Fontana regaining NASCAR fan appeal
Mar 23, 2012
Far too often, NASCAR gets criticized from any number of sides, including the media, fans and even its own drivers. That criticism invariably brings a great deal of attention – the kind of attention that is oftentimes unnecessarily embellished.
Unfortunately, when NASCAR does something really good, it doesn’t get the same kind of attention and embellishment that it should.
Consider Sunday’s Sprint Club race at Auto Club Speedway (formerly California Speedway) in Fontana, Calif. Roughly 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, ACS has been a conundrum within the sport.
Over the last decade, NASCAR has been criticized numerous times for a variety of sins in the eyes and minds of critics when it comes to racing at ACS.
The races are too long. It’s too far from LA or San Diego or even Bakersfield. Traffic to/from is a nightmare. The track is – take your pick: too wide/too fast/needed different banking/doesn’t provide good racing.
Oh, and not to mention that the track is next to a waste management facility.
There have been numerous complaints about weather as well, particularly when races were run during the day in some of the hottest times of the year (the fact that the track lies in a rather arid – practically desert-like – area seems to be lost on many), with temperatures reaching into triple digits.
The hotter it got, the more folks stayed at home and watched races in air conditioned comfort.
As complaints multiplied, going to Fontana became more of a burden than an anticipated event to some. What was the point of continuing to fight traffic, weather, less-than-competitive racing and any number of other reasons to just say no to ACS?
So folks in Southern California did what they typically do when they get bored with something: they found something else to take up their time and money.
Much to NASCAR’s chagrin.
Track president Gillian Zucker – some have said she has one of the hardest jobs in NASCAR because of fan obstinence and apathy about going to Fontana to watch a race – has literally done everything she could to make things right.
She devised a traffic pattern with state and local police that has been a model for other tracks. She reached out to numerous ethnic and racial communities to try and build a new base of fans, going so far as to even spend a month in Mexico to learn the language and culture – and put the talk behind her walk when it came to attracting folks who used to be rabid racing fans in their native land.
She also championed a complete repaving and revising of the banking at the two-mile oval, all in the name of creating better racing.
For the most part, Zucker did bring better racing to the track. Sure, there has been some sacrifices and disappointments, particularly when NASCAR took away one of ACS’s two yearly Cup events, and then took the one remaining race out of the sport’s marquee event, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Yet, racing at ACS may now actually be the best it has ever been.
The place was repaved and had new banking put in place a few years ago to add more competitiveness. Drivers can now go five-wide and provide one of those true hold-your-breath-in-anticipation moments each time that happens.
Even the weather is better, now that the races have returned to the more temperate early spring in either late March or early April – back to a time when ACS only had one race per year in the past, when it was one of those events that people truly looked forward to, rather than dreaded.
Not only is the weather this weekend more conducive and less oppressive, ACS also doesn’t have to go head-to-head with the NFL on Sundays (and college football on Saturdays to a lesser extent).
But there’s one thing that arguably has helped put ACS back on the path to becoming one of the more prominent – and particularly fun – tracks on the circuit.
After years of ignoring pleas from fans, media and drivers, NASCAR finally agreed to do something that you rarely see in sports: instead of giving more, it took something away, namely 100 miles or 50 extra laps around ACS.
Instead of oftentimes boring 500-mile, 250-lap events, NASCAR finally changed the length of the yearly race at ACS in the final second race of the season in 2010 to 400 miles/200 laps.
It not only was a genius move (and made many former critics ask, “What took you so long?”).
The first race at the shorter length provided an inspiring win by Tony Stewart, who beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line by less than a half-second in 2010.
And then came last year’s lone Cup race at ACS, when Kevin Harvick rallied to lead just one lap – but also the most important lap: the final one – to beat Jimmie Johnson to the finish line. Without question, that outcome served to reaffirm that the shorter, more competitive race very likely will be the final piece of the puzzle needed to bring ACS back not only to relevancy, but also to significance in the overall scheme of Sprint Cup racing.
Granted, with more than 8 million people within a 100-mile radius and a multitude of other recreation options available, a Cup race in Southern California is a hard enough sell. Throw in all the previous problems that ACS had with the weather, traffic, lack of competitive racing, etc., and it became a recipe of everything that could go wrong, did.
But now, with a shorter, more exciting race as the linchpin to a resurgence and rebirth of fan interest and popularity, who knows what may happen from here. Maybe ACS will once again return to the Chase one day as potentially one of the best races of the season yet.
That’s why I can’t wait for Sunday’s race. As exciting a finish as we saw in last year’s event, Sunday promises more of the same – if not better.
Most Recent Comments
RE: Fontana regaining NASCAR fan appealYou make good points about the racing at Fontana. It has gotten better and still able to maintain the difference between it's "sister" track of Michigan.
I wrote a quick recap of the weekend on my blog.. http://thesportsdump.com/2012/03/26/nascar-afterthoughts-california/