Saturday, February 21, 2009

Future Of Cup Racing On West Coast Could Be On The Line

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

On the surface, Sunday's Auto Club 500 and October's Pepsi 500 would appear to be just two run-of-the-mill races on NASCAR's grueling 36-race Sprint Cup schedule.

But these two events will be more than just another race or two. Rather, they could go a long way toward determining the future of NASCAR racing in Southern California.

If there is a future to be had, that is.

Auto Club Speedway, the site of both Cup races in SoCal, is a sprawling two-mile facility about 50 miles due east of downtown Los Angeles. It has surroundings that no other Cup track can "boast" of -- it's in the middle of an industrial park.

At the same time, the aesthetics of nearby mountains -- snow-covered at this time of year -- do provide a welcome alternative view to watching the number of garbage trucks that skirt ACS to dump their loads at a nearby waste facility.

Formerly known as California Speedway, ACS has been host to the Sprint Cup Series since 1997. And while some races have drawn more fans than others -- ironically, many of those occurred when ACS had only one race per year -- the last two years have been nothing short of a struggle for the 92,000-seat motorplex.

And it potentially might get worse.

Sunday could be one of the worst-attended Cup races ever there. Reports emanating from the left coast are gloomy, indeed.

In fact, while in Daytona for Speedweeks, a high-ranking official of International Speedway Corporation dourly lamented to me about how only one-third of the seats for Sunday's race had been sold a little more than a week ago.

He feared that the race might draw just 50,000 people, tops.

If that.

And if that happens, it would be the lowest-attended race in ACS history. The only hope is a stampede-like walk-up to the ACS box office Sunday winds up significantly boosting the expected draw.

I don't expect we'll see that -- especially since folks will be eagerly anticipating the Academy Awards on Sunday night. They'll hold pre-Oscar parties at home, but show me one person who will hold a pre-Fontana race party.

If Sunday's crowd at ACS lives up to the rumored dire predictions, there is still one potential glimmer of hope on the horizon: the new October Cup race date this fall.

After five years of complaining how the typical Labor Day weekend race date was hampered by searing three-digit temperatures or SoCal residents deciding to engage in other holiday activities, like going to the beach or having family get-togethers, ISC finally gave ACS what it so direly needed.

Not only did it move the second race date away from Labor Day weekend, it inserted it into the fourth slot of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship run, the marquee event on NASCAR's yearly dance card.

It took a bit of schedule juggling: Atlanta lost its Chase date and replaces California as host of the Labor Day race, while Talladega's Chase race has been moved from the fourth to the seventh event of the so-called "playoffs."

If ACS doesn't show some significant improvement in ticket sales and attendance numbers over the next two or three years -- particularly with the new Chase race -- you can make book that one of the track's two annual races will be moving elsewhere.

Where to? Perhaps Las Vegas, which is dying for a second yearly race, as are Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway. Or maybe Kentucky Speedway will finally get its long-desired first-ever Cup event.

Critics have long pointed fingers of blame at both ISC and ACS president Gillian Zucker as the reason NASCAR can't sell out in SoCal.

Those same critics could not be more wrong.

Zucker has worked tirelessly for the last three years, trying to fit as many fannies into seats at the speedway as she can. She has gone to great lengths to try to attract new fans from non-traditional ethnic groups, particularly from the Hispanic community.

To that end, to better understand her clientele, Zucker two years ago spent nearly a month in Mexico, studying the language and living with a poor Mexican family, trying to find ways to understand the culture and heritage more.

Sure, she wanted to eventually sell more seats to Hispanics, but that she took such a bold step to walk the walk after talking the talk took guts, energy and determination.

Show me another track president in ANY form of motorsports who has gone to such an extreme. You can't. But it just illustrates how much she cares about seeing the sport succeed in Southern California, even if 99 percent of the millions of its residents could care less.

Sadly, the Southern California culture is such that it can take or leave professional sports. In ACS's case, it has primarily chosen to leave it.

Selling NASCAR anywhere in these tough economic times is a hard deal. That's why I won't be surprised if predictions of a half-full house Sunday do come true.

But here's something else to think about.

There's no question that NASCAR chairman Brian France idolizes the way the National Football League has been run for decades by Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and now Roger Goodell. The NFL has set the example for other pro sports leagues to follow.

If it's good enough for the NFL, it's good enough for France and NASCAR, the thinking goes.

So, if the NFL happily goes along from season to season without having a team in Los Angeles -- the No. 2 media market in the country -- nor seeing a regular-season game played there since 1994, perhaps France should finally realize that Southern California just isn't NASCAR country.

Think about it: This is NASCAR's third foray into Southern California over the years.

The first episode was at Riverside International Raceway, which proved popular as a Cup venue at the outset in 1958. But by the time it held its last Cup event in 1988, you could squeeze more people into a phone booth than you could into Riverside's grandstands. It's no wonder the old track is now a housing subdivision.

