Auto Club 400 is part of a rich history

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., before the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana was built, when Riverside International Raceway was the track in Southern California where the best stock car drivers in the world raced.

Harvick remembers sneaking in to the last race at Riverside in 1988. His dad was working on the crew of one of the drivers, and Harvick remembers roaming in the infield that day.

"I was pretty young," said Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. "The only memory I have of that is how I got into the infield. My dad was working on a car and we had a go-kart race the next day. They put me in the back seat under a blanket on the floorboard and snuck me into the pits and put me in the truck."

Harvick and his fellow drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series make their only visits to Southern California and Auto Club Speedway this weekend. The Nationwide Series Royal Purple 300 is on Saturday and the Auto Club 400 Cup race is on Sunday.

The NASCAR schedule went through a major overhaul recently, especially in the eyes of NASCAR supporters and fans in Southern California, as the Auto Club Speedway went from hosting two races (including one in the playoff Chase) to one race, and saw its race date moved from the second event of the year to the end of March.

Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker said she is excited about the new date for the race, but it does present some challenges.

"It's going to give us a better chance at good weather," Zucker said. "At the same time, it's the whole communication push around something that's new in terms of planning. When people know when something is, they can plan for it."

Although attendance has declined some for NASCAR races at Auto Club Speedway since the track began hosting two races, Zucker said she believes there is a strong NASCAR fan base in Southern California and she believes Southern Californians will again support two NASCAR Cup races a year at Auto Club Speedway.

Zucker and her staff at Auto Club Speedway have created some unique ways to make the track experience appealing for fans this coming weekend. One way is by bringing in the Suite 106 Cupcakery, the winners of the "Cupcake Wars" on the Food Network, to the track. They will be offering one of their signature cupcakes -- the pancake cupcake, made with maple syrup frosting and bacon sprinkle -- this weekend. Another way is by offering driver story time on race day. This year Greg Biffle will be reading "Wheels on the Bus" to a select group of children who will be attending the race. In years past, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Marcos Ambrose have read stories to children on race day at Auto Club Speedway. "They've all been exceptional," Zucker said. "I think they really enjoy it."

Zucker is presented with the challenge of promoting a race in an area that also features Disneyland, Hollywood, beaches, mountains, two major league baseball teams, two NBA teams, two NHL teams and USC and UCLA sports. She continually looks for ways to strengthen the NASCAR fan base and offer it unique race-day experiences, she says. Celebrities, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jack Nicholson, have served as grand marshals. Wolfgang Puck has a restaurant at the track. Sammy Hagar, George Thorogood and even Kevin Costner and his band have performed at the track on race weekends. This year, Good Charlotte is scheduled to have a concert at the track before the Cup race.

But every race in Fontana is also a special event because it taps into a rich Southern California racing history. For 31 years, NASCAR visited Riverside International Raceway, sometimes twice a year. The first race was on June 1, 1958. Forty-six cars started the race. Eddie Gray won it and claimed $14,220 in prize money. Dan Gurney won five of the first nine races at Riverside, a 2.6-mile road course, and won three races in a row from 1964 to 1966.

There was a time when Riverside, not Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500, was the opening race for the NASCAR season. It was the first race in 1965 and from 1970 to 1981. Rusty Wallace won the last two events there in 1987 and 1988.

Ontario Motor Speedway hosted NASCAR races from 1971 to 1980, giving Southern California three stops on the NASCAR circuit during most of the 1970s. A.J. Foyt won the first two races at Ontario in 1971 and '72 and Benny Parsons won the last two races at Ontario in 1979 and '80.

For eight years, between the last race at Riverside and the first race at what is now known as Auto Club Speedway, there were no NASCAR races in Southern California. But NASCAR returned to Fontana in 1997, as Jeff Gordon won his first of three races there, and Auto Club Speedway started hosting two races a year in 2004 as part of the NASCAR realignment that year included moving the Southern 500, traditionally run over Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway in S.C., to Fontana. Beginning in 2005, the second race of the year was at Auto Club Speedway and for seven years the season started in Daytona, Fla., and moved across the country to Fontana for the second race of the year.

Though there have been ups and downs, the history of auto racing and NASCAR in Southern California is long and filled with triumphs by some of the racing game's greatest names. Zucker looks at having only one race at Auto Club Speedway as a bump in the road, and anticipates in time NASCAR will grow in popularity again at the Auto Club Speedway and throughout Southern California. After all, the roots here are strong.

"I'm expecting a fantastic crowd," Zucker said of this weekend's events. "Ticket sales are way, way up. Interest is way, way up. Enthusiasm from the community is way, way up. What I see is people truly understand what we have. I believe that this community is going to come out and make a big statement."