California May Not Be Golden, After All

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File this under one of the strangest ideas I’ve heard in the last few years. A super-speedway racing venue that has produced some outstanding IndyCar racing, is about to become a half-mile track, along the lines of Bristol Motor Speedway. The Athletic announced yesterday that they have learned of NASCAR’s intentions to convert the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California to a half-mile oval.

Southern California has deep racing roots. Carroll Shelby’s Cobra originated in the Los Angeles area. Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Troy Ruttman and Bob Sweikert are just a few who have direct ties to the immediate area.

From 1957 until 1989, Riverside International Raceway was considered one of the toughest tracks in the land. Like what happens near several historic tracks, Riverside, California experienced a period of massive growth. As the transients moved closer and closer to the track, the complaints about the noise and traffic problems caused by the track grew immensely. It’s like people who knowingly buy cheap property near the airport, then act shocked when planes fly low over their houses. There’s a reason the property is cheaper. Riverside closed its gates. By 1992, the northern part of the track had been converted to a shopping mall. The southern part of the track became a housing development.

Nearby Ontario Motor Speedway suffered a similar, but quicker fate. Among a lot of fanfare and hoopla, the 2.5 mile IMS clone opened in 1970. In fact, fifty years ago this past weekend, the Inaugural California 500 was contested. Jim McElreath, won in a Coyote owned by AJ Foyt. Outside of the Indianapolis 500, its sellout crowd boasted the largest attendance (178,000) in motor racing for more than thirty years after the event.

Joe Leonard won the next year, on his way to the IndyCar championship in a Colt chassis owned by Parnelli Jones and Vel Miletich. AJ Foyt won there in 1975. Al Unser won two races at Ontario, while brother Bobby won a total of four times at the Indianapolis twin. But it wouldn’t last. Poor management, local fan apathy and changing land values all wotked against the track, making for a fast demise, and the tack closed its doors just a decade later, running it’s last race in 1980. The site is now home to benign condominiums and business parks.

Riverside International Raceway was not the first Los Angeles area track to be born in 1957; the track that later came to be known as Ascot Park opened its doors that same year. Among the many series that raced at Ascot Park was the USAC Sprint Car Championship. Although it was located more in the heart of LA, instead of on the outskirts – Ascot Park could not attract the locals. The track closed in 1990 and was eventually razed for development.

Despite these failures, many felt that the Los Angeles area still had an appetite for motor sports. None other than Roger Penske purchased the land in Fontana, just a couple of miles from the defunct Ontario Motor Speedway and Riverside International Raceway. To no one’s surprise, Penske built a showplace. He constructed the 2.0-mile California Speedway as a clone to his Michigan International Speedway, but with more shallow banking. Paul Tracy was the first driver to test on the brand new track in January of 1997. The first IndyCar race there was the Marlboro 500 held in September. Pac West driver Mauricio Gugelmin won the pole on the brand new surface with an eye-popping speed of 240.942 mph. For the record, Gugelmin’s teammate, Mark Blundell won the inaugural IndyCar race at the track.

The next year saw Jimmy Vasser pass Greg Moore on a last-lap re-start t win by just a little more than three-tents of a second. The 1998 race was also the last IndyCar race of Bobby Rahal’s driving career.

Just a couple of years after he opened it, Roger Penske sold all of the properties of Penske Motorsports – which included Fontana, as well as Michigan and Nazareth Speedway (another track ruined by NASCAR) – to ISC, then a sister company to NASCAR, for more than $700 million.

The 1999 IndyCar race at Fontana was perhaps the most remembered race, as it was the site of the death of one of IndyCar’s most promising stars. Greg Moore completed only nine laps in the season finale, before he was fatally injured in a Turn Two crash. His car slid through the infield grass and caught a divot that flipped the car before making abrupt contact with the infield retaining wall. This tragedy led to the infield area outside the retaining wall to later be paved to try and scrub speed and keep the cars upright.

In 2002, The Split was in full swing. Both CART and the IRL staged races at Fontana – the IRL held a 400-miler in the spring and CART ran a 500-mile race in the fall. By 2004, CART had become Champ Car and they stepped away, leaving the IRL as the only open-wheel series to race at the track.

Some estimates for the 2004 IRL crowd at Fontana fell below 10,000. Others had it a little higher, but one thing was apparent – the bloom was off the rose. Just seven years after the inaugural Marlboro 500, Fontana couldn’t even get a sniff from local fans. This wasn’t just an IndyCar problem related to The Split. NASCAR had begun running two races. They left their traditional Labor Day running of the Southern 500 at Darlington for a night race on Labor Day weekend at Fontana. It did not go over well at all.

In fact, attendance for both NASCAR races at Fontana plummeted. Again, after a promising start – a race track had fallen out of favor with the locals. By 2005, the writing on the wall was clear to IndyCar officials. They left the track once owned by Roger Penske after the 2005 race, and did not return until 2012, when IndyCar crowned Ryan Hunter-Reay as champion after the season finale at Fontana.

To throw myself into the story (code-speak for bragging), Susan and I attended the 2013 season finale at Fontana. I had been told that the track had no personality, but we did not find that to be the case. It was very modern and high on amenities. Parking was ample and it had a large and expansive garage area for the teams. It may have helped that we were (and still are) friends with one of the major sponsors at that time, who still wish to remain nameless. We were given a few perks that made our experience very memorable.

