Commentary

Time to take a race from Fontana

Updated: February 24, 2010, 6:37 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Auto Club SpeedwayAP Photo/Walt WeisIt should be just a matter of time before Auto Club Speedway fans get only one chance a season to watch Sprint Cup racing.

No more excuses. Time is up.

Auto Club Speedway can't make it work with two Sprint Cup races a year.

Yes, the economy is horrible in Southern California. Yes, the races this past weekend were going head to head with the Winter Olympics. And yes, the weather was cold and drizzly at times.

It's always something. But at some point, you just have to fess up and admit the truth. The Fontana facility can't draw enough interest to support two events a year.

"If it's not here, it will be somewhere else," Tony Stewart said this past weekend at ACS. "It doesn't matter to us as competitors. We just want to race and we really don't care where it's at."

I've been a supporter of ACS in the past because I understand how important it is to the sport to race in major markets, but the situation has become more of a negative than a positive.

ACS president Gillian Zucker takes an enormous amount of criticism from reporters and fans, but she has done everything imaginable to bring people to the events.

And she deserves huge props for coming into the media center Sunday, knowing the grilling session that would begin.

Zucker knew she would have to field questions about the half-empty grandstands. She knew reporters would ask why ACS deserves two races. She made her case and answered every question.

That's her job and, other than being a Toyota executive, about the worst job one could have right now.

Zucker made a strong argument, saying sponsors and team owners want to race twice a year in the L.A. area. The events also help NASCAR's diversity effort because 20 percent of the fans at the races are Hispanic, Zucker said.

And she made an attendance comparison: "If you're at a track that holds 50,000 people and sells out, is that better than a track that holds 92,000 and is growing?"

The "growing" part is debatable, but this was a direct shot at Martinsville Speedway, which actually has about 63,000 seats.

NASCAR is planning to give Kansas Speedway a second Cup race in 2011. NASCAR isn't adding events (36 Cup races a year is too many already), so the race will have to come from another facility owned by International Speedway Corp.

ISC is a public company controlled by the France family that owns NASCAR. ISC has 12 tracks that play host to Cup events, but only seven of those have two races a year.

One of those seven will lose a race to Kansas. The assumption all along was Martinsville would give up a date. It's a rural market and NASCAR's oldest facility.

Martinsville is not good business. National sponsors don't want to race there twice a year. And it would be better for ISC's bottom line to move on.

But NASCAR has a giant perception problem. Fans don't care about the financial implications.

If Martinsville loses a race and ACS keeps two races, NASCAR will see its version of civil war. Fans would revolt. The traditional fans love the short-track racing on the half-mile, paperclip-shaped track at Martinsville.

It also would fly in the face of NASCAR's new back-to-basics theme. NASCAR president Mike Helton said: "We want the fans to know we're listening."

If NASCAR is listening, the fans have expressed loud and clear that they want the organization to leave Martinsville alone.

Three ISC tracks have no worries about losing a race -- Daytona, Talladega and Richmond. That leaves four others with two races a season -- Michigan, Martinsville, Phoenix and ACS. One of those tracks has to lose a race for Kansas to add a race.

There is one other option, and it's the best option. ISC could buy Pocono or Dover -- each has two races a season -- and move one of these races to Kansas.

Great idea, but highly unlikely. Officials at Pocono and Dover aren't selling, and ISC isn't in position to buy either facility in this economy with revenues way down.

Taking a race from Fontana is the right thing to do. Drivers were asked about it this past weekend, but they tried to stay neutral.

"One thing I've learned throughout the years is it's not up to me," Jeff Gordon said. "This is a big business, and I'm not going to influence those decisions. But I've always loved this track, and I hope that the business side of it works out to where we can continue to come here twice a year."

NASCAR needs to be in Los Angeles, but Fontana is hardly L.A. Many people in L.A. look at Fontana the same way people in New York City look at Trenton, N.J. -- across a gigantic cultural divide, 50 miles away.

ACS sold out its races when it had one event a year. Having two races has done nothing but drag the place down and bring criticism to NASCAR.

It's simple math. The negatives outweigh the positives. No more excuses. Two races at ACS just don't work.

***

John Medlen, a longtime crew chief for John Force Racing, deserves praise for trying to find a solution on adding wheel tethers to the nitro cars in the NHRA.

But Medlen wanted to make it clear Wednesday that all the NHRA officials are involved in the initiative to keep the tires on the cars in an accident. A runaway tire hit and killed a spectator Sunday during the Arizona Nationals.

Medlen also said he welcomes input from other crew chiefs but he isn't working directly with Lee Beard, the team manager at Don Schumacher Racing.

The DSR Top Fuel dragster driven by Antron Brown was the car involved in the accident. DSR officials said they are conducting their own investigation of the incident.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter