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NASCAR's great Los Angeles enigma: At a turning point?

  Surf's up! Well, it is Beach Boys Country. Gillian Zucker and Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   FONTANA, Calif.
   Gillian Zucker, who as boss of NASCAR's Los Angeles market anchor track has one of the toughest jobs in this sport, was downright giddy Sunday morning as the crowd poured in for the California 400.
   A turning point here?

   Despite threatening weather hanging on the Pacific horizon, and despite a big traffic jam out on I-10, an impressive crowd was amassing at Auto Club Speedway. And Zucker was eager to get her message out about how hard and diligent her people have been in pounding home the NASCAR message in this market.
   The trend line, Zucker says, is clearly up. "We're definitely seeing a new level of enthusiasm here," she says.

   This track/market really has been one of this sport's great mysteries.
   The question:
   Does NASCAR really want to succeed in the Los Angeles market?
   Or is the Daytona-based International Speedway Corp. (ISC) content merely to have a presence here?
   How to deal with the admittedly lousy economy out here and put more fans in the stands and more eyeballs on the tube?
   Not only that, but Fontana doesn't quite have a Beverly Hills/Palm Springs reputation.
   Now Los Angeles/Southern California has long been one of this sport's toughest nuts to crack.
   The people who run this sport may soon have to face that issue and make some decisions.



On a clear day you can see the snow falling on the San Gabriels (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   On a crisp, clear day Mount Baldy and the rest of the San Gabriel Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to California's Auto Club Speedway, here on the far eastern fringe of the huge Los Angeles market.
   Los Angeles: one of the world's most important and most populous cities, renown for demographic diversity, second biggest metropolitan area in this country, and a world-center in oh, so many areas.
   Ah, therein lies the rub.
   Roger Penske himself built this place, as a copy of long-standing Michigan International Speedway (circa 1969) near Detroit, and long-idled twin Texas World Speedway halfway between Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. (LA racing legend Cary Agajanian actually picked this site and made the deals, only to get sideswiped by Penske down the stretch.)
   It's big, wide, long, with a vast swathe of infield-frontstretch suites reaching from the fourth turn to nearly the first turn, facing some 90,000 grandstand seats.
   It is laid out almost perfectly.
   There is more paved parking at this track than any other track on the tour, probably any other track in the world.
   Of course that's because to remediate this once-toxic waste site, in the shadow of the WWII vintage Kaiser Steel Mill ( 'Terminator 2' ), the grounds had to be covered with thick sheets of plastic, then covered with several feet of clean dirt, and then covered with asphalt, to keep rain from percolating through. (When planting light stanchions here, the base is, well, amazing.)
   The track is right at the junction of two of America's biggest, busiest, most important interstates: I-15, which runs from San Diego through Las Vegas and Salt Lake City up to the Canadian border, and I-10, which stretches from Santa Monica at the Pacific to Jacksonville, Fla., at the Atlantic.
   And the 500-mile Metrolink commuter rail system, which runs from San Clemente to Riverside/San Bernardino to LA's Union Station and on up into the valley, has a stop right at this track's backdoor. Joey Logano just did a PR run on that line to downtown, to emphasize that angle; and ACS has ticket specials, even some special trains, for this event.
   This track, from nearly every aspect, is a magnificent monument to speed, design, access, and market, which most other track promoters in the United States could only dream of.


Huge crowds used to flock to this Los Angeles track....until it somehow lost its mojo
(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   And major league NASCAR racing has been playing in this incredible market since 1958, when Route 66, not I-40, was the way West.
    First at Les Richter's Riverside, just 23 miles from here, Cherry Ave. over to Eucalyptus. Then at Ontario Motor Speedway, a scant three miles from here, down Fourth Street. And now that those two tracks have been mowed into malls, here since the 1997 debut.