One was that I was given the chance to wave the green flag (and the white and the checkered flag) for the qualifying run on Friday by Helio Castroneves, one of my favorite drivers. We were also given two-seater rides that night, so of course we have very fond memories of Fontana. The race we saw was very good, won by Will Power; while Scott Dixon won the championship for the third time.

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Most of the recent IndyCar races at Fontana have been good races, including that crazy one in June of 2015 that was finally won by Graham Rahal. That was also the last time that IndyCar has run at Fontana. I always held out hope that IndyCar would return, but with what we learned yesterday – I don’t think that will be possible. I cannot imagine IndyCar running a half-mile track.

Los Angeles is a strange sports market. It is the second largest market in the US, so it would stand to reason that you could hold just about any type of sporting event and enough people will come to make it worthwhile. But that is usually not the case.

There seems to be two iconic franchises in town – the Dodgers and the Lakers – yet both originated in other towns. The Dodgers came from Brooklyn and the Lakers from Minneapolis. The NFL Rams relocated from Cleveland, but bolted for St. Louis in 1995. The Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982, but returned to Oakland in 1995, the same year the Rams left. For over twenty years, the second-largest market in the US had no NFL franchise. Now they have two franchises again. The Rams returned a few years ago, and the Chargers returned to LA after being absent for more than fifty-five years. The Chargers also began life in LA, but their attendance was so abysmal they moved to San Diego after their first year in existence. Sound familiar?

Although Los Angeles has the numbers to justify multiple franchises in each sport, many dwell in anonymity. When you think about LA baseball, do you ever think of the Angels first? Although the Clippers have had a better team for the past few years, what team do you think about for LA basketball? The Lakers. I don’t know if anyone gives much thought to the Kings or the Ducks of the NHL. While the Chargers have had some good teams over the years, they will always be number two to Los Angeles.

One would also think that with its racing history, the Los Angeles market would be a no-brainer for motor racing. As I mentioned earlier, we had a blast at our one trip to Fontana. It seems like it would be a destination race for IndyCar fans. Not only could you see some great racing at a state-of-the-art track, but there are so many other things to do while you are out there. We had a short trip, but we also crammed in a day at Hollywood while we were there. You would think a market like Los Angeles could draw more fans than Newton, Iowa or Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. I just can’t believe that Long Beach is satisfying the cravings of all racing fans in southern California.

What NASCAR plans to do with Fontana reeks of desperation. I don’t see the California racing crowd being short track fans. Californians cannot really relate to the racing heritage of the tobacco farms of Virginia and North Carolina, or the hills of Tennessee. It almost feels like NASCAR is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with this move.

It seems that Roger Penske got the best of ISC and NASCAR, selling Fontana to them just a couple of years after it opened. Is it that NASCAR has a bad connotation with racing fans in California, or is it just another symptom of Los Angeles being a strange sports town?

I really don’t know the answer to that, but it seems like when it comes to sports – all the gold may not be in California after all. Roger Penske may have figured that out rather quickly.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “California May Not Be Golden, After All”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I hate to lose one of the few true superspeedways in the world, especially one that provided such breathtaking speeds for Indycar and some pretty good racing across all series. I’m also disappointed that the proposed new configuration is not a bit longer, as a half-mile configuration would seem to prevent Indycar from returning – The last Championship points race on a half mile track contested by Championship cars was in 1930! On a board track! (Though Williams Grove’s half mile hosted points races in the wild 1946 AAA National Championship season contested largely by sprint cars. Williams Grove and Akron’s half miles also hosted Championship cars in non-points races in the 1950s.)

    I’m sure NASCAR sees this as an opportunity to capitalize on the value of much of its property around Fontana while remaining in the Southern California market and adding an ever-requested short track to the schedule. I am at least thankful that there will be more of it left than there is of Ontario.

    That said, paved short track stock car racing is certainly not just a southern activity and Southern California has a long history of paved short tracks that have hosted various stock car classes… Tracks like Irwindale, Saugus, Mesa Marin, Cajon, Orange Show, Kern County have hosted series like the ASA, NASCAR Southwest, and the still-running Winston/ARCA West… Many of those listed tracks are, of course, now closed, so perhaps the Southern California short track fan is not the most common creature these days, but stock cars on a half mile is not a totally foreign concept to the region.

  2. I was dumbfounded when I read about NASCAR’s plan for my Fontana venue. We already have Irwindale and it is still up and running with both a 1/2 mile and 1/3 mile oval tracks. And it is located much closer to LA than Fontana. It seems foolish, but then what do I know about NASCAR.

    My first race there was IndyCar in 2012 and I enjoyed the experience as George describes it for the next three years. Very sad.

    And what is “The Athletic”? I have read it as a news source twice this week. Does anyone subscribe? Am curious.

  3. this is what i’ve always heard: LA is not from LA.
    the sports fans were born somewhere else and
    their loyalties lie there.

  4. Turning Fontana into a 1/2 mile track sounds like a huge waste of money. All that Fontana needs is a repave to do away with the dangerous seams and a good promoter to attract crowds. It would probably be cheaper unless NASCAR does not want to use it for professional racing anymore which may well be the case.
    If Fontana gets demolished, IndyCar fans will need to put the Triple Crown to rest after all.

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