Ryan: Last lap at Fontana raises questions of NASCAR’s past, present and future in SoCal

As NASCAR sets to raze the Garage Mahal built by Roger Penske on a toxic waste dump in Fontana, California, let’s recognize that Paul Oberjuerge saw this coming a quarter-century ago.

When the finishing touches were put on California Speedway, the plaudits overflowed for Penske’s $125 million palace of speed. NASCAR’s premier series had been absent from Southern California for nearly a decade. After tracks failed in nearby Ontario and Riverside, Fontana would be the unlikeliest site for the most proper of returns.

At the first open test on May 5, 1997, Cup teams were greeted by an opulent track built to 21st-century standards.

Cavernous garage bays and spaciously designed pit stalls. Gorgeous, plush suites with panoramic views of the track and San Gabriel Mountains. Top-shelf facilities for the media and even a first-class gym for the drivers.

Everywhere were hallmarks of the “Penske perfect” details – track president Greg Penske had day-to-day oversight of his father’s vision rising from the ruins of the dilapidated Kaiser Steel Mill (once marked by an iconic water tower) – and everyone was ready to proclaim NASCAR’s newfound permanence in Southern California.

All except Oberjuerge, the sports editor of The San Bernardino County Sun whose sharp-edged and incisive newspaper columns were daily must-reads in the Inland Empire for nearly three decades.

In a May 7, 1997 piece titled: “Speedway: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” Oberjuerge marveled at the mammoth infield that could fit virtually every major stadium in Southern California (“The stands are taller, the distances longer, the logistics Pharaonic”).

He saluted the endless ambition of Roger Penske (“A century ago, men of his ilk built the Panama Canal and laid the Transatlantic cable. Fifty years ago, they organized D-Day. Who is building Hoover Dam these days? Penske clearly hasn’t heard about the Era of Limits.”)

And, amidst the enormity and audacity, he asked whether there also was a hint of arrogance.

Ontario Motor Speedway, a palatial carbon copy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, opened less than 5 miles away in 1970. After drowning in debt, Ontario was closed and was bulldozed in 1980.

“Could all that happen again? No one here seems to consider it even a remote possibility, hubris which seems a little scary,” Oberjuerge wrote. “The inaugural event is barely six weeks away. We’re guessing it will be an unqualified success. This track is gleaming, magnificent, top of the line.

“But, then, so was the Titanic.”

That closing line didn’t land well at The Captain’s sparkling new ship.

Les Richter, the late former NASCAR executive and NFL Hall of Famer who was the Penske family’s right-hand man at California Speedway, called The Sun’s cub auto racing reporter to read him the riot act.

Six weeks later, a sellout crowd of nearly 100,000 watched a superstar christen a speedway as Jeff Gordon won the inaugural California 500 and ushered in a new era of NASCAR in the Golden State.

Until now.

Oberjuerge’s words suddenly feel extraordinarily prescient almost 26 years later when pondering the murky future of Fontana’s 2-mile oval, which has been sentenced to be blown up, rebuilt and reopened as a short track at some unspecified point.

The proposed layout also has been strangely vague with no official blueprints since The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck initially reported that it would be a half-mile track blending elements of Bristol and Martinsville. Track president Dave Allen recently said NASCAR still was “trying to figure out what makes the most sense” both “on and off the track.”

It all has raised serious questions about whether big-league stock-car racing is poised to recommit its sins of the past in the Southland, which endured an eight-year winter without a Cup race when Riverside International Raceway was shuttered in 1989.

Already what once seemed unthinkable – a NASCAR Cup schedule without a race at a permanent facility in the country’s second-largest market – will happen next year as it’s been confirmed the 2024 season won’t include Fontana.

Perhaps more distressing is there has been no timetable yet for when – or even if – the repurposed short track will open.

This reinvention already seemed a misstep by NASCAR, given that Auto Club Speedway had emerged as the gold standard for unrestricted speedways over the past 13 years.

Now the short-track project seemingly looms as a financial and logistical boondoggle caught in a morass of supply chain woes in the country’s most heavily regulated state.

Penske needed nearly four years and had to move mountains to get California Speedway built on a former Superfund site. The red tape is no less daunting now in the wake of a pandemic that has choked every major construction project in existence.

Auto Club Speedway’s overhaul already had been delayed more than a year and now appears to have no definitive start or end date.

