Wednesday, March 23, 2011 Updated: March 24, 11:09 AM ET
Fontana adjusts to one NASCAR race
By Tim Haddock Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com
For the first time since 2004, NASCAR will make only one visit to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Some drivers said they think it's the right move. NASCAR fans have been critical of the racing at Fontana: not enough passing, not enough action, not enough excitement.
There was a time that not only did NASCAR visit Fontana and Southern California twice a year -- with the Camping World Truck Series and the West Series in addition to the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series -- but the defunct CART Series, IndyCar Series, AMA Superbikes, International Race of Champions and the Rolex Sports Car Series would make yearly stops at Auto Club Speedway.
This year, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series are the only races on the schedule for the venue.
"Well, when I first started going there, California was sold out," said Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, who started racing at Auto Club Speedway in the old Winston West Series in 1998, a year after NASCAR began racing at the Fontana track.
Harvick also says he remembers full grandstands and an energetic crowd.
Kevin Harvick has been racing at Fontana since 1998 and says one race a year at the venue might be better than two.
"We had the one race, and I think everyone was able to plan it," he said. "I sometimes think that two races for a particular racetrack is not particularly the right thing to do as you look at the particular market you're going to. I think going back to one race we'll see the crowds increase quite a bit."
Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker said ticket sales have been healthy for this year's race. Though attendance for races was noticeably down when the track hosted two NASCAR race weekends per year, Zucker said support for the race was always strong.
"If you really look at the numbers, it doesn't substantiate that claim that people don't support NASCAR in this region. They absolutely do," Zucker said. "That, I don't think, has any bearing on this. I think a lot of it has to do with economic conditions. It is expensive for all of these teams to come here to the West Coast. None of them are based out here. It is more expensive for everyone. When they are looking for ways to save money, we're the first place they look, because we're the farthest."
The economic impact the NASCAR races have on San Bernardino County and its neighboring communities is significant. According to San Bernardino County's Economic Development Department, Auto Club Speedway contributed nearly $2 billion to the regional economy from 1997 to 2007. From 2004 to 2010, when the track hosted two NASCAR weekends per year, the speedway generated $200 million per year for the regional economy.
"One race is equivalent to a Super Bowl," said Mary Jane Olhasso, the economic development administrator for San Bernardino County. "It's a tremendous loss, given the state of the economy as it is."
Even though Zucker and the county are adjusting to having only one race weekend at Auto Club Speedway, they haven't given up on the idea of NASCAR visiting the track more than once a year. They also haven't given up on other racing series returning.
Auto Club Speedway is built on the former site of the Kaiser Steel mill that manufactured material for battleships during World War II. When the mill closed in 1983, it hurt the area economy. The county saw a downturn in the economy when the Cold War ended and defense contracts were in decline. But each time, the county's economy rebounded, Olhasso said.
"We've battled back," she said. "We're not taking this lying down."
It might be some time before NASCAR returns to Fontana for two races a year. It would take another push in popularity and an economic turnaround. It would also have to make financial sense for teams to invest money and resources to make two trips a year to Southern California.
NASCAR driver David Reutimann said he would like to visit Fontana twice a year again.
"You hate to see any race track lose a race," said Reutimann, driver of the No. 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. "You wish there was enough to go around and wish everybody could have a race and everybody could have two. I know that it seemed like the crowd was down in a lot of situations and they felt it necessary to remove some.
"I'm not glad that it lost one -- I like going out there. At the same time, it has to be economically feasible for race tracks to do that. The way the crowds were down at that given time -- who knows, if they get things built back up maybe California could get another date? Maybe it seemed like the right call at the right time."
Tim Haddock is the author of the motorsports blog Haddock in the Paddock. He also covers prep sports for ESPNLA.com. Follow him on Twitter.