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MOTOR RACING

Auto Club Speedway president pleased with fan turnout

NASCAR estimated the crowd to be 70,000 for the Pepsi 500 in Fontana, but a low level of repeat business is a concern.

October 12, 2009|John Cherwa

Looking across the expansive grandstands at Auto Club Speedway and seeing more than enough pockets of red and yellow benches with no one sitting in them would be cause for concern for most.

But Gillian Zucker, speedway president and the person whose job it is to make this racetrack a success, brought with her the required optimism of someone trying to sell this sport.

"This is exactly how you want to welcome the Chase to Southern California," Zucker said. "These fans have really made a statement. People right now are really struggling in the economy and I think everyone knows in California it's been really hard to fight it. . . . The fans have really stepped up today."

NASCAR estimated the crowd at 70,000 in the 92,000-seat facility.

"I know that we were fairly flat going into the weekend, which we were really pleased with," Zucker said. "Everyone knows that the corporate community isn't doing the type of sponsorships . . . and some of the really large partners, who brought thousands of people to the facility, weren't coming back this year. But what we saw was a real increase in consumer sales."

But what was troubling to the track was Zucker's admission that repeat business is "very low."

The track has done a lot to fix previous problems with such things as traffic and parking. But the one thing she can't fix is the racing, which, until the last 15 laps Sunday, was pretty close to boring.

The idea has been floated to increase the banking to facilitate more side-by-side racing, but International Speedway Corporation, which is controlled by the France family, doesn't think it's an investment worth making at this time.

"You have to look at how much it will cost and make sure it's something that makes sense for the people who invest in this company," said Zucker, doing her best to remain neutral on a sensitive topic. "Certainly, if we find an answer that does all of those things you'll see it implemented."

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Busch exits early

For the second day in a row, Kyle Bush exited his car early suffering from flu. On Saturday, in the Nationwide race, Denny Hamlin relieved the ultra-competitive driver after 33 laps. On Sunday, David Gilliland replaced Busch on the 62nd lap. Gilliland had listed overheating as the reason for parking his car. It has become a strategy for some drivers, however, to gain purse money without having to expend a lot of resources. His 42nd-place finish was good for $88,590.

Gilliland guided Busch's car to a 24th-place finish.

"It was an experience for sure," Gilliland said. "Without practicing it and stuff we just never could get it right today. . . . It wasn't a horrible day, it could have been a lot worse, but we were obviously looking for a better finish."

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From pit row

It was a pretty good day for the two racers from Bakersfield, who have been having a less-than-stellar season. Kevin Harvick finished 10th and Casey Mears 11th. . . . Tony Stewart on finishing fifth: "We had a good enough car to get back, but we just couldn't get going at the beginning of a run for anything. It took us six or eight laps to get going every time." . . . Carl Edwards on his sixth-place finish: "We just had trouble on pit road. We had a couple of slow stops, and I slid through my pit stall and we battled with the car all day. That really put the nail in the coffin for us." . . . David Ragan on his seventh-place finish: "A top-10 the way our season has been is certainly refreshing. We still have a long way to go as a company in making these race cars better to win races, but we made some of the right moves today."

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john.cherwa@latimes.com

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