It's judgment day for Fontana
Auto Club Speedway won't have a sellout crowd for the Pepsi 500 on Sunday.
Let's get that out of the way right off the bat. It's the question all you Cali haters want answered:
Would a Chase race with better weather conditions produce a sellout crowd for the much-maligned Fontana, Calif., track?
The answer is no, so the "I told you so" comments will commence soon.
But it's flawed logic. In case you haven't heard, California is bankrupt.
Southern California is the epicenter of the national mortgage crisis. Half a million people in California have lost their homes. Many of those are in the area known as the Inland Empire, where ACS is located, east of Los Angeles.
About 1,300 homes are repossessed every business day across the state, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. One in every 32 homes in the Inland Empire is up for foreclosure, more than five times the national average.
Clearly, these people are hurting. And frankly, attending a NASCAR race, regardless of what it means or when it's held, doesn't rank high on the priority list.
Despite all that, Sunday is judgment day for ACS, and track president Gillian Zucker knows it.
"Many people here are suffering and just trying to get by," Zucker said in a phone interview Monday. "This weekend our attendance probably will be flat [no change, up or down], and I'm proud of that. I think it shows that despite the hard times, people are interested in what we're doing here."
A crowd of 70,000 or so is expected at the 92,000-seat facility. Attendance has dropped at most Sprint Cup races this season, but ACS is under the microscope because it has a Chase event for the first time.
And the weather forecast for the weekend is spectacular -- temperatures in the lows 80s under sunny skies. That's a huge improvement from the sweltering conditions on the previous Labor Day weekend events at ACS, when temperatures soared above 110 degrees.
But many old-school fans still blame NASCAR for moving the Labor Day weekend race from Darlington to L.A., sacrilege in the eyes of the traditionalists.
The Labor Day weekend event moved back to the South this year with a successful debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Attendance was up from its previous October date in the Chase.
The move worked for Atlanta, so people are looking to see if it works for ACS.
"I don't think those comparisons are appropriate," Zucker said. "By any measure you care to use, the economy in this area has suffered more than almost anywhere else in the country. That's a fact."
It's also a fact ACS has other issues besides the California economy. For the most part, the racing on the 2-mile oval has produced a dull show.
The D-shape layout has a wide racing surface where cars get separated over a 500-mile race. The double-file restart rule could help, but cautions are rare at ACS.
Officials for International Speedway Corp., the parent company of ACS, have discussed possible track changes to improve the racing.
Increasing the banking is one idea, but that could create a restrictor-plate situation, which ISC doesn't want. Narrowing the track and tightening the turns, forcing drivers to slow down dramatically exiting the straightaways, might work.
Any change is expensive, probably costing in excess of $15 million. And there are no guarantees it would result in bigger crowds.
Most drivers don't have a problem with the track the way it is now. Kasey Kahne, a former winner at Fontana, was asked about ACS last weekend at Kansas.
"I kind of like it," Kahne said. "It's a bit boring at times because cars tend to get spread out. But for a driver, it's a pretty neat track."
That tells you all you need to know. Boring is OK with drivers. It's not OK with fans.
But Jeff Gordon sees another reason for the track's attendance woes.
"There is nothing wrong with the [ACS] racetrack," Gordon said at Kansas. "I think it's a great track. If they're not packing the stands, maybe it's something else.
"I think this puts it in the best perspective: The NFL is a great game and it is the most popular sport in our country. And they cannot make an NFL franchise work in Los Angeles. Why is that? There's just so many options of things to do in Southern California."
The NFL is a great game and it is the most popular sport in our country. And they cannot make an NFL franchise work in Los Angeles. Why is that? There's just so many options of things to do in Southern California.” -- Jeff Gordon
ACS sold out its Cup races before it went to two Cup events a year. But NASCAR and most of its major sponsors want to race twice a year at ACS because L.A. is the second-largest market in the country.
One ISC track is going to lose a Cup date soon. Kansas Speedway will get a second annual Cup date when a casino is built at the facility. The process was delayed because of the economy, but it will happen in the next year or two.
Seven ISC tracks have two Cup dates -- Daytona, Talladega, ACS, Michigan, Richmond, Phoenix and Martinsville. Only three would appear to be in danger of losing a date -- Martinsville, Michigan and ACS.
Martinsville is an old facility in a rural market, but it has short-track racing that fans love. And the same old-school fans who complained about Darlington losing a race would howl if Martinsville lost a date.
Like ACS, Michigan International Speedway is located in one of the most distressed economic areas in the nation. But it is the home track of the U.S. auto industry, and ISC is making renovations at the track.
If a fan poll were taken on which track should lose a Cup race, ACS probably would top the list. But many fans would vote against it even if the racing was great because the Southeastern fan base wants more events near the home folks.
Whatever happens, determining the fate of ACS's future shouldn't rest on this weekend's attendance. Paying to see a race doesn't make sense if you lost your job and your house.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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