Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: NASCAR’s Southern California Conundrum

After a long winter, the stars and cars of the NASCAR Cup Series kicked off the 2024 racing season with the Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Feb. 3.

The Clash was originally scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 4, but with a serious rainstorm threatening the Los Angeles area, NASCAR elected to scrap plans for the Saturday evening heat races and run the main event at that time instead.

While the fans who had planned to arrive on Sunday missed out, NASCAR did at least get the entire race in and the Cup teams on their way out of Southern California before the worst of the rain arrived.

Now the question is, when will NASCAR be back?

For most of the last 20 years, long before the Clash moved out West, the early weeks of the Cup season included a stop at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Since the track opened in 1997, it has been the closest connection to the LA market for NASCAR’s top division.

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But there will be no racing at Auto Club in 2024. Most of the 2-mile oval’s surface has been demolished, with only the frontstretch left intact. The track’s future remains uncertain — and with it, NASCAR’s presence in Southern California.

The reason that Auto Club is closed and half destroyed is all too familiar: the land the track sits on became more valuable than the track itself. That has been the sad fate of many racetracks over the decades, especially in Southern California. The legendary Riverside International Raceway, an epicenter for all types of motorsports in the LA area, hosted NASCAR for 28 seasons until closing in 1989. Ontario Motor Speedway, a fast 2.5-mile oval similar to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, barely lasted 10 years before it was purchased by a real estate company in 1980 and closed for redevelopment.

Auto Club, located just a few miles away from where Ontario once stood, was supposed to be somewhat protected from redevelopment. The speedway was constructed on the site of a former steel mill where heavy industrial activity had rendered the property unsuitable for housing. With NASCAR’s popularity on the rise, Roger Penske led the construction of a modern and beautiful racetrack, one that seemed well-positioned to serve as NASCAR’s Southern California home long into the future.

However, Auto Club never quite captured the California dream. For much of the track’s history, the quality of racing was uninspiring at best and dreadful at worst. Races during the 2000s were often runaway aero parades, and taking over the Labor Day weekend date from its longtime home at Darlington Raceway did not work out.

During the last dozen years, the track did gain some popularity among fans for its rough and worn-out surface, which added an extra challenge to each race. Yet the track’s aging pavement would need replacing eventually, and not every race old surface was a memorable one anyway.

In fall 2020, NASCAR first floated the idea of turning Auto Club into a short track. The initial plans called for a half-mile short track similar in shape to Martinsville Speedway but with turns banked like Bristol Motor Speedway.

This proposal seemed like a great one at the time. NASCAR could sell off some of the surrounding land for redevelopment, sidestep the problem of when Auto Club would have to be repaved and create a short track on the west coast with the infrastructure for hosting a Cup race.

But while NASCAR continued to work on these plans, the sanctioning body faced some unexpected developments. The first was the opportunity to move the Clash to the Coliseum, which gave NASCAR an event in the heart of Los Angeles.

Perhaps more surprising was the Next Gen car’s lackluster performance on short tracks, especially compared to high-speed ovals. Auto Club’s 2022 Cup race, its first with the Next Gen car, was one of the best in the track’s history. The 2023 race did not quite match the quality of the year before, but it was still a much more entertaining event that most prior Auto Club races. Unless NASCAR was able to revamp the Next Gen’s short track package, keeping the 2-mile oval suddenly looked like the better option.  

However, money talks. NASCAR sold most of the Auto Club property and the original speedway is effectively history. The short track may still become a reality one day, but any details about when that would happen or if the track would still use the proposed layout have been few and far between.

The most recent report from Feb. 2, via NBC Sports, suggests that if the new short track is completed, it would not be ready for 2025. While construction delays are understandable, it is fair to wonder if NASCAR might abandon the project and sell off the rest of the land if there is no sufficient progress soon.

Without a track in Fontana, NASCAR’s future in Southern California becomes a giant question mark. Keeping the Clash at the Coliseum does give NASCAR a presence in LA, but the city would still lack its own points race, and the Coliseum is not suitable for that at all. The Coliseum’s quarter-mile temporary track is fine for what the Clash is, an exhibition race that provides a taste of what NASCAR is like and can help introduce new fans to the sport. However, the track is simply too small and lacks a dedicated pit road and garage area, basics that every other track that hosts a full-field points race must have.

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If the sanctioning body wanted to find another track in Southern California for a points race, its options would be limited. Irwindale Speedway is one existing short track in the LA area, but the facility only has 6,500 permanent seats and would need a massive upgrade before hosting a Cup race. NASCAR could also look at Kevin Harvick’s Kern Raceway, the Bakersfield, Calif., short track and spiritual successor to Mesa Marin Raceway. The downside is that the race would be even further removed from LA and, like Irwindale, the facility would need some upgrades to be ready for the Cup Series.

Perhaps NASCAR would even try a street race in the LA area. The city of Long Beach, Califl., has hosted auto racing on its streets for decades, and NASCAR’s foray into street racing in Chicago last year was surprisingly enjoyable. That said, the Chicago street course race was not so successful that it wiped away the doubts of the Chicago aldermen about the future of NASCAR in the Windy City. If the Chicago street race does not come back after 2024, how can NASCAR feel good about the prospects of a street race as a long-term solution for LA?

You would think that it should not be so difficult for NASCAR to solve its Southern California conundrum. Cars and auto racing are deep in the cultural fabric of LA, and even if road racing and drag racing are the regional favorites, stock car racing should have its place, too.

But it seems like no matter what NASCAR tries in Southern California, the sport always winds up back where it started, fighting for space physically in the city and in the hearts and minds of those who call it home.

If there is a solution, we have not found it yet.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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11 Comments
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Echo

Ever been to Bakersfield !! Nobody would drive a long way to Bakersfield on purpose. Check out Nascar’s attendance numbers in the L.A. area.

Christopher

I find the annual media hand wringing about NASCAR in Southern California very tiring.

BigDogSS

SoCal is the #2 market for NASCAR.

Christopher

Lots of people state this. The ratings do not back it up.

wildcats2016

“all the fans are shopping on the concourse” Actual reason provided by the person who was president of the track at the time. I laughed & laughed. I’ve been to races where there are LOTS of people shopping for food & all the rest of NASCAR stuff. There were still lots of ppl in the stands.

BigDogSS

I say race at Irwindale Speedway. It only seats 6500? So what! It is all about the TV package anyways. And those 6500 seats will always be sold out. There many races at other tracks where the stands are not close to being full. Of course a pit road will need to be added. Irwindale Speedway is in a perfect location, with minimal upgrades needed. Maybe attract In-N-Out Burger as a title sponsor and they could just bring their famous food trucks to cover the food. It would be a cool race, for sure.

Kevin in SoCal

Irwindale is not in a perfect location. I keep hearing rumors its lease is on rocky ground and that the track could close.

Ellenjay

If I’m remembering right, Irwindale is a good bit of rocky ground. lol

Kevin in SoCal

Being in SoCal I would LOVE to see a double-header with IndyCar at Long Beach.

John

Dump southern calof

John

Sorry. Dump southern California, dump the made-up track, and go back to a real racetrack somewhere other than Daytona. There are lots of tracks in the Southeast that would love to host the event, I think.

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