Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Weepers and Blowers and Rain...OH MY!

NASCAR found itself in a no-win situation Sunday night in Fontana, California.

Heavy rains red-flagged the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series “Auto Club 500” on two different occasions, while residue from a week of steady precipitation seeped through cracks in the asphalt, making conditions unsafe for competition. With a national TV audience and a small-but-determined crowd watching from in the grandstands, NASCAR worked for hours to restart the event; burning hundreds of gallons of jet fuel and hundreds of man-hours in an effort to bring the track back to raceable condition. Eventually, however, reality could no longer be denied.

NASCAR officials called it a night at 1:55 a.m. ET -- after four hours and 42 minutes of track-drying activity – rescheduling the race for Monday morning, followed by the NASCAR Nationwide Series event that had met a similar fate the previous day.

Before the decision was even announced, NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton said he knew it would be unpopular. “It quit raining, and we owed it to the fans who are here to try to do our best to get the show in,” he said. “Many times it’s only an hour, (or) an hour and a half to dry the racetrack. We worked at it 4 1/2 hours and still couldn’t get it dry. You can be upset at us for trying if you want to be, and that’s fair, but we’re always going to put our best foot forward. With the lights, we thought we could get it pulled off, but it didn’t work.”

Pemberton said that while most areas of the track were dry, “by the time we got back to them on another lap -- 20 minutes or so later with another set of dryers -- they had already picked up moisture again. The weepers will always be an issue. At a lot of racetracks that we go to, we have that from time to time. But even on the regular surface, it was quite wet.”

Sunday night’s debacle was the latest in a series of calamities for the Fontana oval; a track that can’t seem to buy itself a break. Attendance was once again abysmal throughout the weekend, but even if the weather had been warm and dry, there are serious questions about how many tickets would have been sold for this weekend’s festivities.

Attendance for Saturday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series “San Bernardino County 200” was announced at 37,000, but with all due respect to Gillian Zucker and her staff at Auto Club Speedway, there weren’t 37,000 people in attendance Saturday night if every woman in the house was pregnant with triplets.

That’s not negativity. that’s a simple statement of fact.

Inclement weather -- and an extended forecast that promised more of the same -- adversely impacted walkup traffic on both Saturday and Sunday. But blaming Fontana’s traditionally poor attendance solely on the weather is -– in my opinion –- short-sighted. There are a number of factors that contribute to Auto Club Speedway’s status as one of the least-favored tracks in all of NASCAR.

1. Location – Auto Club Raceway’s location is less than ideal, to say the least. On a good day, the track is located roughly an hour from downtown Los Angeles. On a Friday or Saturday night, it’s more like four hours. Simply put, race fans in the Greater L.A. market know they have little chance of making it to a Friday or Saturday race at Auto Club Speedway in time for the green flag. So they’ve simply stopped trying.

2. Lack Of Competition – Sunday’s Auto Club 500 was the probably the most competitive race in the history of the speedway; breaking the record for lead changes and featuring a good deal of passing at the front of the pack. By California standards, it was a great race. By the standards of most any other track, it was average. Auto Club Speedway was built with both NASCAR and Open Wheel racing in mind, and its mild, 14-degree banking is simply not conducive to the kind of side-by-side competition NASCAR fans demand. Tear up the track and add the same incremental banking that resurrected Homestead-Miami Speedway a few years ago, and then we’ll talk. Until then, Auto Club Speedway will remain one of the least-exciting venues on the Sprint Cup schedule.

3. Shoddy Scheduling – Running the Auto Club 500 head-to-head with the 80th Annual Academy Awards defies all logic. While the audiences for the two events are exclusive to a great degree, the competition for media attention in the LA market was keen this weekend.

Los Angeles may be one of the biggest media markets in the country, but there were clearly not enough cameramen and reporters to cover both the Oscars and the race. In fact, more paparazzi lined the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre Saturday night than showed up at Auto Club Speedway all weekend.

4. Lack Of Promotion – Once again, Auto Club Speedway got its promotional butt kicked by its competition to the northwest, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Before the decision had even been made to postpone Saturday’s Nationwide race, there were radio ads running in the L.A. market touting a $25 ticket to next weekend’s Nationwide event at LVMS for any fan presenting a California ticket stub. Had the Auto Club Speedway PR people been even remotely on their toes, they could have thrown together a promotion allowing fans holding tickets for the postponed Nationwide race to see both ends of the rescheduled Monday doubleheader for a modest additional fee. To my knowledge, no such deal was offered.

Year after year, Auto Club Speedway seems content to set a ticket price, open the box office door and wait for people to show up. Meanwhile, Las Vegas Motor Speedway rolls out one ingenious promotion after another, drawing thousands of fans away from Fontana. Is it any wonder why Las Vegas plays to packed houses, while Auto Club Speedway sits two-thirds empty?

5. Convenience – The Fontana faclity offers fewer options for campers than any other track on the circuit. The track’s infield is jammed with RVs, but space is strictly limited. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Compare Auto Club’s extremely limited camping options with those at Phoenix, Las Vegas or Infineon Raceway, and you’ll understand why many fans have crossed California off their list.

6. Weather – In our last two trips to Auto Club Raceway, we have endured oppressive, 110-degree heat and high humidity, then rain and 40-degree temperatures. As one unnamed NASCAR official said to me Sunday night as the rain pelted down, “Even God doesn’t want us to race here.” The crappy weather excuse was not enough to save Rockingham’s Sprint Cup Series dates. One has to wonder how long NASCAR will continue to accept it as an excuse for thousands of empty seats in Fontana.

Do I have answers to all the problems that continue to plague Auto Club Speedway?

Absolutely not. In fact, I’m not even sure I understand all the questions. But there are clearly a number of issues that need to be addressed there, and adding a flashy corporate logo to the masthead doesn't address any of them.

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