lane. Jimmie Johnson’s six wins will stand for all time as the record for the two-mile speedway.

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There was a little something in the air this past weekend as rain and snow pushed the NASCAR Xfinity Series race to a Sunday night event. Surprisingly, people talked about the end of the old era in reverent tones, at least a little.

It was…sentimental.

I have to admit, for a minute there, I almost bought in. 

And for the life of me, I don’t know why.

First of all, even with the questions surrounding the land sale, all indications are that the track intends to reinvent itself as exactly the kind of track fans want: a one-half to two-thirds of a mile short track. Racing may very well resume.

Quite frankly, it’s almost guaranteed to be better than what we got saddled with for most of ACS’ existence.

The track was added to the Cup Schedule in 1997 as NASCAR was on a meteoric rise and looking to add the southern California market it had lost with the closure of Riverside Raceway. Racing was often less than compelling, with margins of victory frequently over a second. Aerodynamic dependence was already rearing its head in the sport and NASCAR made a string of mandates to gears and suspensions that throttled teams even further.

ACS joined the schedule at a time when almost every new track was 1.5 miles or more in length, arenas built to host the maximum number of race fans and both open-wheel and stock-car contests. For a little while, it worked out because people were clamoring to go to any race they could as the sport’s popularity grew.

ACS wasn’t the only new track on the 1997 Cup schedule; Texas Motor Speedway also made a somewhat inauspicious (or mildly disastrous) debut. In 1998, Las Vegas Motor Speedway joined the fray. Homestead-Miami Speedway came in 1999, followed by Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway in 2001. Kentucky Speedway came along in 2011.

The tracks that made way for the expansion were one-time staples on the Cup circuit: North Carolina Speedway, fondly known as Rockingham for the town it sat in, and North Wilkesboro Speedway, one of just three remaining half-mile tracks in the 90s, fell to the wayside in the name of progress. Another date came from NASCAR’s grand Lady in Black, Darlington Raceway.

If fans weren’t enamored with the racing at ACS before, the nail in the coffin for many came when the track took over Labor Day weekend. Previously, that date belonged to Darlington and the Southern 500, NASCAR’s oldest race and one of its most prestigious. Fans didn’t buy into the spring race being renamed to honor the tradition.

ACS also showed some of the early cracks in the façade of the NASCAR fad. One race had been well-attended. Two…well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and fans agreed. Crowds dwindled as tickets became easier to get, and it became apparent that the track wasn’t going to fill twice a year – and there was plenty of animosity towards the speedway for taking that Darlington date. Fans never got over that; the race has since been returned to Darlington, which also got its second date back courtesy of Kentucky, which closed without fanfare in 2020, one year after Chicagoland shuttered its gates.

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But what really didn’t endear ACS to fans was the racing. Aero was king, and the racing was, to put it bluntly, boring. As the pavement aged, the racing improved somewhat, and there have been a few compelling finishes, but for the most part, fans struggle to recall a lot of great moments. Perhaps the most memorable to many is the time NASCAR insisted on starting a race after a lengthy rain delay, only to discover the hard way that the track wasn’t dry enough when perpetual Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. got caught in an incident in the opening laps and was already out when the race resumed the next day.

If that’s the most memorable moment, well, that’s not great.

The track does boast one rather impressive statistic: only two drivers got their first career wins in Fontana, and both went on to win multiple Cup titles (Johnson and Busch). But even that calls into question whether it was because the track was a great test of skill or because it was a great test of aerodynamics because underdog winners were nonexistent.

The conversion to a short track has been in the works for a while; slowed like much of the world by the COVID-19 pandemic. The reinvention is perhaps the track’s finest hour; as fans asked for more short tracks, short tracks ready to host Cup races were in short supply. ACS alone stepped up to the plate.

But even this, a move that should be popular with fans, was overshadowed when North Wilkesboro rose from the North Carolina clay like a phoenix. North Wilkes had the nostalgia cornered and the All-Star Race became the hottest ticket in NASCAR in years. If ACS is able to create exactly what fans have been asking for, it should be given every opportunity to succeed, especially in a market where NASCAR has never really had the stronghold it hoped for.

If ACS does indeed return reborn as a unique short track, then its best days are ahead of it. If it fades into memory, it had its day. If the track owners had built unique tracks of a mile or less in the first place, rather than cookie-cutter intermediates, the racing would have been better all along. There’s a reason the big, round, boring multiuse stadiums have disappeared from the baseball landscape, and NASCAR should have taken note back when it was expanding.

So long, big Fontana. Thanks for the memories, such as they were. I can’t say I’ll miss you, so…until we meet again.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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