The End of Auto Club Speedway
We'll miss this place.
The last NASCAR race at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
By Brian Kennedy
Sat, Feb 25, 2023 03:51 PM PST
Images by Albert Wong
Fontana, CA - It was supposed to be two last glorious days at the big track that has hosted so many fantastic races over the span of years since 1997. Two miles of worn-out, seamed surface that has drivers saying the same thing every year: “I hope they never pave this place.”
They’re not going to pave it. They’re going to demolish it. Yup, California—that is to say, Auto Club—Speedway will soon be no more. What happened? Look at the area from an airplane and you’ll get it. There’s dense suburban development in the form of housing and shopping all around, and then this gaping, empty stadium (track) lying there dormant. It used to be a steel mill.
In fact, it’s not quite dormant. There’s more that goes on at a facility like this than most people realize. Bytimes vintage racing, Porsche and other club race weekends, driving schools, go-kart racing, race-car fantasy themed parties, TV commercial shoots, and much more. But then look at the price tag for the land, what it could bring, and it all becomes clear. Having nearly 500 acres of the last open land for dozens of miles and not building on it just "don’t make no sense.” So while reports as to the future vary, it looks like all but 89 of those acres have been slated for redevelopment, and the track will be reimagined as a shorter oval.
In this plan, the two-mile oval will be no more. In its place, supposedly, will be a half-mile short track, one built “state of the art,” whatever that means in the current day. The idea seems like a winner. Racing will continue. Developers will get their mitts on what, to them, might as well be farmland. And the only people left crying will be those with a love for the late-February weekend adventure that is Fontana’s NASCAR event.
Part of what prompts the change is a matter of marketing. IndyCar used to race at Fontana, until 2015, when a sparse crowd showed up and Tony Kanaan said something like, “Why are we risking our lives to race in front of 5,000 people?” That ended open-wheel competition in SoCal. Long Beach of course still exists, but that’s a whole different thing—a scene, an event—more than a race.
In recent years the NASCAR crowd at Fontana has ebbed and flowed in number. The granstands were somewhat sparsely filled in 2019 and 2020, to my recollection. Covid cancelled the race in 2021, and people flooded back after that, happy to be doing something “normal” again. The speedway seemed poised for a resurgence in fan support. That’s not going to happen, at least not in the form of people enjoying a race on a two-mile D-shaped oval. No more standing at the end of pit lane watching as many as 43 cars (the old number of NASCAR starters) screaming into turn one, the huge lighted speed sign hitting 188 mph, sometimes 191. Wait—maybe that was me screaming, not the cars. Yeah, I love this place. But land value and lack of ticket revenue have combined to force a change.
Saturday morning, Kevin Harvick was also thinking about what the local market can sustain in his press conference, conducted via Zoom:
“The grassroots level is between Irwindale [Speedway] and Kern County Raceway and I think with the participation levels at those particular facilities and around the country, it seems to be doing OK. From a NASCAR Cup series standpoint, and where that goes from here is probably yet to be seen.”
“This is a business, and there are decisions that have to be made: How many people are sitting in the grandstands, and what the participation level is. We were here a couple of weeks ago with the [Busch] Clash in this particular market, so it’s, can this market handle both of those races? Probably not. It didn’t before, which is why we only race here once, at Auto Club. So I think as you look at that equation, it’s been a great, one race a year facility and has put on some great races . . . . But from that standpoint forward, there are things that are way above my pay grade of decisions and considerations of things that have to be done with this particular market. I might be wrong.”
If he’s suggesting that one race and not two are all that can be supported in SoCal, he might very well be right. But the Clash at the Coliseum was not a huge draw in terms of bodies in the seats, and it doesn’t pay points. How much should fans care about such an event, especially on a short track that’s not suitable for an official race? That might not be their decision to make. NASCAR is not coming back to Cal/Auto Club Speedway next year, and promises for beyond that are at best, vague. So it’s one race, not two. And at this point, it’s not a points race.
But let’s focus on what we know. For now, hardcore SoCal racing/NASCAR fans wanted one more memorable weekend. One to remember the track by. As of mid-day Saturday, that, too, had been taken away. Why? Rain. Then snow. Not a storm that would accumulate piles, but at least the novelty of the white stuff, something most people around here see only from a distance, on nearby mountain tops.
The Xfinity drivers were finally called to their cars near mid-afternoon. They ran some slow laps, nothing official. And the rain came back. So Saturday, after further deliberations, was called off. Drag? Yes, except if you look on the bright side: the second-series race was not off. Just put off until Sunday after the Cup race. That means 700 miles, 350 laps, of racing to close out Cal/Auto Club Speedway on the great date of February 24th, weather permitting. (And yes, as of late Saturday, it looks like clear skies for Sunday.)
But before that, let’s reflect on what got us here. Jeff Gordon won the inaugural event in 1997 in front of a huge crowd, nearly 100,000 pairs of eyes—way more than have been present in recent years. Kyle Busch won his first race at Cal Speedway. That came in 2005. Now, plans for a replacement track are being made. Exciting? Kinda, though what’s been released to the racing public has been sparse information. But whatever form the new track takes, it’s not for next year (2024)—it won’t be ready yet. So SoCal fans will have to make due with NASCAR’s Busch Clash at the downtown LA Coliseum, which is not a points race, so even if it goes, there’s nothing that contributes towards the championship happening in Southern Cal next year.
That’s a long way from the heyday. At one point (2004-2010), the facility hosted two Cup races a year. They didn’t sell nearly well enough for both to remain on the schedule. One of those races was on Labor Day weekend, a serious miscalculation by NASCAR for two reasons: First, it’s still hot as blazes in September in Fontana, and so the late-afternoon race had fans seeking shelter from the sun under the grandstands to survive. I know. I was one of them.
Second, the series was stepping all over its tradition of having Darlington, SC as the Labor Day weekend’s race. Tradition matters more than the officials who decide the schedule realized. Darlington now occupies its rightful place again, and California Speedway, or Auto Club Speedway more correctly, will be on hiatus. Is that until 2025, as has been suggested (see above), but not promised? Or it is into some indeterminate future, as many fear?
Either way, the weather has conspired to stymie this weekend’s outgoing festivities. It looks like memories will have to do for now, though there’s hope for the Xfinity and Cup races to go in some form on Sunday. The weather should cooperate, and as was said, that makes for 700 miles of racing that will stretch over eight hours from 12:30 into the darkness.
It will create the oddity that the last winner at the track will not be a Cup driver, but a second-series Xfinity driver, but that’s immaterial and will be forgotten. What we’ll remember, hopefully, is a cold February day where one last stand was made in search of NASCAR supremacy.
Maybe that’s the best way to experience the end of an era.
About The Author
Brian Kennedy always wanted a ’66 Mustang. 10 years ago, he bought one – and he’s been restoring it ever since. Brian extended his passion for cars by covering events for magazines like Grassroots Motorsports, Sportscar, and Victory Lane – e.g., events in Cart, Pro Rally, Formula Atlantic, the SCCA Runoffs, Trans Am, SVRA, VSCDA, and VARA. He’s also profiled a number of cars and interviewed a number of personalities – among them: Gene Felton (IMSA), Hurley Haywood, Jerry Seinfeld, and Nigel Olsson.