All that is known for certain is that Sunday will mark the final race on the beloved original layer of asphalt that was laid in January 1997.

“Right now, this will be our last race with the 2-mile track,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week. “Right now, it’s going to take a couple of years to build the new track. It’s something right now that we’re interested in doing. What that timeline looks like, we’re not sure.”

The articulate Phelps is known for being measured and precise with his words.

Three utterances in 20 seconds of “right now” are less than reassuring for Fontana’s outlook – even if NASCAR’s priority is to keep the track.

Coupled with NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell’s similar uncertainty in a recent interview with the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern, these are clear warning signs that permanently closing Auto Club Speedway is on the table.

NASCAR has been working with Hillwood Properties on “redeveloping portions of Auto Club Speedway’s property.” Portions of the Turn 1 and 4 grandstands already have been removed.

It obviously is plausible that a scarcity of materials and labor could push the short-track project well beyond 2025, never mind the inevitable cost overruns.

Some of that will be defrayed by auctioning off part of the track’s land – but that piecemeal approach also surely opens the door to selling the entire property, too.

At what point does the temptation become too great to ignore offers that surely would stretch into at least eight figures for 568 acres that sit within spitting distance of several major interstates and highways?

NASCAR doesn’t need to be partnered with a commercial real estate company to understand the value of potential warehouse space in the Age of Amazon.

All of those mitigating factors – coupled with the desire for more short tracks — seem to be why staying status quo with the current layout isn’t an option.

Even if the 2-mile oval were kept, it eventually would require a multimillion-dollar repave that would be followed by at least a few years of less scintillating racing.

When it opened, Fontana was among the most maligned speedways in NASCAR for many years. It was gifted and then stripped of a second annual race because its crowds dwindled so much.

But as the asphalt aged, the pockmarked surface became a favorite of drivers and fans who watched last-lap lead changes with regularity from 2011-14 on a track whose straightaways are faster than Daytona.

“The racing got super good there,” AJ Allmendinger said. “As drivers, we all love it because it wears the tires out, you’re slipping and sliding around, it’s multiple grooves. You’re running on the apron there. It just puts on great racing. I think all of us have thoroughly enjoyed it. Especially, I really feel like the last 10 years, it just kind of flipped where we just put on such great finishes there.

“It’s one of those racetracks where you understand that something’s got to change because the pavement is so old, and eventually you either repave it and the great racing goes away, or you reconfigure it and try something new.”

Some still are pining for a third option — don’t touch it.

“I wish they would leave it (alone),” Ryan Blaney said when asked of the 2-mile oval’s demise last week. “I think you talk to any driver, and they will tell you the same thing. That place is one of the funnest, coolest race tracks that we go to. I hate to see that place go.

Said Chase Briscoe: “I think it’s going to be bittersweet for all the drivers because that’s like the last true track that we have. Auto Club is just so fun from a driver’s standpoint because it’s so slick. It’s worn out. It’s rough. You just bounce around. You literally run wherever on the racetrack, especially with the Next Gen car. I thought that it was just a really well put-together racetrack for those cars.

“So I’m bummed.

Any NASCAR fan should be, too, especially those among the nearly 25 million who live within a few hours of Fontana.

In addition to having very fickle fans, Southern California is known for skyrocketing property values. It’s notable that Fontana started with Roger Penske, who long has touted the importance of having permanent facilities in major-league auto racing series.

Temporary circuits such as street races are great for bringing the action to the people but also can be fleeting. For every Long Beach and St. Pete in IndyCar, there are Baltimore, Houston, Vancouver, Cleveland, Miami, Edmonton – an endless list of flameouts.

If NASCAR chooses to abandon Fontana, it possibly could keep a tenuous footprint with points races in Southern California via stadiums (though issues cropped up in The Clash at the Coliseum) or street races.

But it then would be difficult to see a route back with a new oval. Building another California Speedway might cost 10 times now what it did in the mid-1990s.

Penske erected Fontana through the force of sheer will. He’s a billionaire who loves motorsports (and who also owns the world’s biggest Toyota dealership nearby). The chances of such felicitous circumstances arising again are slim.

Still, it surely wouldn’t be possible for NASCAR to be left without a permanent home in Southern California (and for the second time in 35 years).

No one ever would have seen that coming.

Except someone already did.

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Ryan: Last lap at Fontana raises questions of NASCAR’s past, present and future in SoCal originally appeared on NBCSports.com



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