House call not likely to aid ailing attendance in Fontana


Is there a doctor in the house?

That panicked call should resonate Sunday afternoon before the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Expect the most noticeable colors of the day to be red and yellow, and it won't be from a plethora of stoppage or caution flags. Red and yellow are the colors of the seats at the facility formerly known as California Speedway, and too many will be empty.

The Southern California track has foundered worse than nearby foundries since it was given a second annual Cup race in 2004 to complement its fall event, which will be run for the 12th time this year.

The facility has built a Wolfgang Puck restaurant on-site, and this year added escalators at the back of the main grandstand.

But its best move might have been bringing aboard Dr. Gregory House of the popular Fox medical drama "House" to be Sunday's grand marshal and give the call to start engines.

House -- played by English actor Hugh Laurie -- can diagnose the most obscure malady. Curing the sick attendance of Fontana races, however, might be beyond genius.

Memories of last year's rain-soaked weekend that delayed completion of the Cup race until the following Monday were renewed by a rain-shortened Daytona 500 and torrential rain in Southern California the past two weekends.

Your brain would have to be soggier than a Puck-cooked noodle to have bought tickets in advance given Fontana's wet history.

The race, again, will compete with the Oscars in Hollywood, and the drama there surely will lap the traditionally boring races on the two-mile oval designed and built by Roger Penske in 1996 for IndyCars. The wide racing surface with relatively flat banking was OK for open-wheel cars, but it's not conducive to producing compelling races for 3,400-pound stock cars.

The speedway will blame another poor turnout on its recent weather history, the Oscars and the fact that Matt Kenseth won last weekend's Daytona 500 instead of a flashier driver such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kyle Busch.

The economy will be another scapegoat. But Fontana couldn't fill much more than half of its 92,000 seats before the economy tanked.

NASCAR will have trouble selling out its massive venues this year because of the economy and racing's lagging TV ratings the past couple of years.

The Shelby 427 Cup race March 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will not sell out. Sources say the crowd could be down as much as 15 percent from a year ago, but that still means nearly 140,000 will attend and another 100,000 will show up the day before for the Sam's Town 300 Nationwide series race.

LVMS president Chris Powell has said ticket renewal sales after last year's Cup race were so strong by midsummer that he has resisted offering discounted tickets and possibly offending those who purchased early.

Powell has been able to sway speedway concessionaire Levy Restaurants to drop the price of water, soft drinks and beer by $1 during NASCAR weekend.

A midway concession stand each day will offer a breakfast sandwich and coffee for $2. Heck, coffee was more than that last year.

Las Vegas fans who buy their way into the opulent Neon Garage infield area will be able to use pass-through draws to ask drivers and crewmen to sign autographs; if they don't want to sign, blame them and not the speedway.

A new stage will be set up behind the grandstands for Busch, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR president Mike Helton and others to participate in question-and-answer sessions with fans.

The addition of sponsor Shelby Automobiles has added 27 miles (18 laps) to the race to salute its legendary 427 Ford engines. That's a 17 percent racing bonus at no extra charge.

Even with an expected drop in Las Vegas attendance, the Shelby 427 crowd will be more than California's total this year for Fontana's five major NASCAR races (two each in Cup and Nationwide and one in the truck series).

The only remedy for selling out the Fontana grandstand is amputation of one annual Cup race and/or reconstructive surgery on the two-mile oval.

Not even Dr. House can cure the track's ills -- unless he also is licensed to operate heavy equipment.

• NOTE -- Visit the new lvrj.com/motorsports page.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. 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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