Auto Club Speedway faces tough road to re-engaging fans
Despite a strong start in the mid-90s, Fontana's popularity has gradually declined
Moving the Southern 500 from February to November was a huge mistake
Officials have spent little time addressing some of Fontana's most pressing issues
It was the track that ushered in an era of NASCAR expansion unlike any we'd ever seen. The second Roger Penske cut the ribbon on his two-mile, Fontana, Calif.-based facility now known as Auto Club Speedway, the sport had its West Coast connection. Hollywood stars streamed in from Los Angeles to sneak a peek at this once-booming sport that marked the next big thing in an area that thrives on being the center of attention. That June 1997 event joined with Texas (April) to mark a six-track, five-year expansion that brought the sport up to its current slate of 36 races.
Thirteen years later, the fall Fontana race marks a funeral of sorts, the lonely, 90-year-old great uncle type with just a few grieving relatives and close friends left around to see it. After attendance peaked at or around 120,000, numbers were nearly half that for the race here last fall, a downward trend so dismal the sanctioning body had no choice but to pull one of the track's two dates for 2011. The hope is that a newly-minted, late March event will be put fans back in the stands; otherwise, this track could be pushed off the schedule as early as 2012.
How did such an ambitious venture turn into one of NASCAR's biggest mistakes? A lot of people find it easy to point at boring races as the culprit. But that's far from the only reason a California dream turned into a nightmare that runs much deeper into the heart of what's plaguing the sport these days. Here are five reasons why the wild, wild West was never won:
1) Location. It sounds like the simplest of problems, but where you build really does determine if people come. Though Fontana was designed to fit in the second-largest media market, saying this speedway is right in the heart of Los Angeles is like me claiming New York is a stone's throw away from my doorstep in Philadelphia.
For proof, I look no further than to my own L.A. drives through the years. Even on a perfect evening, with no traffic and no cops to slow you down, it's a good 60, maybe 50 minutes from Fontana to Echo Park. But on a Friday night? Heading back after qualifying? You're lucky if it takes an hour and a half. No wonder I've struggled to find city folk who acknowledged the track's existence, let alone proved willing to trek the distance to check out this West Coast "novelty."
Yet NASCAR wastes no time in trumpeting the track's prime location, just like it says Chicagoland is right in the heart of Chicago, even though you're lucky to hit downtown in an hour from the bustling metropolis of Joliet. That may fool fans the first time they travel to a track, but the second? There won't be another mistake.
What's even more surprising is that original track owner Penske knew this problem because he lived it, watching the old Ontario Motor Speedway fold in 1980 due to poor location, crowds and competition. So his solution was to build the same type of track and do it all over again? It's a geographic and tactical mistake you'd never expect from the Indy 500 legend, a reminder that even self-made millionaires are far from perfect.
2) Tradition. Despite competition complaints we'll address later, attendance at the oval was still roaring strong long before a second date came calling in 2004. In fact, at the time it was hard to argue NASCAR giving the then-healthy track additional attention it felt it deserved.
But where the sport made a tragic mistake is how and where that second date was allotted. Deciding floundering attendance at Rockingham, N.C., justified stripping a date off the schedule, the sport took a race from the competitive one-mile oval and slapped one on to California's schedule instead. That move was bad enough for traditionalists, but the death blow came when NASCAR chose to move the Southern 500 -- a staple of the sport's Labor Day schedule since 1950 -- to November instead, sending the coveted date toward the equivalent of a foreign country for the sport's Southern base.
The results, as you might imagine, were disastrous. Local fans were deflated. By 2005 the track known as the "Lady in Black" was holding just one 500-mile race on Mother's Day. Renamed the "Southern 500," the race has been criticized by many as a fake, thousands refusing to watch the sport until the track gets returned to its rightful place on the schedule. Right or wrong, California immediately became the source of their anger, a scapegoat of everything wrong with the sport, even though in the four years it held races on Labor Day, it averaged one more lead change than Darlington per event (29 vs. 28). But in this sport, perception is everything, and the track was shoveled in an ugly hole from which it's proved impossible to recover.
