When Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., opened in 1997, NASCAR hoped that it would become a cornerstone for West Coast fans. The track was located 52 miles outside of Los Angeles and was the benefactor of that great southern California weather. It had all of the intangibles to be a successful track, but it could never produce the kind of racing in the early years to establish a loyal fan base.
When first opened, Fontana easily sold out its 92,000 plus grandstands and at one time had 20,000 names on a waiting list for season tickets. Like any new track that gets a date on the Sprint Cup schedule, the novelty of having Cup racing coming to your area assured the track of selling tickets. Once the novelty wears off, it is the action on the track that will keep the fans coming back.
The track was so popular when it first got on the Cup schedule that it hosted two races each season between 2004 and 2010, but by that time it was becoming obvious that the track just could not produce close side-by-side racing that kept fans coming back. Eventually NASCAR in 2011 took one of the track’s two races back and moved it to Kansas Speedway, leaving track officials scratching their heads on how to fill their seats.
The sight of all of the empty seats became somewhat of an embarrassment to both the track and NASCAR officials and had many in the sport calling for the sanctioning body to move the race to another track that produced better racing. Track officials decided to reduce the length of the race from 500 to 400 miles to make it more attractive to fans and for this season cut the seating capacity of the track to 84,000.
While you must applaud track officials for all they did to try and sell their track to the fans, it is the one thing that they didn’t decide to change that may have elevated the track to one that now produces some of the best racing on the entire schedule. There are a total of 23 tracks that makes up the Cup schedule and since 2010, 13 of them have repaved their track’s surface. Newly paved tracks are faster and smoother than older asphalt tracks, but the tradeoff is that the new track will produce one groove racing until it gets some age on it.
Fontana’s racing surface is the original asphalt that has been in use for 17 years and it is this aging surface that has turned what was one of the most boring stops on the schedule to one of the most competitive in recent years. Old asphalt will chew up tires in only a handful on laps and it will also produce multi-grooves of racing. The surface is not only slick and worn out, but it also is so bumpy that some of the tire problems that we saw on Sunday were being blamed on the strain being put on the tires going over the bumps. Sunday’s race was a classic example of racing on old asphalt as the new tires wore out quickly and the sight of three- and four-wide racing was common all over the two-mile track.
Last year’s race came down a last lap duel between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano that resulted in Hamlin suffering injuries so severe that they kept him out of the car for several races. Combine that with Sunday’s green-white-checker finish and it is easy to see that a ticket to Auto Club Speedway may become the toughest ticket on the entire schedule. Sunday’s sellout will become the norm as this track has now established itself as it is just further proof that fans will still come to the track when they know that they will be treated to great racing.
Event: STP 500
Track: Martinsville Speedway
(.526- mile oval, 120 of banking in
Date: March 30, 1 p.m.
Defending champion: Jimmie