Fontana track hurt by oppressive heat

Temperatures on the track for the Labor Day weekend event would near 130 degrees. Associated Press

Auto Club Speedway is one of the casualties of NASCAR realignment as the Sprint Cup Series schedule for 2011 comes into focus.

The 2-mile track in Fontana is losing one its two NASCAR dates. The track is also losing its Chase race after only two seasons.

The only time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will visit Auto Club Speedway near year is in March. The track has hosted two Cup races since 2004. For the past two seasons, the Sprint Cup Series raced in Fontana in February, the weekend following the Daytona 500, and in October, the fourth race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Before that, the two Cup dates at Auto Club Speedway were in February, the second race of the season, and Labor Day weekend in September. But grueling heat and oppressive conditions made it challenging for drivers and fans in Fontana over Labor Day weekend.
That race was moved to Atlanta Motor Speedway two years ago and Auto Club Speedway hosted a Chase race instead.

As part of the recent NASCAR schedule realignment, Atlanta Motor Speedway lost its Labor Day date and will host only one race in 2011.

Chicagoland Speedway in Illinois will get the Chase race that was run in Fontana. Kansas Speedway will have two Cup dates in 2011. Phoenix International Raceway will host the second race of the Cup season in February.

"This is only the 2011 schedule," said Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker. "That does not mean that in 2012 or '13 or '14, you're not going to see a change again. I do expect the great fans that we have will come out and support the lone Cup event that we will be hosting in March. I will not at all be surprised to see two races back here in the future."

Zucker said the track is looking for other motorsports events to host in 2011. The track has a drag strip and hosts a variety of NHRA Summit Racing Series and Junior Drag Racing League events in addition to AMA Pro Racing motorcycle races. The Indy Racing League and defunct CART and Champ Car Series raced at the track in the past. A variety of Sports Car Club Association and Grand-Am Series events have been held at the track as well.

"We remain committed to providing unforgettable experiences to our loyal fans and we will continue to look at ways to diversify our schedule, working diligently to add exciting events for 2011 and beyond," Zucker said.

The track in Fontana, originally known as California Speedway, hosted its first Cup race in 1997. Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race, his first of four. The race was held in June, the weekend before the July 4 race at Daytona International Speedway.
The Cup race at Fontana was held in May in 1998. Mark Martin won his first and only race at the track that year. In 1999, the Cup series visited Fontana the first weekend in May again and Gordon won his second race at the track.

In 2000, the Cup race was on April 26 with Jeremy Mayfield crossing the finish as the surprising winner. The Cup race at Fontana remained on the schedule as the last weekend in April for four years.

Rusty Wallace won the Cup race in Fontana in 2001. Johnson won his first race at Fontana in 2002. Kurt Busch won at the track in 2003. NASCAR was reaching the height of its popularity and Fontana announced sellout crowds at its 92,000-capacity facility. In 2004, NASCAR made some major changes in its schedule and how the Cup championship was determined.

NASCAR introduced the Chase for the Cup championship, a 10-race playoff, in 2004. Fontana was given a second Cup date, during Labor Day weekend, moving the Southern 500 from Darlington Raceway in South Carolina to the Southern California desert.

Temperatures in the grandstands at the track reached triple digits. On-track temperatures were regularly over 130 degrees. Even though the race was dubbed a night race, it typically started in the late afternoon, when temperatures were still above 100 degrees.

The first Fontana race in 2004 was moved to the first week in May, the 10th race of the Cup season. Gordon was the winner again. Elliott Sadler won the first Labor Day race in Fontana in September. Attendance was noticeably down for both races.

In 2005, NASCAR moved the first Cup race at Fontana to February, the second race of the season after the Daytona 500. Fontana track officials declared it a victory to have the second race of the season and started promoting the race as the West Coast premiere of NASCAR. Greg Biffle won the first February race at Fontana. Kyle Busch won the Labor Day race in September.

But the February date ran into some tough competition: the Academy Awards and rain. The race was washed out one year because of rain and had to be rescheduled from Sunday to Monday. The Oscars also drew attention away from the race at Fontana in February.

"The California situation, obviously you're competing with so many different things in California," said Roger Penske, whose Penske Motorsports Inc. bought the land and finished building the track in 1997. "I think when you load up Phoenix, Las Vegas and California all at the same time, week after week, you might lose some of that fan base."

Fontana, which changed its name to Auto Club Speedway in 2008, hosted the Labor Day race for five years. Track conditions continued to be oppressive throughout those five years and attendance suffered. When the track had one race a year, attendance was reported near 90,000. When the track started hosting two races, the reported attendance gradually dropped. The last Labor Day race at Fontana had a reported attendance of 70,000. It was a generous estimate -- NASCAR does not release actual attendance numbers -- but it was estimated by others that the attendance was closer to 50,000, almost half the track's capacity.

"It's always bothered me that there's so much conversation about the attendance at the speedway," Zukcer said. "There was never anything wrong with the attendance here. There's nothing wrong with race fans here. They are tremendous. There are only four [ISC] tracks that outdraw us. Daytona, Talladega, Michigan and Richmond. We draw more fans per race than any other ISC racetrack. This was not an attendance decision. Ultimately this had a lot to do with economic conditions in Southern California. The fact is that the economy here seems to be recovering a lot more slowly than it is across the country."

In 2009, NASCAR moved the Labor Day race to Atlanta Motor Speedway and gave Fontana a race in the 10-race Chase playoff. Fontana hosted the fourth race in the Chase for the first time last year and will host it again in October. Johnson won the first Chase race in 2009 on his way to his fourth straight Cup championship.

While Zucker said she expects a second Cup race to return to Fontana, she does not necessarily want a Chase race.

"The biggest race of the year is not a Chase race," Zucker said. "The Daytona 500 is not part of the Chase. In fact neither race at Daytona is part of the Chase. The Brickyard is not a Chase race. I don't think the most exciting, best races in NASCAR are determined as to whether they're Chase races or not. Not to take anything away from the Chase, but the race before the Chase in Richmond, that's, I think, one of the most exciting races of the year."

Low attendance has not been unique to Auto Club Speedway. Attendance has been dropping at tracks throughout NASCAR, as have TV ratings. The latest change in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is a way to address the shift in attendance and interest.

"There are fans who are very, very passionate about all 43 of the guys who are out there in that field," Zucker said. "On March 27, when they will be racing at Auto Club Speedway, every driver still has a chance at the championship."

Tim Haddock is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and is author of the blog haddockinthepaddock.