Auto Club Speedway needs to show it deserves two Cup dates

9/9/2008 - NASCAR

The sat, they watched, they were not happy.

Many of the Conversation comments posted on ESPN.com after the Pepsi 500 Sunday were downright mean. Here are a few examples:

• "Pathetic race, and thanks again to NASCAR, now this borefest in California will be a Chase race [in 2009]. You must be kidding me! I thought the junker COT was supposed to make the races more exciting? What happened?"

• "Of course it was a snoozer race -- It's FONTANA!!"

• "Yep, Fontana is now a Chase race, thanks to some triple shuffle that happened. Thanks, NASCAR. They probably see this as the only way to fill up the grandstands there, by making it a playoff race, because it certainly isn't the racing that's doing it."

• "Another boring race. No one can challenge the leader once they get going from the drop of the green flag and get in front. No fans in the stands, and they closed Rockingham and took this race away from Darlington for this?"

First, you people have some anger-management issues, but we get the point.
Rewarding mediocrity is the best way to describe Auto Club Speedway's hosting a Chase race next season.

NASCAR had one good event at ACS and made two bad ones. The grandstands were full when Fontana had one annual Cup race. It hasn't sold out since.

Sunday's crowd was generously estimated at 70,000 for the 90,000-seat facility. No one could blame the weather.

Unlike the stifling 115-degree heat of 2007 at ACS, the weather was a comfortable 85 degrees under clear skies. But most people buy tickets based on the previous year's experience. Walk-up sales at a Cup race are minimal.

And this isn't just about ticket sales. Many facilities have seen attendance drops this season because of the economy. However, most of those places have more than 90,000 seats.

Despite the empty seats in the stands, this track makes money. It's the only International Speedway Corp. facility with a naming-rights sponsor. It has far more corporate sponsorship overall than most facilities.

And companies paying $20 million or more to sponsor a Cup team want to race twice a year in the nation's second-largest market.

It's business, folks. Follow the money.

As for the racing, well, it isn't too racy. That happens when one car is dramatically better than the rest of the field, as Jimmie Johnson's Chevy was Sunday night. The new car hasn't helped, but that probably will improve with time.

Now you've heard the excuses. The bottom line is that two Cup events a year at Fontana isn't working, and something has to change.

NASCAR and ACS officials know it, which is why this event will move into the Chase spot next season in October. But it's not enough.

In this metro area of more than 15 million people, there are more than 70,000 NASCAR fans. That's a fact. If not, NASCAR has bigger problems than ACS attendance.

But many of those fans are not buying tickets to the ACS events. They need a compelling reason to show up, starting with a race that's more exciting to watch.

Everyone laughed at ACS president Gillian Zucker's saying that Michael Waltrip's idea of changing the place to a restrictor-plate track was a good idea.

Maybe that's too far-fetched, but reconstructing the track in some fashion is worth considering. Progressive banking, similar to the change made at Homestead-Miami Speedway, might help.

Another problem is that the race is 500 miles (250 laps) on the 2-mile oval. That's way too long without much going on. Shorten these events to 400 miles.

Moving the race to the Chase may help, but ACS still has a problem with the February date. It's typically the same weekend as the Academy Awards (a big deal, to say the least, in L.A.) and one week before the Las Vegas race.

If a fan wants to pick and choose, waiting a week and heading down the road to Vegas seems a better choice for fun and excitement.

NASCAR needs to race in the L.A. market. That's obvious. But ACS has to prove next year that it deserves two Cup races.

If moving the fall race into the Chase proves successful, all is well. If not, NASCAR should consider giving one ACS event to another facility, and Kansas is waiting.

Kansas Speedway probably will receive a second Cup date in 2010. Most observers believe that date will come from the tiny Martinsville, Va., track, NASCAR's oldest facility.

But the Fontana track has to step up to keep both events, and NASCAR officials should do everything possible to make sure it does.

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