Why NASCAR Should Bring Back a 2nd Sprint Cup Series Race to Fontana

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2014

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 24:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, lead the field to start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2013 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

There are certain racetracks on the NASCAR schedule that deserve a second race date each season.

Las Vegas and Darlington immediately come to mind, even though the latter used to have two dates, only to have NASCAR take one away after the 2004 season.

With the outpouring of support and attendance ever since the Lady In Black went from a yearly twin bill to a seasonal solo act, Darlington definitely deserves to have a second date reinstated.

But that's another column for another day.

The focus of today's exercise is Auto Club Speedway, site of Sunday's Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race.

The ultra-fast two-mile track is another that should have a second race date every year reinstated.

Yes, I know that following the 2010 season, NASCAR took away the second date that the Fontana track used to have.

The reasons then were both numerous and easy to understand: mediocre attendance, an aged racing surface that was the scourge of numerous drivers, weather-related problems (especially when the second race was held around the Labor Day weekend), and a malaise or ambivalence by many in Southern California to trek 50-plus miles east of Los Angeles to sit and bake under a scorching sun and endure temperatures that often hit three figures.

All of those problems are fixable, in my opinion. After all, ACS had two races per season for just seven years, from 2004 through 2010. To me, that's not long enough to grow an audience for the long term.

As the old saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that's the case with ACS (formerly California Speedway). I firmly believe it has matured significantly now that it is in its fourth season of hosting just one yearly Cup event.

First, the wide and expansive racing surface makes it the only track on the circuit that can boast five- and sometimes even six-wide racing. While it remains the original surface since the track opened in 1997, it has matured and has a feel, wear and character that drivers look forward to driving upon because they arguably have the greatest ability to change lines whenever they want. The width of the track is key: you can pass pretty much whenever and wherever you want.

Second, how can the No. 2 TV market in the country not only host just one race a season, but how can such a challenging track not be part of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, the marquee part of the NASCAR season?

When ACS was granted a second race, placing it on the schedule around the Labor Day weekend was a terrible idea from a weather standpoint.

I covered nearly every late summer/early fall race there. It often got so hot that drivers, media and even fans routinely dropped 10 pounds or more over the weekend due to the oppressive heat and excessive sweating.

Third, why would fans—especially those in Southern California—want to come to a race on a holiday weekend when they could visit the beaches, the mountains or somewhere else?

A Labor Day weekend race—or around that time—just wasn't relevant to fans, even in an area whose culture is so dominated by and dependent upon the automobile.

If NASCAR officials were to bring back a second date to Fontana, they'd be wise to give it the Richmond treatment, namely a Saturday night race under the lights, perhaps in late October, when the weather would be perfect.

With it being a Chase event, the hypothetical second race would be a big attendance and TV ratings draw, I feel. And this time, ACS would do it right, taking advantage of a deserved second chance.

Of course, giving back a race to ACS means taking away a race from another track. That's always the difficult part.

Honestly, I don't know which track to take a race away from. All are deserving of what they currently have, but at the same time, several are also struggling. The last thing any of the struggling tracks needs is to have one of their two dates taken away.

At the same time, I don't see NASCAR expanding the schedule from 36 to 38 races. The economic perception doesn't equal the likely economic reality at this time for expansion (although Las Vegas, Fontana and Darlington would likely be on the short list if that were to happen).

But if NASCAR is to grow the sport and regain much of the fanbase and TV ratings it has lost over the last six years since the global economic meltdown, one of the key steps it should take is very obvious.

As they said in the old Beverly Hillbillies, "Californ-ee-uh's the place ya oughta be."


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