It’s only fitting that the track that for so long stood as NASCAR’s connection to Hollywood (until we started racing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, that is) was home to so many blockbuster-worthy moments in just a quarter-century of racing.
Naturally, the “California Kid” Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race at Auto Club Speedway in 1997, already his seventh victory in just the 15th race of the season en route to his second championship and second-best season of his career.
Four years later, almost like it was scripted in a smoky writers’ room 50 miles west in Los Angeles proper, Rusty Wallace held Gordon off on the final lap to pick up his only win of the year — and second-to-last win of his career — just two months after the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. Wallace, a close friend of “The Intimidator,” took his victory lap holding a black, white and red No. 3 flag out his window to a standing ovation. The day was April 29 — what would have been Earnhardt’s 50th birthday.
A year later, Gordon’s fellow Californian and teammate picked up his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory … and then, as it turned out, a whole lot more after that. Jimmie Johnson dove into the team’s arms like Superman that day, a move dripping with foreshadowing as we reflect on it two decades later.
As we’d come to learn, Auto Club is just different. For whatever reason, big things seem to happen there, and it’s shown to have a knack for being a spot for landmark victories, with Johnson later passing Earnhardt on the all-time Cup wins list at the track in 2016 en route to his seventh championship. It also stands as the site of Kyle Busch’s first Cup win — at just 20 years and 125 days old, which stood as the record for youngest series winner ever at the time — and later for his record-tying 200th national series victory to pull neck-and-neck with Richard Petty.
It’s also no stranger to friction, with this year marking the 10-year anniversary of one of NASCAR’s wildest finishes, followed by one of its most notorious fracases that stemmed from a deluge of current and former teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart battling late. There was blocking, there were slide jobs, there was pushing and shoving and water bottles tossed and, oh, you better believe there were soundbites.
Keep in mind — this track has held 32 total Cup Series races, and that wasn’t even an exhaustive list of everything that’s happened there.
Just a few short years ago in 2017, Auto Club Speedway was celebrated for all of this rich history as we looked back on 20 years of racing on the 2-mile oval. Now, as the corner has turned on a quarter century of racing in the LA market, it’s time to look ahead to the future.
Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the final race on Auto Club’s 2-mile layout. Planning continues for construction of a state-of-the-art short track to be built on site, pending approval, but even with the most aggressive construction timeline, the proposed half-mile track won‘t be ready for the 2024 season.
“What we‘re working on is really exciting,” said track president Dave Allen last month. “The fact that we race at a half-mile at Martinsville (Speedway) and Bristol (Motor Speedway), it‘ll be cool to have another half-mile, especially out here on the West Coast with so much racing history here.”
As Allen iterated, there really is so much history there. Those are some of the sport’s biggest names over the last quarter century, every single one of them a current or future Hall of Famer, each of whom without question shaped American motorsports as it entered and eventually staked a significant claim in the mainstream fray.
But in many ways, NASCAR is entering/has already entered a new era, with last year’s Next Gen racer clearly ushering in a revamped dynamic throughout the series, bold schedule shakeups like this year’s Chicago Street Race and the pair of Clash events at the Coliseum exposing the sport to new markets and with the next generation of champions ready to claim the crown from the old guard.
It’s hard to give up a track configuration that has worn its surface out in just the right way and has given us just so many historical pinpoints in the sport over the years.
It’s even harder, however, to not get antsy about adding another short track to the schedule on the opposite coast, especially given how often NASCAR’s bold moves have continued to pay off in recent years.
“I love that race track as-is. I feel like it produces amazing racing, but at the same time, I think we need more short tracks,” said Kyle Larson at Daytona 500 Media Day, himself a former Fontana winner as well. “I feel like … short tracks produce exciting racing, exciting finishes, tempers, stuff like that. I’m a proponent of making it a short track, and I think we need more of them.”
He also mentioned earlier this month while in LA for the Clash that he “love(s) the 2-mile track. But I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport’s going to be. It‘s neat that they’re investing that money to try and grow the racing in California, but also help NASCAR.”
Drivers have clamored for years about wanting more short tracks on the schedule, and the transition may not be perfectly seamless, but it’s one drivers hope to have an imprint on the process by offering input to ensure the finished product is one that has just as much potential as what we’ve seen in the past.
“If it‘s a half mile, I hope that (NASCAR takes) some considerations from the drivers about what the configuration should look like,” Corey LaJoie said at Media Day. “Hopefully, they can lean into the driver’s advisory council a little bit and get our input on what a track layout would look like and be the best racing. A lot of challenges, but I think they‘re going to figure it out, whether it‘s a 2-mile oval or a reconfigured short track.”
“I love that race track. I love that place. The community there always makes me feel like home,” said the Mexican native Daniel Suárez at Daytona 500 Media Day. “With that being said, I hope everything is to make things better, make the sport better. Another hope is that we come back soon because that’s an amazing place for me. Personally, those fans, that community makes me feel like home. The Hispanic community there is huge.”
Nothing stays the same — in this sport, in life, in anything. NASCAR has undergone significant evolution just since the time Auto Club (née California Speedway) was a glimmer in the eye of Roger Penske, who broke ground at the facility in 1994. And the sport has only sped up its evolution over the past several years with outside-the-box ways to move forward.
So, as we raise our glasses to the first iteration of Auto Club Speedway and say thanks for the memories, let us keep in mind this weekend isn’t some sad Hollywood ending for one of the most distinct and loved tracks on the schedule.
It’s just the beginning.