THE FANS IN FONTANA
IndyCars, motor homes, and a cold beer
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Published on Mon, Sep 1, 2014
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By Brian Kennedy
Two simple questions motivated LA Car to talk to the motor home-dwelling people scattered through the infield between turns one and three at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana for the 2014 MAVTV 500. One: why, with the heat and the fact that it’s a holiday weekend, are you here? And two: why are you drinking cheap canned beer rather than some kind of decent IPA?
The answer to the first proved easier to get than the second.
Some fans said that they come to Fontana for every race, no matter the series (IndyCar or NASCAR), and no matter the time of year. Others commented that they were at the track because of IndyCar especially. When I followed up to ask why they thought the crowd, including the number of motor homes, was so small, the answers were scattered.
Some blamed the heat, some the fact that not that many people know about the series. Others cited the fact that the drivers are not American, for the most part, and thus aren’t relatable to every fan.
And finally, some said it was the fact that the “show” this year is so puny.
Now, there’s no denying the excitement of a 500-mile race for the championship, and to interject an opinion, I’ll say that I’d go to Auto Club Speedway for the feature event even if nothing else were going on. The noise, the smell, the look of a car going 220 mph on a bumpy and uncertain surface. This is racing, and this is cool.
But big-time motorsports is not just about the racing. It’s about the spectacle. It’s about keeping people distracted for hours on end, which a 500-miler does, but it’s also about filling their weekend with excitement and variety. The IndyCar weekend at Fontana this year failed to do that because aside from the main race, almost nothing went on.
The only race was IndyCar. There was an on-track exhibition of historic IndyCars as well, and people did comment that they liked that. “We came for the classics. They were wonderful to see them racing all over,” said Michael from Upland. He went on to elaborate on the other things he enjoyed: “We got to ride on the track and see Mario Andretti and got to ride in the two-seater on the track. I’m here to see the finals. I’m a fast-car guy,” he added. “I wanted to be part of the tradition of being here. It’s not very comfortable because it’s very warm. I’m not sure who made this decision, but I’m camping.” Naerby, lobster, chicken, and sausages sizzled away on a tiny gas grill.
A,” he said, “But this is what the management gave us, and this is what we get.” The space costs a couple of hundred bucks, plus passes for the garages. “That’s extra costs, but it’s all very fun, too,” he said.
Roger from Indianapolis said, “I’ve always wanted to go to the Fontana Motor Speedway. It’s always a race I watch on TV, a night race. I’ve been to 48 Indy 500s in a row.”
When asked how much interest there is in the Verizon IndyCar series as a whole now, he said, “I think we’re still recovering from the CART-Champ Car-IndyCar split.” He also said that NASCAR is struggling for an audience due to the economy, and he added, “I think a lot of Americans look at the IndyCar series, which is really a better product on the race track than NASCAR, but they look at it as, ‘I don’t know these drivers; they’re foreigners; these little bitty cars fly around; I don’t see Tide, Crest, or the big sponsors in the retail environment.’ But I can tell you from a racing perspective . . . real racing cars don’t have fenders.”
“We just like racing. NASCAR is huge, and this is only one-fifth of that number. But there are people here who may not follow Indy. They just enjoy racing. We just love everything,” said Ron from Sunland. “We don’t go elsewhere to see racing, just here. Two times a year.” But he said that it was too hot to have the race this time of year. “Way too hot.” His motivation was to see Kanaan win, which was exactly what ended up happening. Daytime temps, by the way, were in the high-90s. Racetime, the air was pleasant, if not cool.
“Dying to see a race, and we decided if we’re going to do it, we might as well see it from beginning to end,” was the way that Mark from Hemet described his reasoning for being at the speedway. He said he’d never been in the infield camping before. He and his group had been in Fontana since early Friday morning. He said he was disappointed that there weren’t more races to see, but “IndyCar is struggling as it is, so I’d really like to see it [grow]. But I’ve heard that NASCAR is overly crowded,” so having some space from one motor home to the next could be seen as a bonus.
“We wandered around the garages today. I’ve never been able to do any of that.” He said he’d come back, but not for NASCAR. “To be honest, I like the open wheel racing. We wouldn’t come if it wasn’t the Indy race,” he said. “Being it’s the last one [of the year] makes it even better.”
