By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
FONTANA, Calif. -- The fight for survival has moved from the harsh jungle to the mean streets of America, but instead of epic battles between man and nature, the task is to overcome the economic struggle everyone faces.
"Certainly, we haven't been immune to the challenges in the economy," said Kerry Tharp, NASCAR director of communications. "From that standpoint, we are similar to the other sports. If you take a look across the sports landscape now, every major league sport's property has been affected. I will say, however, that NASCAR has shown a resiliency during this time.
"It's been challenge for our sponsors, since we are so sponsor-driven. But if you take a look at the product we put on the track here early in the season, it's been good. And we've had some new sponsors get into the sport -- and that's always healthy.
"Our car and truck counts these past two races have been really exceptional. We have more trucks here at Auto Club Speedway than we've ever had. And we have over 50 cars entered in the Cup race next week at Las Vegas."
Yet Fontana's Auto Club Speedway in many ways is the wounded deer among NASCAR's racetracks.
Ticket sales have plummeted as the novelty of the track has worn off distracted Southern California fans with too many options at their disposal. From a crowd of nearly 90,000 fans for the 2007 Auto Club 500, the track has seen a rapid attendance decline over the past two years -- to the point where it was a challenge to fill the stands to only 75 percent capacity in both races last year, despite a premium placement of both race dates on the NASCAR schedule.
"With the things that you have, coming from Daytona to California, I don't think you could ask for a better weekend with more momentum in the sport," said Kevin Harvick, who brings his own momentum to the track after finishing second in last week's Daytona 500. "It is all going to come down to the support of the people around here."
Harvick is doing his part to help Auto Club Speedway's attendance issues. He's a native of Bakersfield, Calif., and a number of family members and friends typically drive south a few hours to watch their hometown hero in action.
Still, it's no secret that ACS continues to struggle. Track president Gillian Zucker and numerous officials from parent company International Speedway Corporation have spent countless hours coming up with ways to attract new fans, old fans and those who have attended at least one race there but never returned.
Some things have worked, but even so, the track continues to struggle to reach 75 percent capacity, let alone a full house.
"They've faced some challenges out here," Tharp admits, "and a lot of them have been kind of out of their control. We've had some tough weather out here; last year was just a really, really tough stretch. That doesn't help.
"There are a lot of different things going on out here -- different forms of sport and entertainment -- but we know there are a lot of race fans out here, and we believe it's an important venue for us."
Jeff Gordon, who was born outside San Francisco in Vallejo, Calif., agrees, adding, "There are a lot of fans (in Southern California). And also, they've kind of been snake bitten by the weather, from rain to 105 degrees."
While the facility gets criticized for several things, including unpredictable weather, traffic ingress and egress (which has substantially improved in recent years), competition that is often lackluster and some drivers who just don't like its layout, other drivers are equally fond of racing on the fast two-mile oval.
And they want to see both the facility and its two races not only survive, but thrive.
"If I had anything to do with this race track, I would go to every single middle school within 50 miles of this place and give away free tickets," driver Elliott Sadler said. "What's the difference in an empty seat and a free ticket? You might sell a Coca-Cola to them in the stands.
"Give them a chance to come to this race (where otherwise they) might not have come before. You might make a fan; you might not. If you don't make a fan, what have you lost? You really haven't lost anything because you didn't have anyone in the seat anyhow. If you gain a fan, you maybe gain a couple tickets for next year."
Zucker and her staff have marketed aggressively to both traditional race fan groups and non-traditional, particularly significant outreach efforts to minority groups including Hispanics, African-Americans and women. While some inroads have been made, the job to attract even more new fans remains the track's top challenge.
Some have even gone as far as saying that the track itself it needs to be blown up and rebuilt, perhaps as a smaller, high-banked facility. Some drivers disagree.
"I've heard the ideas of putting banking and restrictor plates on, and I think that is a pretty dumb idea," Harvick said.
The competition is not necessarily the issue, however, on a track that features multiple grooves and three-wide racing.
"There are other things that are going on," Gordon said. "And that's not something that we have, say in the Midwest, where we just pack the stands. You go to those tracks and you see the excitement and everybody, and you see so many fans.
"That's the way I've always seen it throughout my whole racing career of when I was racing sprint cars. You go to these small towns in the Midwest, and a Saturday night event is the biggest happening thing that's going on and everybody is there to be a part of it."
With millions of people in Southern California and seemingly an equal number of activities for them to participate in, the sad truth is racing at ACS is not the biggest happening in metro Los Angeles.
"We're competing against a lot of things, like the Oscars (the Academy Awards will also be held Sunday evening and will go head-to-head with most of the race, particularly on TV coverage)," Sadler said. "There's a lot of things that go on out here other than Sprint Cup racing."
Added Gordon, "There are just so many forms of entertainment for this area. It's hard to get the interest in our sport. You can put a lot onto marketing and try to promote the heck out of it. Is it going to change it? I'm not sure. But I do know there are a lot of fans out here."
One of the biggest changes for ACS this season is its second date. The race was held the last five years on Labor Day weekend, and weather (particularly searing triple-digit heat) and fans with other holiday plans adversely affected at-track attendance.
That prompted NASCAR to shift ACS's Labor Day date to the fourth race of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, the series' season-ending crown jewel. In so doing, the sport now has the second-largest fan and TV market in the country as part of the Chase. In turn, Atlanta will assume California's former Labor Day date on the schedule.
"I think the move we made, transferring the date ... for the fall will be a good one because that Labor Day date was tough here, plus the temperature was pretty hot," Tharp said.
Gordon agrees, adding, "Maybe the schedule change will help for the second race. And the economy is affecting everybody everywhere we go, and it's certainly going to be affected here as well."
Will it be enough to keep NASCAR coming back to this market twice a year?
With the media attention generated by this weekend's race and the buzz it can potentially create in the entertainment industry, even half-empty stands will be enough to keep NASCAR returning.
"Certainly, we review things on an annual basis, but we feel like this is an important place for us to be, the drivers like coming out here and we anticipate for that to continue," Tharp said.