Commentary

Is speedway another boulevard of broken dreams in California?

Ontario Speedway died a slow death in the 1970s despite a who's who winner's list. Ryan McGee wonders if Auto Club Speedway is on the same track.

Updated: February 23, 2008, 4:17 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

June 22, 1997, was one of those rare days in NASCAR history. Even before the green flag fell at the sparkling new California Speedway, everyone in attendance knew that they were watching a milestone moment. As Golden State native Jeff Gordon took the checkers, there were smiles all around. With all due respect to the slew of new speedways that popped up during the time, this was the day, the moment and the track that signified NASCAR's official graduation into a truly national sport.

As the teams rolled into the track that weekend, they were greeted by rows of palm trees lining the main entrance, the silhouette of jagged desert mountains over the backstretch, long lines of wine-stocked corporate suites and a custodial crew that then-track owner Roger Penske had sent to Disney World to learn the importance of letting nary a napkin hit the ground.

More than 80,000 fans packed every corner of the grandstand and track president Greg Penske (yes, Roger's son) immediately announced plans to expand to 107,000 and beyond.

"Just driving into that place you knew we were entering a whole new ballgame," recalls Michael Waltrip, who finished 11th that weekend in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. "We were on the front page of the L.A. Times. We had movie stars walking through the pits. It set the bar up to a new level."

But 11 years later, that initial promise of the California Speedway has become engulfed in a bit of Southern California smog. As the years have ticked by, the turnstiles haven't ticked quite as quickly as they used to.

"I can't explain it," says Jeremy Mayfield, the 2000 California 500 winner. "All I know is that when you notice the empty seats from your race car during the race, there must be a lot of them."

No, it's no optical illusion. There are plenty of empty seats, and over the past four seasons they seemed to have increased. But why? What's being done to fix the problem? And haven't we been here before?

The SoCal problem
First things first, this is not the fault of the current California Speedway staff. Track president Gillian Zucker and her army of salespeople are constantly working to figure out how to lure the magic back. But the market they are trying to win over is the quirkiest, most unique region in the nation when it comes to reaching potential fans.

Think about it. If you're trying to sell tickets to Bristol, what are you really competing against? There isn't another big league sports venue within three hours in any direction and your biggest rival for the sports dollar, college football, hasn't yet started. So what do you do? You buy some radio time in Knoxville, a few billboards on I-81, a TV spot or two during the Martinsville races and you're good.

Zucker has to find ways to stand out in the white noise of the world's most saturated media market, Los Angeles. Her track has to compete with the beach, the mountains, two hockey teams, in September two baseball teams, Kobe Bryant, and during this, their big launch weekend every February, the Oscars.

Who do you think the local television stations are going to be hyping up all week: George Clooney or Matt Kenseth? And how are you going to get the celebs to come out to the track for a photo op when they're busy getting ready for Elton John's post-Oscar party?

The Vegas problem
California Speedway also suffers from the fact that it bookends the same week with a Sprint Cup weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which sits only 225 miles to the east. During this time of high gas prices (not to mention high ticket prices), race fans in the region are faced with an either-or decision when it comes to which race they can attend. And no offense to the good people living in the shadow of Mount San Antonio, but three days on The Strip will always win over a weekend sitting off I-10 in Fontana.

"It does make it tough for both tracks to sell tickets to the same region at the same time," says Zucker, who is admittedly anxious to see if Las Vegas track owner Bruton Smith moves one of his newly acquired New Hampshire race dates to the desert. "I think everyone understands the convenience to race teams of having the two race dates close together. But I think looking at the big picture, it's in the best long-term interest of the sport to spread the races out."

The Labor Day problem
In 2004, NASCAR schedulers made a decision that still has stock car old-timers rolling in their graves, when Darlington's 50-year-old lock on Labor Day weekend was taken away and the race formerly known as the Southern 500 was moved to California. Not only has the vacation weekend been a difficult sell when it comes to seats, the idea of the Lady in Black sitting empty every September is still a sore subject with the group Brian France refers to as his "core audience."

"Of all the changes we've made over the last five years, that's the one we may have misjudged the most," admits one NASCAR official on the condition of anonymity. "I think race fans point to that more than anything else as a symbol of leaving our past behind."

It also took California Speedway's solid one-race audience and split it in half.

"That's when the empty seats started becoming obvious -- when they went to two races," Mayfield says. "If you combine those two crowds then you'll have the great crowds we had when we first came out here."

The Ontario Motor Speedway problem
Believe it or not, we've been here before.

Just a few miles west of the California Speedway on I-10 lay the remains of the Ontario Motor Speedway, a 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway clone that was opened in 1970 to eerily similar fanfare and quotes of praise that could have been cut and pasted into a story about the '97 race in Fontana.

"When we drove up into that infield it was the most beautiful racetrack I think any of us had ever seen," says 1975 L.A. Times 500 winner Buddy Baker. "It was fast, we could pass, the garage and the facilities were second to none, and we'd have guys like Steve McQueen and Muhammad Ali walking up and down pit road."

On the surface, the launch of OMS was as perfect as anyone could have asked for. The inaugural event, an Indy Car race, was held, ironically, on Labor Day weekend of 1970 in front of 180,223 fans. The following year they added NASCAR to the schedule, celebrating the 1,000th race in Cup Series history with the richest purse in stock car history ($207,675) and a three-car showdown between legends Baker, A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty. In addition to the rectangular oval track, there were multiple infield road courses, and pit road doubled as an NHRA drag strip, where "Big Daddy" Don Garlits thrilled the hot rod-crazy region with the first-ever 250 mph run on Oct. 11, 1975.

"But truthfully, the track was in trouble before it even got started," admits former publicity director Brian Tracy. "It was built with a $25 million bond package that was founded on a feasibility study that was way overinflated. The track was overbuilt based on crowd estimates that were much too ambitious, there were estimated television rights fees in there that were so large they wouldn't be matched until well into the 1990s. And the original ownership group had to make a pair of $1 million payments each year as part of the agreement. In 1971 that was a hell of a lot of money."

Soon, the Ontario Motor Speedway changed ownership hands … then did it again. Eventually the track was purchased by Chevron Oil, which had no interest in running a racetrack. At the same time, the fickle SoCal fans lost interest in the shiny new penny, and the initial '71 NASCAR crowd of 78,810 had dwindled to 15,000 in 1980.

One year later, the track was leveled.

"When they opened the track in Fontana, you could still see remnants of Ontario in what was essentially a big empty lot by the side of the interstate," Tracy says. "The embankments of the turns were still visible and I think there was kind of a scrap pile where the garage was. Now they're building a hockey arena on that land. It was just simply ahead of its time."

Now what?
Funny, that's the same thing we all said about the California Speedway when it opened.

Though no one believes that Fontana will suffer the same fate at Ontario -- its financial legs, supplied by International Speedway Corp., are plenty strong -- there is no question that it is at a crucial crossroads.

Zucker is quick to point out an increase in advanced ticket sales over each of the past three seasons, signs of a recovery from the two-race thinning out of 2004. She is also excited about a new partnership with Pepsi, filling a much-needed race sponsorship and marketing hole. NASCAR has wisely compressed the track's Truck-Nationwide-Cup tripleheader into two days of racing, running the Truck and Nationwide back-to-back on Saturday. And California is one of the tracks that the league's competition department has used incessantly to sell the benefits of the Car of Tomorrow, promising more passing and side-by-side racing at a track where lead change numbers look good in the box score, but have yet to translate into visually good racing.

"We need California to be a success, a front-runner," charges Gordon, who has backed up his inaugural win with two more. "It has been in the past and it can be again."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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