With Daytona behind them now, the traveling circus of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads from one sun coast to the other. This week the teams arrive in sunny Southern California to race at Auto Club Speedway, (formerly known as California Speedway) in the city of Fontana which, on a good traffic day, is about an hour?s drive east of the famous beach at Santa Monica.
But it might as well be light years away from the Hollywood culture that the NASCAR PR machine likes to try to connect itself with whenever they come to the two-mile oval that was built by Roger Penske on the site of the former Kaiser steel mill.
The first Sprint Cup race ever held at Auto Club Speedway was the ?California 500 Presented by NAPA? on June 22, 1997 and for the record it was won by Jeff Gordon. Joe Nemecheck started on the pole with a qualifying speed of 183.015 mph. Of the 42 drivers in that race, only three are still racing full time in the Sprint Cup Series today; Gordon, Mark Martin, and Jeff Burton.
No attendance figures have been given but since this was the first time NASCAR had raced in this area since the closing of Riverside Raceway some eight years earlier, the fans were hungry for racing and there were no empty seats.
Unfortunately, race fans are something that the Speedway has been missing in the years since. Some blame the slide in attendance on overexposure due to the track hosting two races since 2004. Some say it?s because the Southern California fan is fickle and has too many choices for his/her entertainment dollar. A few even say that the design of the track, with its wide sweeping turns that give the racers plenty of room, results in boring races with the cars too spread out and too few cautions periods to bunch them back up again.
Hopefully, the buzz of a new season, and the race coming just one week after one of the more exciting Daytona 500?s in recent memory will help bring the fans out. But in any case, most race teams feel that ?real? season doesn?t start until Fontana and now the weekly grind of competing for the 2010 Sprint Cup begins.
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