Heat is on California Speedway to target a more blue-collar crowd

Blast furnaces from steel plants that once held the spot where California Speedway is built seemed to re-fire over a second straight Labor Day weekend.

Weather at the race facility in Fontana, Calif., was headline-making hot for the visit by NASCAR's Nextel Cup and Busch series.

It was be-damned hot.

Drivers and crew members weathered the heat wave that was compounded by 25 percent humidity. The temperature reached 105 degrees Saturday and 110 on Sunday.

Most Cup drivers spent Sunday lounging inside motor homes with air conditioners pushing as hard as race engines. It was time to conserve human energy while burning massive quantities of fossil fuel. They knew it would be close to 100 degrees when the race began, even with a 5:30 p.m. start for the race. It would be blistering hot inside their cockpits, where temperatures would be about 150 degrees for nearly four hours.

Preparation was critical before strapping into their colorful 3,400-pound heat sinks.

Kurt Busch, however, didn't alter what has become his routine prerace preparation, which began at noon.

He visited suites housing VIP guests of his two team sponsors, spending about 15 minutes at each stop to answer questions, converse knowledgeably about their products and sign autographs.

Busch likened the anticipated race conditions to the race guests getting into their own cars, closing the windows, turning their heaters up to full power and then driving full speed to Las Vegas and back to Fontana.

They could relate. All were charmed.

After signing autographs for 30 minutes at his souvenir trailer, Busch joined a crowd in the speedway's "Fan Zone," where he fielded more questions, again explained the heat's impact and joked about finishing ahead of the "8" car.

(If you've just come out of an eight-year coma, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives the "8" car, which is sponsored by Budweiser, the rival to Busch's Miller Lite sponsor.)

The last gig on Busch's prerace tour was to introduce the musical group Thirty Seconds to Mars to about 500 fans who clearly had been sampling beverages of either his sponsor or Earnhardt's.

For the first time all day -- including walks through the midway and long rides on a golf cart -- a few boos greeted Busch.

"Who's your favorite driver?" he responded.

A collection of names yelled back, melded together like hard candy set on the blazing hot asphalt.

"Hey, I don't see any of them up here," he replied. The crowd cheered, except for a few detractors who were left without a comeback.

These two hours with Busch, one of Southern Nevada's most famous sons, showed a different side -- an engaging personality with a quick wit and appreciation for the support he receives.

He had an hour of cool leisure before heading to the prerace drivers' meeting when he was stopped for a few media interviews.

On pit road moments before getting into his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, Busch took time to be photographed with a group affiliated with one of his team's sponsors.

It's hard to fathom how an athlete just hours and minutes before a pivotal race that could determine the fate of his championship hopes was willing to devote so much time to fans and sponsors.

Not many of his peers did, and Busch deserves recognition for doing it.

And it was hot -- even for a Southern Nevadan.

The fans who showed up for Sunday's race near Los Angeles are among the most dedicated. It's just too bad there aren't enough of them.

The speedway hasn't sold out either of its two races for the past few years.

The heat is a good excuse -- for a second straight year -- for the at least 20,000 empty seats at the track. Still, more than the generous estimate of 70,000 should have attended Sunday's race.

Speedway president Gillian Zucker, whose track hosts two annual Cup visits, plays hard to the Hollywood crowd. On Sunday, Melissa Etheridge sang the national anthem, and then grand marshal Stevie Wonder teased those in attendance with his harmonica before giving the command to the drivers to start their engines.

Zucker should convince Etheridge to rewrite her Grammy-winning song "Come to My Window" and call it "Come to My Ticket Window."

The speedway needs to wise up and promote more to blue collars than blue bloods.

Or just work out a deal to move the race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where you don't need to be a marketing genius to get 140,000 to visit for a Cup race -- even if Kurt Busch would encounter more distractions.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.