Beat the California heat? Don't race there Labor Day weekend

9/4/2007 - NASCAR

FONTANA, Calif. -- Labor Day weekend and California Speedway is not a match made in heaven. Actually, it's a match made in, well, you know.

NASCAR will announce its 2008 Sprint Cup schedule later this month. Unfortunately, the early September race at the Inland Empire track probably won't change.

Drivers, crews and fans experienced a miserable three days of unbearable heat north of 100 degrees, not that unusual for this time of year in the valley of Southern California.

NASCAR moved the traditional Labor Day weekend Southern 500 from Darlington, S.C. (no picnic either in late summer), but it had nothing to do with weather conditions.

Major sponsors wanted to race in the Los Angeles market twice a year, so Fontana was given the holiday weekend for its second event.

Nice idea, but it hasn't worked. Do sponsors really think they show hospitality to clients at a track when it's 110 degrees outside?

The announced crowd Sunday was 72,000, all of whom should receive a citation of merit for becoming human kilns.

It still was 20,000 short of a sellout and 18,000 fewer than watched the Southern California football season opener one day earlier. But USC actually is in LA. The Fontana track is 55 miles east.

So when NASCAR says it's racing twice a year in the Los Angeles market, it's sort of like saying Trenton, N.J., is Manhattan. It's close in distance, but eons apart in everything else.

NASCAR couldn't pick two worse dates for the Fontana events. The February date is the same day as the Academy Awards.

Talk about bad timing. That's like trying to get people to attend a mud wrestling contest in Louisville during the Kentucky Derby.

And goodness knows, in the eyes of the LA folks, there are dozens of cooler thing do -- literally and figuratively -- in Southern California on a holiday weekend.

Racing near the second largest metro area in the country is the right thing to do, but NASCAR needs to do it on different dates.

Whether this track needs two races a year is debatable. Las Vegas is a better locale for two Cup events a year, but that's another story.

Fontana originally had one date in May, which worked well. Moving the early-season race back to May would help.

The second race should come during the Chase. It would give the event added emphasis and would be the playoff's biggest market. And it would bring far better weather conditions.

NASCAR could move the Labor Day weekend event back to Darlington, earning major kudos from all the traditionalists who want the Southern 500 to return.

And move Darlington's Mother's Day weekend race to California.

The 2008 schedule won't have these changes. Too late for that now. But it's something NASCAR officials should consider for 2009.

Soft landing
J.J. Yeley surprised almost everyone Tuesday in announcing he will replace Tony Raines in the No. 96 Chevy (sorry, we mean Toyota) next season.

Essentially, this means Yeley is staying in the Joe Gibbs Racing family. Hall of Fame Racing has a working relationship with JGR, leasing engines chassis and bodies from JGR.

Kyle Busch is replacing Yeley in the No. 18 car for JGR. Yeley was asked earlier if he might move to the No. 96 car for HFR. Yeley wasn't interested at the time, but all that changed with Arizona Diamondbacks executives Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel bought out Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach as the majority owners.

Yeley also wanted to sign with a team that he knew would rank in the top 35 in points, guaranteeing him a spot in the field for the first five races in 2008. The No. 96 car is 25th in owners' points.

Raines now joins the ranks of the unemployed in 2008, but open rides remain in the No. 88 Ford for Yates/Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing.

See you next year
The Champ Car World Series will go the rest of the season without another race in the United States. Of the final four events, two were in Europe, one will be in Australia and the season finale is in Mexico.

The scheduled final event in Phoenix was cancelled because of a lack of sponsorship. The Denver event also was cancelled, and the series had plans to race in China, but that didn't materialize.

If you want to be taken seriously as a major racing league, this isn't the way to do it.

Tell us what you really think
Speaking of open wheel racing, former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve took a little dig at the IndyCar Series (and the IRL) last week when he announced he was moving to NASCAR.

"No, I didn't look at the IRL as an option," Villeneuve said. "I only concentrated on NASCAR. After Formula One, you want to be on the top level, and in North America, the top level is NASCAR."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.