Aaron Stocker from Viselia told LA Car that, “It’s just about the experience,” saying that he comes for NASCAR as well. He got to the track Thursday night and will leave Sunday afternoon. “The speed is pretty amazing. How fast those things go is pretty amazing,” he said before indicating that he does not typically watch the series on TV. His interest is not in any certain driver, but just the action on the track. As for the lack of a big show, he said, “We pretty much just tried to hang out and watch their practices, go to the pit area, and see things up close.”
He had an eleven year-old relative with him who has been at the races “since I was four years old.” Jake is from four hours away, “a NASCAR and Indy fan,” and quite happy to be having the most cool experience of any kid he knows on Labor Day weekend. “It’s amazing how fast they can go, and I really love NASCAR because it’s crazy and it’s fun.” He doesn’t know the drivers of the IndyCars “because they’re mostly from different countries,” but he thinks that “being here and enjoying my family” was just a great deal.
But others lamented the lack of anything else going on aside from the feature race. As mentioned, no support series races were run. No Indy Lights. No Trucks. No nothing. This left fans feeling a bit empty and the stands showing more gaps than a NHL player’s mouth.
Heck, there wasn’t even a flyover. But then again, the race didn’t start until after sundown. One person commented on how interesting it was that the sunset was 7:19pm, and green flag 7:20. Now, I didn’t look this up, by my recollection is that last year’s race, which was run in October, was supposed to start around 6pm but was pushed back on the day before the race to a time when the sun would have already set. Lesson learned. So maybe the low light conditions weren’t right for a flyover. Or was this just another indication that this event just isn’t all that well-subscribed?
Summing up, it seems that those who came to the Auto Club Speedway were glad for their experience, but that they believe there’s a general lack of knowledge about the IndyCar series which prevented more people from turning up for the race. Perhaps this feeds back into the sparcity of the racing during the weekend. There’s just not the budget needed to aggrandize the weekend, but if more were going on, more follow-on fans might be there, and so forth.
When it comes to what to do to pass the time, brothers Ron and Kelly have solved that problem. They drink tequila. Lots of it. Last year, a whole lineup of half-gallon bottles. This year, they were on their way to breaking the record, not singlehandedly, though. They were rather working through their stash with the help of friends nearby, who Kelly described saying, “The people here are the salt of the earth. Good, honest, hardworking people.”
They also talked about the issue of the small crowds. “They [IndyCars] don’t have the following NASCAR has,” one commented, “That and the heat account for the small turnout.” They added further that on Labor Day, most people they know go to the Colorado River. They further commented that “when Tony George did his whole IRL thing and screwed up open wheel,” that created a follow-on effect which is still being felt. They said they used to see more people at the open-wheel weekends in Fontana, though never as much as NASCAR. One final factor: the lack of any support races. “There’s been a lot of talk. Why didn’t they have more? There was nothing. With more to see, there would have been more people here for sure. You’ve got to have some kind of spectacle.”
“There’s no innovation any more. It’s this motor and this chassis, but I’d rather see which engineer is the best,” was further said. These guys obviously know both how racing works and the history of the IndyCar series. Ron said, “I would like to see it like it was [in the past]. You can only do so much with the limits they set now” with the spec chassis and two engine choices.
They attend every race held in Fontana, and they’ve developed a habit of creating a collage of photos of each race. There are 638 of them now. “You have to do something special or have a special look about you” to get on the wall, they said. Then they took my picture. I told them I didn’t think I’d make it. “Oh, you’ll make it,” they commented. “You’re special.” I’m not sure I’ve yet figured out why, but in the spring when NASCAR comes to town, I might just check back and see whether my mug is up there.
They were pouring more tequila as I left, which brings me back to that beer question. Why was the silver can of light beer so popular? One suggestion I heard was that it’s easier to pack and store cans than bottles. But that makes the mistaken assumption that high-falutin’ beer is sold only in glass bottles. That’s an error that ought to be corrected for these folks. Maybe that can be someone’s mission next time the races come to Fontana. That would be for NASCAR in the spring. For more stories on the MAVTV 500 by Brian Kennedy and images by Gabriela Moya: MAVTV 500 2014 INDYCAR World Championships MAVTV 500 2014 – Power Pounds for Points MAVTV 500 2014 – Friday in Fontana MAVTV 500 2014 – The Gunslingers MAVTV 500 2014 – Round by Round