3) Layout. California helped usher in a new era of cookie-cutter ovals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, joining Texas, Las Vegas, Homestead, Kansas and Chicagoland, as builders thought the tracks were the perfect solution to fans starving for a place in the stands. These 1.5-to-2-mile ovals allowed more seats while being wide enough for not only stock cars, but also open-wheelers to run during the year. Compared to tracks like small-town Martinsville, which even to this day holds fewer than 70,000 seats, the potential construction of 140,000 for up to five dates on the schedule (one open-wheel, two Cup, two Nationwide) seemed like a potential gold mine for track owners.
But those dollar signs obscured simple common sense when it comes to the quality of competition. Intermediate tracks are terrible for stock cars, coming at a time where aerodynamics at high speeds make it difficult to run side by side. The length of these places makes it easy for the field to spread out, with leads of five, six, seven seconds developing where it's easier to simply "ride" like cars traveling on a highway than take risks that could cost you valuable speed or possibly cause you to spin out. Forced passing proves few and far between, as cars lap so infrequently it's easy for folks to sit back, then relax the first 400 miles before seeing what they've got for the last 100.
At the same time, IndyCar's disastrous split with CART in 1995 killed the open-wheel audience, leading to horrific attendance and several ovals never even getting the opportunity to host the series on a full-time basis. After killing off profit margins, these tracks, now more than ever, thrive on the one type of car they're least adaptable to, left powerless to produce the type of improvements (like graduated banking) that have helped improve competition on some of the larger ovals.
Fontana has led the way in that department, repeatedly unwilling to take the investment risk of remodeling into either a restrictor plate track, matching the popular ovals of Daytona and Talladega, or just simply redoing the banking to make the racing better. Instead, track President Gillian Zucker, NASCAR-linked owners International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and sanctioning body officials all remain content with the status quo. It's a cookie-cutter reaction that could lead to the death of Auto Club and other places smothering under the weight of too many seats, not enough side-by-side action, and fan negativity that's spread on a national scale.
4) Timing. Since the heat of the California sun pummeled down on the first ever race there in '97, the track has suffered mightily from weather-related issues. Future dates were put at the end of April, then moved to February, with the race plagued by rain in each of the last three years. It also runs directly before the race out in Sin City, further thinning a base that'll likely choose casino gambling along with racing anytime they're posed with a two-week window to choose.
February 2008 was perhaps the worst date of all. An eight-hour delay in which NASCAR refused to postpone the event caused water to seep onto the track. That led fan favorites Denny Hamlin, Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, to end their days in savage wrecks when they did race, driving on pavement slicker than your own back road through a raging thunderstorm.
Start times for races have also plagued the Speedway, a late West Coast start leading to a checkered flag ending of well past 7 p.m. ET in past years. Nationwide events have started as late as 10 p.m. ET on a Friday or Saturday night, leaving even the die-hard fans struggling to stay awake through a race that's not exactly energy-inducing.
5) Public Relations Gaffes. While you can't fault Zucker for her energy or effort, her tenure will be remembered most by outrageous quotes. When asked about empty seats in February 2006, she claimed the track looked empty because people were "shopping during the race and at ... concession stands." Indeed, her approach has been to lure people in more by outside attractions -- a new retail store, an entertainment stage, and countless lounge areas -- than improving the product itself. At times, she's gotten A-list celebrities, while others have proven to be phenomenally unpopular. The latest misstep: David Hasselhoff will be in attendance to sing the national anthem. Need I say more?
That line of entertainment-style thinking is understandable considering all the bells and whistles offered at baseball stadiums around the country. But NASCAR is such a unique event, a once, twice max per year outing -- not 81. With her philosophy, Zucker ignored the basic principles of why people come in the first place: the on-track product.
Add these five reasons up and you've got a recipe for an oval on the verge of coming full circle to its death. It didn't have to be that way, but in my lifetime that's how all tragic tales start their first chapter.
Let's just hope the powers that be can still fix this mess in time to salvage a single date.