And then there was the ill-fated Ontario Motor Speedway, which lasted exactly 10 years on the Cup circuit (1971-80). Again, poor attendance proved its downfall. Today, that same area is once again thriving -- just three miles from ACS -- but for different reasons: It's where the very popular Ontario Mills outlet mall now sits.

I'd hate to say Fontana's own ACS will make it three strikes and NASCAR is out, but unless nothing short of a miracle, that's probably what's going to eventually happen. And no matter how many 20-hour days Zucker and her staff work, there's no way to overcome the ambivalence of people who just aren't that interested in watching guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart run 180-mph laps on the edge of the desert.

Sure, I'd be amenable to keeping one race at Fontana each season -- most likely the Chase race (if it proves to be a success in the next two to three years, of course).

But if NASCAR just can't cut it in Southern California, what's the point of continuing to shove it down the throats of its residents? There are plenty of other places that would gladly welcome NASCAR and its traveling circus -- and SoCal's loss could be a big gain elsewhere.


  1. You came close, but why is it that you media guys never come out and say that the LA market is just weird. It is the 2nd or 3rd biggest market in the US, but would not support the NFL enough to keep a team. As I recall, Fontana had real good attendance when it had just 1 date - but hasn't been able to generate enough interest so far for 2. Also, as I recall Riverside closed because the land was too valuable to use for a road course, not because attendance slumped - and some years Riverside had 2 races.

  2. The really sad thing is NASCAR & ISC took away races from Darlington & Rockingham, two far more exciting tracks to watch a race at, to make room for this poorly designed, (at least for NASCAR racing) track.

    50,000 people? Rockingham was cut from the schedule & it averaged 60,000 people in the stands each race. Boy NASCAR sure looks ridiculous with this.

    It's not just the secnd largest market, but the overall media blitz that Brian Frances craves. He wants the glitz & glitter as opposed to actual racing.

  3. I don't think LA will ever be without a cup race, even if nobody shows up. They still get coverage in the media in LA and that is too valuable for the NASCAR advertisers to lose.

    NASCAR's big mistake is not realizing the value of the quality of racing put on on television. That is what drives interest and puts people in the stands. When they took away races from Darlington and Rockingham, two tracks that put on great shows, televised races have become more boring. That is leading to a general decline in interest in NASCAR and every track suffers because of it.

  4. If Cali loses a race/races, it would be a huge mistake to give a second date to either Kansas or Chicago. Neither of those tracks put on enthralling shows, being two of the underwhelming 1 1/5 mile flat tracks that tend to produce parades rather than races. Also, unless ISC has changed it's policy recently, to attend a Cup race at Chicago, you must also purchase tickets to the Truck/IRL races, held on another weekend completely. Doesn't seem like the smartest way to fill the seats, or increase the TV audience.

  5. It's because CA has been decimated into mostly a one political party state now that the far left is in control out there. To the far left loons in CA the domestic auto manufacturers represent obsolete inefficient fuel wasting polution belching anacronisms of ostentatious excess. When you try to stage a race in CA you are on the turf of a huge contingent of Big Three haters. This is NASCAR's problem in a nutshell.

  6. It is totally ridiculous that NASCAR holds two races at ACS. The only reason is due to the ISC ownership. How does Ms. Zucker keep her job as track president? So far the truck series and Nationwide races have been yawners with Kyle Busch dominating both. Tonights late start time is yet another nail in the coffin with TV ratings. Let's shake up the schedule in 2010 NASCAR. Knock out the Bud Shootout and shorten up Daytona Speedweeks. Add a Kentucky and another Las Vegas race. Ohhh I forgot the ISC vs. SMI rivalry there. By the way... ISC stock is at a 52 week LOW!

  7. Californians crave action, shorten the track up to 3/4mile, and watch the stands fill up.They don't have a long enough attention span for a 2 mile track.The birth place of "Extreme" sports needs Extreme Nascar!

  8. SMI and Bruton Smith run their racetracks much better than greedy ISC. Much btter facilities and fan treatment.

  9. Uh, who cares? As embarrasing as it is, this issue is so far from being even in the top 20 things that are wrong with this sport that I can't get excited about it.

  10. As a SoCal resident the main reason my family won't go is the ticket prices. I can afford to spend $300 plus dollars for a day at the track.

  11. This place has always been a bore to me! Trying to recreate Michigan was a mistake from the start. We still need tracks with their own character! This like so many tracks built during the rush for race dates was a copy. Change something about this place, how about the radius of the corners or take out a quarter of mile and make it a mile and three quarters. A unique challenge for the teams that has always created interest for fans. "BE CREATIVE ISC!!!" Create interest fill the seats!

  12. If you can't sell a $50.00 ticket to a pro football game, who would think that you could sell $100.00 plus tickets outside in the hot sun for four hours in "sunny California". Geez who thought up this business model.

  13. Anyone in their right mind knows how to fix another richmond, martinsville, bristol or even dover...COME ON track owners..if we wanted to see a parade we would stay local and support our own communities!!