   That's the track.
   This is the setting:
   Los Angeles: one of the most influential markets on this planet, gateway to the Pacific and the Far East, and the third-largest economic center in the entire world, behind only New York City and Tokyo.
   Yes, this whole story is well known, and repeated in part nearly every year at this time, when the stock car tour hits town. But at this juncture in NASCAR history it is important to display it vividly again…
   …because this sport can't afford to let this market become just another stop on the endless racing trail, which it appears in danger of becoming.
   When an Indy-car race over a make-shift street course on the west coast of Florida gets more national media play than NASCAR-in-Los Angeles, something might seem askew.
    The Entertainment Capital of the World….twice host to the Olympics. After NASCAR's more than 50 years out here, one would think someone had figured out this part of the game.
   At one point NASCAR had three major events here each season. Now NASCAR has just one, this 400.

   But let's cut to one very key issue in all this: the continued dismal economic picture here.
   The toughest job in this sport?
   It may well be Gillian Zucker's. She's in charge of this track. And she's certainly tried a lot of different promotions, even working the whole Oscar/Academy Awards angle.
   However while unemployment in this state just dropped below 11 percent for the first time in three years, unemployment in this particular area has risen to 12.4 percent.
   So is the game plan simply to sit back and wait until the economy improves?
   To put a more positive spin on things, Zucker has been hitting the downtown Los Angeles media. "That's where the media center is….For years people have been trying to say 'but your fans are in the Inland Empire…though that's never been true.
   "But if you live in the Inland Empire and you're watching TV, it's coming from Los Angeles.
   "And we're also finding good success in the Palm Springs area.
   "Limited success in the Bakersfield area, but Kevin Harvick is helping us there….
   "And Jimmie has been helping us in San Diego.
   "We're doing a broad reach…but with a focus on the Los Angeles media, making sure the message is getting out to everybody with Los Angeles DNA…which is a very large area to reach."

   Certainly can't complain about the weather. Pick a month, just about any month, and it's great to be outdoors.
   Maybe this race weekend isn't the right one. Maybe the NASCAR schedule itself needs a makeover….
   Maybe the action out on the track hasn't been the greatest.
   Maybe playing 'Talladega' here and the place would be a sellout every time. Maybe the flat 14-degree banking needs a radical overhaul. It does appear a bit odd that during this current rash of track repavings that the asphalt here was laid way back in 1996. Does that show some indifference?
   "I just came from talking with Kevin Harvick, and he says this surface now is the best surface on the circuit," Zucker says.
   Of course Harvick won here a year ago, and came close to winning the year before too.
   Still, there is a point here: "The way this track has come into its own has really been amazing," she says. "When I first started here seven years ago, we dealt with a lot of long-strung-out, single-file racing. You don't see that any more.
   "You see the four and five-wide. A lot. I don't think there is a better place to watch double-file restarts than right here.
   "There's not a driver in the garage that thinks it's time to repave this track.
   "Some of the best racing in the nation is right here in California."
   Well, she is a promoter, remember.
   Despite the optimism, there are serious points to debate:
   -- Maybe the Grand-Am sports car series should be running on this road course, to add a little diversity. After all the France family created that series (which is playing next in Birmingham, Ala.)
    -- Maybe this track should host some Supercross, to improve NASCAR's demographics.
    --  Maybe the curious political games being played over Ontario Airport aren't helping things. The airport is run by the group that also runs LA International, and locals here complain that LAX is undercutting the Ontario Airport, for some reason, and making it much more difficult to fly in and out of the Inland Empire. http://bit.ly/GGrULj
   -- Maybe the marketing in LA hasn't been as positively brilliant as it needs to be.
   Yes, LA is a tough town, sure, even with its classic car culture and miles and miles of freeway.
   And Fontana itself may sometimes seem a tough neighborhood.
   Maybe this track doesn't have as strong a bond with the community as it needs.
   However the urban renewal projects here over the last 10 years have turned this place, particularly Fourth Street -- that short four-mile beeline between Ontario Airport and this speedway -- into an extremely well-landscaped stretch, and have turned these numerous West Coast/cross-country trucking hubs into mammoth, seamless blocks of well-designed and well-disguised warehouses.
   -- Maybe the Fontana Tourism Bureau needs to crank up a marketing campaign to change the image.
   -- Maybe NASCAR's own stars don't spend as much time out here as they need to. But Jimmie Johnson has worked San Diego hard, and Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon too have put time in out here promoting.
   So there has been the unsettling sense that something big is missing.
   Yes, huge crowds of course.
   But more than that, panache.
   This track, this particular incarnation of NASCAR-in-Southern California, seems at times lacking in buzz, with no urgent sense of 'we gotta see this place.'
   Have the people who own and run NASCAR and the ISC simply given up on Los Angeles? The cutback to just one race out here would certainly point that way.
   However, on Sunday morning here, awaiting the green, there was the sense that something is indeed changing.
   Zucker points to the numerous marketing promotions this track has been running.
   "The Coca-Cola 'track walk' was probably three times the size of last year," Zucker says. "There was an amazing crowd here Friday and Saturday, and there will be an amazing crowd today.
   "We've been working really hard so that the people who come here will have a magical experience.
   "We have more families than we've ever had. We have more college students than we've ever had."
    Still, full proof is yet to come, and at the moment this place is still something of an enigma….though perhaps, finally, at 'the tipping point.'


