Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Make Auto Club Speedway a restrictor-plate track, Waltrip says
By Terry Blount ESPN.com
FONTANA, Calif. -- Michael Waltrip had a miserable two days in the Auto Club 500.
It started with a leaky oil line before the green flag Sunday, included a spin during the continuation of the race Monday and ended with a 28th-place finish.
Water seepage through cracks at Auto Club Speedway was just one of the obstacles for race officials.
Consequently, some people might question his postrace criticism of Auto Club Speedway, but his ideas about how to improve the place make a lot of sense.
"They will never win against Las Vegas [Motor Speedway]," Waltrip said of the Fontana facility. "So build up the corners, 32 to 33 degrees banking, and make this a restrictor-plate track."
Wow. That's quite a proposal. It catches you by surprise at first, but once Waltrip had a chance to explain his logic, it's easy to understand his point.
His argument above is that Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a much nicer place and has far more to offer fans than the 2-mile oval 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
So if race fans are going to pick and choose, why not travel another 200 miles and attend the Vegas race one week later?
Auto Club Speedway needs something to set it apart from other tracks in the region.
"Think about Sonoma and Phoenix and Vegas," Waltrip said. "Sonoma has amenities and it's a cool road course. It's different. Phoenix a fun, little short track that people adore so much. Vegas, obviously.
"But you come here and it's sort of caught in the middle. We could come to the West Coast to a purpose-built plate track, the first one that's ever been done that way. We could put on a heck of a race."
Clearly, Waltrip has thought this out. The man deserves a spot on the International Speedway Corp. board of directors.
The Fontana facility needs to do something to change its image. Rebuilding the racing surface to make it a new version of Talladega or Daytona would brings loads of attention and far better action on the track.
Of course, there are some issues, like money. We're talking millions of dollars to reconfigure the racetrack. Texas Motor Speedway rebuilt its 1.5-mile oval in 1998 at a cost of $3 million.
The cost of this project would double that amount, at least. The price tag to do it might be as high as $10 million. Not cheap, but goodness knows ISC can afford it.
And Fontana officials may need to rebuild the turns anyway because of the water seepage issues that caused problems last weekend.
Waltrip brings one other bias to his vision for Fontana. Waltrip loves restrictor-plate racing. It's his forte, the racing discipline where he has enjoyed the most success in his career.
All four of his victories in Cup points races have come at plate events -- three at Daytona and one at Talladega.
But plate racing is NASCAR's version of torture for many drivers. They hate racing in large packs inches apart with little throttle response from the choked-down engines.
However, it is exciting to watch, which is why many fans can't wait to see every plate event. Tell the people in Southern California they have the modern version of Talladega and you have something to sell.
"That's what I would do here," Waltrip said. "The stereotype of a restrictor plate being bad, that's over.
"They might have to stretch it out to 2½ miles to make the draft work, but I would put these banks up right now and say, 'We're going to build the first-ever track meant for restrictor plates.' To me, that's the answer."
Auto Club Speedway, which hasn't managed to sell out its two Cup races, needs a dramatic change. There's nothing more dramatic in NASCAR than restrictor-plate racing.
Say what? What was Brad Garrett thinking? Garrett's a great comedic actor, but he failed miserably in his attempt at humor Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. Garrett had this to say before giving the command to start engines:
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. We have lost a 2-year-old child in Kyle Busch's left ear."
Yes, we get it. The Busch brothers have big ears. But this was a wrong-place-wrong-time remark that just didn't fit the moment.
A lot of weird things were happening at Fontana over the weekend. Nationwide Series driver Morgan Shepherd was roller-skating down pit road during one of the rain delays.
And some guy wearing a yellow bathrobe, with no visible credential, was strolling around the pit area like a young version of Hugh Hefner.
Goodbye, Newman Actor Wayne Knight was invited to attend the Auto Club 500, but couldn't make it due to a prior commitment. And who is Wayne Knight, you ask?
Knight played Newman the mailman in the "Seinfeld" sitcom. Jerry Seinfeld's greeting to his neighbor, "Hello, Newman," became one of the memorable lines in TV history.
It also was a headline nationally after Ryan Newman won the Daytona 500. So having Knight at the race to hang with Ryan was a nice idea. But both of them probably have heard that line enough already.
Angelique S. Chengelis contributed to this report. Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.