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.
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.