  14. You are right that NASCAR should cut ACS or Fontana or California or whatever they're calling it this week to one date.
    The reality is that the fools that operate NASCAR; not Gillian Zucker, aren't smart enough to realize this. I say this because I truly believe it.
    The "racing" if that's what you dare call it, is nonexistent. If I wanted to sit and watch cars turn left for 6 hours without ever being able to race each other, I'd go and find the nearest traffic circle; at least I'd be able to sit in my car with the A/C running and be cool rather than sit in the heat of Southern California.
    I'll say it again: The bunch at NASCAR aren't smart enough to realize this and won't change it.

  15. ACS is just another boring track added to a long list of equally boring tracks built in the last few years constructed to fill the pockets of ISC, not the stands. I agree with many others who say build tracks that actually produce racing, give the fans their money's worth of entertainment, and challenge drivers to actually be racers, not chauffers. Good grief!!! The money these guys get to simply run around lap after boring lap is insane; at least make them work a little harder for it. If the West Coast can't fill the seats, the move the races elswhere and save teams the exspense of traveling all the way outhere, and at the same time bring the sport to people who enjoy and appreciate all that goes into making racing what it can be.

  16. I know for a fact that Zucker and her folks have been a major factor...I know personally of many folks who have quit the track (after having been there since the beginning with RV and seat tickets)...the felt the track has not listened to them and enforces too many a seat and Rv spot season ticket owner..I agree....every eyar she comes up with new rules...she doesn't take good care of the infield...she moves our RV spots around..she might have reasons, but she pissed off a lot of folks who have left...and gone to the Vegas race...

  17. That rediculous kludge NASCAR calls COT that is serving only to dumb down our sport. We see closer racing and more lead changes on a typical Interstate highway than happens on the track now!

    The engines have got to the point where they are way too expensive as has the expense of raising the bar on all technology because when one big powerhouse team devotes enormous resources to advancing technology through expensive engineering the rest, haves and have nots as well are compelled to follow... or risk falling far behind. Potential new car owners considering entering the sport are quickly intimmidated when they realize they will need a $20 million sponsor and all that is available out there right now is $5 to $7 million deals. Everyone knows which big team is hurting our sport by outspending everyone else and challenging the other teams to find a sponsor in the price range of theirs. NASCAR doesn't realize it but the show is being stolen out from under them in plain sight.

  18. Be still my heart: a second Cup date for LVMS, Chicago or Kansas? What more could a race fan want.

    As far as Fontana: The 500 mile races are endurance races (The Rolex 6 Hours of Fontana). One date a year, shortened to 400 miles. At least it would have a chance of being entertaining.

  19. When you are a relative of the "inner family of NASCAR" and merely have to pick up the phone and ask for "anything" -- i.e. Chase Date, better weather date, etc), it is unlikely, even with the NFL absence from the area, that they would take a race date from a "family" member. Do you possibly any southern track would be given all of this help to (including Budweiser & Stater Bros ticket GIVE-AWAYS) put fans in the seats. Of course not allowing beer to be brought in doesn't help and it surely doesn't help having the race start as the eastern audience (roots of NASCAR, remember us?) is headed to bed because they have to work on Monday morning, as do most non-celebrities. Besides, we woldn't want to miss the "political correctness" of the OSCARs and see what Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are wearing. And who, in their politically correct lives out on the west coast, would be caught dead at a (heaven forbid) southern sporting event like NASCAR -- southern...roots of NASCAR, remember us?

  20. People forget the race fans of LA filled this track for the first two races. What did we get? A single file one groove track with no racing and even the best seats have a terrible view.

    Tear this piece of **** down and build a 1 mile progressive banked track where there is real racing. Drop the track down about 20 feet and get rid of all of the tall junk in the infield so the fans can see the whole race track.

    NASCAR and writers don't give the LA race fans credit for knowing the difference between good racing and bad.

    This track and the racing sucks. Why should LA fans go and watch terrible racing when Vegas and Phoenix have some of the best there is and are just a quick drive away.

  21. "It's because CA has been decimated into mostly a one political party state now that the far left is in control out there. To the far left loons in CA the domestic auto manufacturers represent obsolete inefficient fuel wasting polution belching anacronisms of ostentatious excess. When you try to stage a race in CA you are on the turf of a huge contingent of Big Three haters. This is NASCAR's problem in a nutshell."

    You are not only insane, but a moron as well!

    Blaming the fact that the NASCAR race in California on politics is like blaming the success of NASCAR on the stupidity of the fans..... oops!

    Go Junior!!

  22. I live in Long Beach and my family, and many friends, follow intently.

    1) Fontana is a lousy track for racing. They go round in circles but it's dull. Thus we go to Phx, LV and Indy. It's flat out dull.

    2) So Cal has 10% unemployment and huge floating mortgage crisis. Everything out here is in trouble business wise.

    3) Las Vegas... a short 4 hour drive but better track and more 'fun' is next weekend.

    Nobody spends NASCAR type money two weeks in a row. HORRIBLE SCHEDULING BY NASCAR. Would they put two Florida races on back to back weekends?

    See you, and my other So Cal NASCAR fans, next week in Vegas!


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