   Stevie Wonder entertaining at the track, with Gillian Zucker (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




Mike, I think I know what

Mike, I think I know what Gillian's problem is. She doesn't know what's going on. Cars not strung out anymore? Really? I saw that yesterday and today, at least when TV wasn't showing 3 cars at a time. Cars 4 and 5 wide? Saw that too, only on restarts. Not one restart today, but did see it yesterday. If this wasn't an ISC track, nascar would've quit going there years ago. Face it, until Prius' start racing in nascar, people in So Cal won't be attending. They've adopted that green mentality. What deals did fans get to motivate them to attend?

i think gillian knows quite

i think gillian knows quite well what's going on; i'm afraid daytona/isc/nascar simply doesn't care. all daytona/isc wants is to be able to say to sponsors 'we're in los angeles.' but imho that's simply not good enough.
first -- you've got to offer the customers a decent product at a decent price. and too frequently the fans here havent been able to see a decent product. gillian has to be able to tell lesa and jim and brian: this isn't working. we need to do XYZ.
the people running nascar at times seem oblivious to the real world.

Bad market, bad track, bad

Bad market, bad track, bad racing but, hey, it gets air time....

I would like someone to try

I would like someone to try to buy Irwindale as this is no PR Stunt, it is true and I would be open to a 2nd Chicagoland Cup Date.

I'll be honest...I thought

I'll be honest...I thought Bristol was more boring then Calif ! I thought (though shortened) there was some decent racing..especially watching Stewart do his slide jobs! I will admit during both races I did keep one eye and ear on TV while I did some chores...till the last 30 laps of each race. I think I've given up complaining about tge races..I find in each race there are pockets of great racing..which I think is about the best you can ask for in any racing series..I just love racing!!

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Having attended the race

Having attended the race @Fontana yesterday, I thought, overall it was ok. I had a fairly decent seat for Sec 63, Row 11, Seat 18 for $35, plus another ticket for my cousin attending with me. A first time experience for him. We sat between the tri-oval and turn one, across from pit exit. Maybe if Gillian can convince NASCAR/ISC/France family on a 2-for-1 ticket racing deal maybe she can squeeze more in the seat. ACS online had a variety of race packages with meet-n-greet drivers, pit passes, etc. I think she's doing all she can do at this point. I truly believe NASCAR knows what the problem is, but are keeping their purse strings tight with a couple of things. 1) Recoup the losses on the HOF 2) Make big $$$ with Kansas with that new casino addition. I'm sure they've pumped much money into both ventures and they may have gone over their heads. Fontana definitely needs a repave that's for sure and if they do and they have the time on their hands with 1-Cup race weekend in the spring and 1-Indy car race in the fall, they should be able to tear it up and rebuild by the time the spring race roll around. In fact, why schedule the race in the middle of the rainy season (Jan-Mar) in SoCal anyway? Bring the race back to the old days of Riverside in June, plus Sonoma is in June also. Kill two birds with one stone I'd say with a West Coast/California tour, then head back to the Midwest.

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