Aftermath: NASCAR Must Keep Two Races In Fontana

Let's get the eye-rolling, head-slapping, mind-boggling statement out of the way first: This column is about why NASCAR should keep coming to Southern California's Auto Club Speedway twice per year.

Before you throw your computer, I'll acknowledge a few things where we may find common ground:

  • The attendance yesterday was ugly. No one wants to see half-empty grandstands.
  • The racing in Fontana is not exciting. Never has been.
  • Southern Californians, as a whole, don't care about NASCAR.

So there you go - we agree on something. I can't promise the same for the rest of this column.

The bottom line is NASCAR must keep two races in Fontana. Forever.

It sounds as if I'm defending the indefensible, but normal logic does not apply to this situation.

Here are five reasons why:

1) This isn't about attendance.

NASCAR's presence in Southern California is about building the sport, exposing it to a new audience and looking toward the future.

But if you want to talk attendance for a minute, let's do it.

Longtime racing fans - especially those in the South who don't understand why events were taken from their beloved venues like Rockingham and Darlington - are the ones who are most upset about California.

If California can't fill the track, they say, give the race back to us. We'll sell it out.

Unfortunately, those fans are mistaken (see: Atlanta last spring).

The final Rockingham race drew an estimated 40,000 people - that's far less than even California drew yesterday. And when Darlington had two events, it was not selling out its 61,000 seats.

Other tracks may appear to have better crowds (WE SOLD OUT!), but have smaller capacities. Phoenix - in a huge metropolitan area - recently reduced its seating to 55,000, and Martinsville can only hold 61,000.

There were likely somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 fans in California yesterday. It's not good (at all), but it looks much worse than it is because the grandstands are much bigger than some other tracks.

You have to wonder why ACS doesn't just stop selling the far end sections and squeeze everyone together in the middle, just for the sake of appearance.

Still, my belief is Rockingham wouldn't do any better.

2) NASCAR in Southern California is a long-term process.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Northern California and spent a couple years in Southern California covering the Fontana track.

And I can tell you that unlike the South, most Californians are not born into racing. I had to discover NASCAR later in life, but found I enjoyed the sport once I was expos ed to it.

The vast majority of people in California have no idea what NASCAR is all about. In fact, when I've come back to SoCal for the race, some of my old friends have asked me, "What are you doing here?" They haven't heard that NASCAR is in town.

That's not NASCAR's fault or the track's fault - I honestly believe ACS President Gillian Zucker is doing everything humanly possible to promote the sport and expose it to a new audience.

But there are only so many advertising dollars you can pump into a race, and the L.A. market is extremely tough to penetrate because there's so much media there.

So why is it important to be in Southern California? Because like it or not, Los Angeles and Hollywood are massively influential through movies, TV shows and music. If NASCAR hopes to continue to gain mainstream credibility and acceptance, L.A. spreads that message.

If you're of the opinion that since Californians don't care, NASCAR should go somewhere that does, then our visions for the future of the sport are very different.

3) Sponsors want to be near L.A.

I hate that sponsors have so much influence these days, so I won't spend too much time on this topic.

But the truth is, national brands that advertise in NASCAR want the sport to be in major markets like Los Angeles and New York. And Fontana represents NASCAR's biggest-market track. Sponsors can come to the track and see their investment up close. You can't just throw that away.

4) The racing stinks, but...

There's no getting around the reality that 500-mile Fontana parades are not very exciting. The drivers always claim it's exciting, but they're not watching the races (Jimmie Johnson yesterday called it a "great race for NASCAR").

Yesterday had the makings of an exciting finish when Kevin Harvick was gaining on Johnson, but most of the race was a bore-fest. I won't try to argue otherwise.

After the race, I received several tweets from fans vowing never to return to Auto Club Speedway. The racing just didn't thrill them and they were disappointed with the experience.

However, I know some of those people are hardcore, devoted NASCAR fans. They'll continue to watch every week on TV and likely attend races in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Sonoma.

So in that respect, it may be better to view Fontana as a "Racing 101" track: It's an introduction for new NASCAR fans to see what the sport is about, even if they may not return there.

(Side note: Obviously it would help if the racing was NOT boring, but no one seems to have a solution for that in Fontana. The track is too big and restrictor plates won't work there. It needs to be turned into a short track somehow, but that will cost a fortune. Good racing - no matter where it is - would put butts in the seats.)

5) Once is not enough.

You could take my previous four reasons and say, "Well, fine. We can still come to Fontana, but just once a year."

No, no, no.

Yes, the race did much better with attendance when there was only one date per year. I'm not disputing that.

But taking a race away from California completely defeats the purpose of being there at all. If NASCAR is committed to growing the sport on the West Coast and in the L.A. area, it needs to keep coming twice per year and get new fans exposed to its stars – the drivers.

Whether it's Danica Patrick going on Ellen or Scott Speed taking calls on Loveline, NASCAR is getting drivers in front of a new audience who might decide to check out the sport and see if they like it.

Taking a race away cuts those chances in half.

It's a painful, frustrating process - particularly when we look at the stands yesterday - but in order to better NASCAR's future, it needs to stay the course in Southern California.

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