News & Media

Auto Club Speedway's future may hearken back to its past

March 26, 2011, David Caraviello,

FONTANA, Calif. -- Track sags under weight of expectations set by surrounding population, history

It seems like ancient history now, something schoolchildren study in dusty textbooks, but there was once a time when the facility currently known as Auto Club Speedway never had an empty seat. For seven years NASCAR fever swept through Southern California like it was airborne, with citizens of America's car culture capital packing the 2-mile track off Interstate 10. Almost instantaneously the place became a shining example of the sport's national expansion, a flag planted in the country's second-largest market, a story so successful it seemed penned by a Hollywood screenwriter.

Those days can be difficult to remember now, as Auto Club Speedway sags under the weight of expectations set by both its surrounding population base and its own history. There was a grandstand expansion which added some 30,000 seats, the introduction of a second NASCAR weekend, and suddenly the track changed from a success story to a cautionary tale. Attendance dropped off dramatically, and prior to this season parent company International Speedway Co. and NASCAR did what had been long expected -- they moved a date from Southern California to Kansas, a facility with a smaller seating capacity but a more reliable record of selling tickets.

" I know there are a lot of dedicated race fans in the area, but we need to somehow get them in the seats. I don't like seeing races taken away from my home state ..."


There wasn't one single reason behind it, and in fairness Auto Club Speedway was caught in a vortex of factors not all of its own making. There were complaints about the type of racing the track produced, of course, and marketing strategies that to some seemed too L.A.-centric, but Fontana's slide also coincided with both a dip in NASCAR's popularity as well as a recession that socked real-estate-heavy Southern California square in the jaw. Regardless, the results were the same -- rows of empty seats, scrutiny in the media that ranged from criticism to downright ridicule, and the inevitable loss of a race.

"We've seen some open seats here, and that's just the truth of the matter," said five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif. "I know there are a lot of dedicated race fans in the area, but we need to somehow get them in the seats. I don't like seeing races taken away from my home state and the West Coast, because I grew up in an era where we didn't really have it on television and there wasn't any close by. I wish that it was closer to us, so I hate to see it leave, but at the same time if we don't have the support then we have to find the areas that will support our sport and fill up the grandstands and all that kind of thing."

Sunday, then, begins a new era for Auto Club Speedway -- or perhaps more accurately, harkens back to an older one. This track's best years, without question, came when it was a single-date facility, when full houses cheered events like Jeff Gordon's victory in the inaugural 1997 event or Rusty Wallace's emotional win four years later on the birthday of his late friend Dale Earnhardt. Yes, there are probably still too many seats here, as evidenced by the sponsor tarps that have been used to cover some in Turn 1. But anyone who remembers California Speedway's glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s knows the fan base is there, somewhere, and it will only take the right kind of prodding to bring it back.

And contraction may very well be it. Although nobody is predicting a sellout this weekend -- Auto Club Speedway hasn't seen one of those since 2003, its last season as a single-race facility -- it seems very clear that the track is experiencing a rebound at the ticket office, despite the fact that it hosted its most recent Sprint Cup weekend in October. The sponsor tarps still cover some seats in Turn 1, but according to the track four tarps have been removed, and as of Friday there was discussion of pulling up a fifth.

"Honestly, we thought we wouldn't be able to tell for a year, until next year's race, because we just had a race five months ago," said David Talley, the track's director of communications. "But I can tell you that we are trending way, way, way above what we were doing last year. I don't know if having one race now, they're responding to that. But as I say, we're happy about what the crowd is going to look like Sunday. Really happy. And we're surprised, because we thought it would take that year, because we just had that race in October. But they're responding, so we're excited."

Talley said the track hasn't done anything differently this time around, marketing the same way and keeping its ticket price structure relatively intact. Yes, NASCAR has enjoyed a strong start to the season, but from a speedway perspective the only real difference between this year and last is that the track has one fewer race to sell.

"I don't know if they responded because now they know they only have one race, and [thought] you know what, lets fill the place up," Talley said. "We certainly pushed and told fans, hey, we want another one back. And to get another one back, let's prove to NASCAR that we have the market to do it. I don't know whether they've responded to that, but we've certainly seen a rise in ticket activity over the last year."

"We certainly pushed and told fans, hey, we want another one back. And to get another one back, let's prove to NASCAR that we have the market to do it. "


It all makes you wonder -- did Southern California take NASCAR for granted? People make so much of how far Auto Club Speedway is from Los Angeles proper, but this is still an Inland Empire region with more than four million people in its own right, and a long NASCAR tradition dating back to Ontario Motor Speedway and Riverside International Raceway, two facilities that hosted 57 premier-series events combined. But with two annual races and so much else to do in this part of the world, it would have been easy potential ticket buyers to put off going until next time. Or next time. Or next time.

"Only time will tell how this will work out," Johnson said. "I feel in my heart that one race will create the buzz. I had a lot of friends who were season ticket holders that when they would miss the spring race, they knew that the fall race was coming, 'We're busy, we'll come in the fall.' The fall would come and they were busy again, so they would say they'd go in the spring, and before you know it they haven't been in three or four years. I'm hopeful this will correct some of that."

It can't hurt. For a market like Southern California, procrastination is a killer, and it's very easy to envision a scenario where losing a race spurred its ticket-buying public into action. After all, it's happened elsewhere before. As much as tracks dread losing a race, for speedways that struggle to sell two annual events, it's very clear that when done the right way, contraction is an effective way of stoking demand. We saw it with Darlington Raceway, a track that with two events fell almost into obsolescence, and is now a far grander, far more successful facility with one Saturday night race on Mother's Day weekend. Initial response to Atlanta Motor Speedway's single Labor Day weekend race have been positive. Despite all the negativity that's surrounded Fontana for so long, there's little doubt the same can happen here.

"Honestly I wish all the race tracks would be held accountable for how many people are sitting in their grandstands," said Kevin Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif. "... I think this particular track is a good venue that when we first started coming here supported one race very well. Sometimes, a lot of people want more, and you try to make two races out of it. I always tell people, there is no reason to make two mediocre out of one good. This is a good one event and there's several race tracks that should be held to the same accountability on a yearly basis, in my opinion. I think that new markets and new, fresh fans that haven't been able to see the races year after year would be an eye-opener for a lot of race tracks."

It would certainly be an eye-opener this weekend if the ticket-sales projections become reality and Auto Club Speedway enjoys its best crowd in years. For such a beleaguered facility, it would be a welcome shaft of sunlight, like those that tried to break through the clouds hanging over the San Gabriel Mountains on Saturday afternoon. Once again, we would have proof that losing an event is far from the worst thing that can happen to a track. After all, the best thing Southern California's speedway can ask for is that its future look something like its past.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.