California track doesn't deserve two Cup races


The speed factory in Fontana, Calif., is a wonderful motor sports facility.

Its employees are friendly.

The parking lots and infield are paved, which keeps rocks and dirt out of your sandals. (A good thing because the speedway sits on a former steel plant site that is said to contain contaminated soil.)

But the racetrack stinks.

The racing stinks.

And it really stinks that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races there twice annually and only once a year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where it has sold out nearly every year.

Last weekend at Auto Club Raceway in Southern California -- the slumberdome formerly known as California Speedway -- allowed nearly all drivers to take their race days off to celebrate Labor Day weekend.

Kyle Busch led 144 of 150 laps Saturday in the Nationwide race, and the next night Jimmie Johnson led 228 of 250 laps in the Cup race. No driver ever had won from the pole at the track in either series before Busch and Johnson snapped those streaks over the weekend.

Racing on the 2-mile oval is boring. That's undeniable.

Crowd estimates for the Cup race were between 60,000 and 70,000; the grandstand seats around 92,000.

The Los Angeles market, with its 15 million residents, is the biggest in which NASCAR races, yet it can't come close to filling its seats. This year's television audience dropped from around 6.3 million to 5.6 million.

The cause for underachieving crowds at Fontana is not a lack of NASCAR fans and racing fans in Southern California. They are too knowledgeable. Why would fans, wanting to see an exciting race, fight the traffic and pay good money to observe a snoozer?

And the track has two snoozers each year.

Rip Van Winkle should be the perennial grand marshal.

Roger Penske built the facility for IndyCars, not stock cars.

Its nearly flat corners with 14-degree banking were suited for the much faster IndyCars.

Because the track no longer hosts an open-wheel race, why not rebuild it?

Cut a mile off and convert it to a high-banked, mile oval. Wrap 100,000 seats around it and promote it as the "Bristol of the West."

That probably would pull some fans away from attending the annual Cup race in March at Las Vegas, which has not been noted for producing the most exciting races on tour.

But Bruton Smith -- who controls Speedway Motorsports Inc. -- instructed his staff to redesign and rebuild the 1.5-mile tri-oval at LVMS two years ago. The track was narrowed in the corners and banking was raised from 12 degrees to 20 degrees. It hasn't produced great races yet, but the performances should improve as the track continues to age -- perhaps by March -- and more racing grooves come into play.

That project was estimated to have cost $7 million for the racing surface and guardwalls alone.

If SMI can afford it, then so can Fontana-owner International Speedway Corp., especially since the France family, which owns NASCAR, controls ISC stock.

When the temperature was over 110 degrees at Fontana a year ago, the weather was blamed for a poor turnout.

What's this year's excuse? Can't think of any other than a crappy track.

As a reward for Auto Club Speedway's ticket-selling failures, next year's fall race in Fontana will move to Oct. 11 and become part of the Chase for the Cup. Apparently drivers need a week off during the championship run.

Another NASCAR move to pump up excitement for fans.

If ISC is too cheap to create a track that fans want to visit, then at least it should shorten the race by 100 miles. If not, make it a fundraiser for the Narcolepsy Foundation.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com. Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.

 

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