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Fontana races to be tested by a different type of climate

The economic crisis could adversely affect NASCAR's three events this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. Last year's Auto Club 500 at the track was hampered by rain.

February 18, 2009|Jim Peltz

The NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Southern California a year ago was hampered by rain that caused numerous delays and frustrated fans, drivers and track officials.

Now the sport and the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana are about to be tested again, this time by an economic storm -- and a big question is how many stock car racing fans will weather it by showing up.

NASCAR's top-tier series follows its season-opening Daytona 500 with the second race on its 36-race calendar, the Auto Club 500, at the Fontana track Sunday.

The speedway, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, also holds a doubleheader Saturday with races in NASCAR's second-level Nationwide Series and its Camping World Truck Series.

But it's Sunday's race featuring Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, reigning NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and the sport's other stars that could be a telling sign of how much the economic recession is affecting NASCAR.

That's because, excluding the Daytona 500, the sport's crown jewel event, this will be the first Cup race since mid-November, during which the economic hardship felt by consumers and businesses nationwide has deepened.

Then again, in light of Auto Club Speedway's recent history, it could be difficult to precisely separate the economy's impact on Sunday's race attendance from other factors.

Ever since NASCAR awarded two Cup races a year to the track in 2004, the 92,000-seat facility has not sold out for either event.

It's a shortfall whose potential causes -- ranging from how the races are marketed to the quality of racing on the wide two-mile oval to bad weather -- have been hotly debated in NASCAR Nation.

Regardless, the economy will weigh heavily on this weekend's races.

International Speedway Corp., which owns the Fontana track and several others, said Jan. 29 that its combined advance ticket sales at that point were down 17% from a year earlier, although it did not break down sales for each track.

Gillian Zucker, president of Auto Club Speedway, said "it looks like we'll be off about 10% from [the] Labor Day" race last year, which NASCAR said drew an estimated 70,000.

The projection for Sunday isn't comparable to the February race a year ago because that event was disrupted by rain, she said.

"But considering we're coming off a race [a year ago] that was rain postponed and the economic situation, I would say it's cause for back flips," Zucker said.

The 568-acre track she oversees and other speedways have been cutting prices on selected seats and rolling out other promotions to limit the attendance declines.

Even Daytona International Speedway lowered some prices, which helped draw a capacity crowd of 180,000 to Sunday's rain-shortened Daytona 500.

Auto Club Speedway cut prices to $35 per ticket from $55 for several thousand seats in the first five rows for Sunday's 250-lap race, which starts at 3 p.m. Its higher grandstand seats, offering a better view of the whole track, range in price up to $105 each.

Zucker said about two-thirds of those purchasing the $35 seats were first-time buyers, and "that's very encouraging about what the future holds when the economy begins to recover."

The track also is bringing Kenseth to Century City for an autograph session Thursday, and it appointed Hugh Laurie, star of the television show "House," as the race's grand marshal. Baseball Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson will drive the pace car.

NASCAR and Auto Club Speedway are by no means alone in struggling with the recession.

The lifeblood of racing budgets is money provided by corporate sponsors. But total racing sponsorship spending by North American-based companies is expected to drop 6% this year to $3.3 billion, the research publication IEG Sponsorship Report said last week.

It's the first projected decline since the publication began tracking such spending 24 years ago. And giant Dutch bank ING said Monday it would not renew its sponsorship of the Renault team in the Formula One racing series after this season.

Yet, for all the economic pressures, the turnout for Sunday's race also could partly depend on the weather.

In 2007, the track swung from very cold temperatures for the Auto Club 500 to a sizzling 110 degrees for its second race on Labor Day weekend. (The Labor Day race will be moved to October starting this year.)

Last February, rain caused a two-hour delay in the start of the Auto Club 500 and, after only 87 laps, more rain forced the race to be finished Monday, with Carl Edwards winning.

This Sunday? The National Weather Service is forecasting partly cloudy skies with a high of 68 degrees.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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Auto Club 500

Sunday, Auto Club Speedway

Fontana, 2 p.m., Channel 11

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