RPW Column: Fans Filled With Mixed Emotions As Auto Club Announces Change To Short Track

Column By: JOHN DOUGLAS / RPW – FONTANA, CA – Since the loss of North Wilkesboro Speedway in Wilkes County, N.C. Fans have watched NASCAR expand westward with nothing but intermediate 1.5 mile and 2 mile tracks. They clambered for more traditional stock car racing on short tracks and it seems NASCAR has at least partially heard their cries.

It was found recently that NASCAR had submitted plans to local authorities to have a redesign of California’s Auto Club Speedway take place, transforming the 2 mile oval into a .5 mile short track.

The Auto Club Speedway, opened by Roger Penske in 1997 has seen at least one cup series race per season since. A near copy of Michigan, the racing began as, well, boring to most fans. Wide margins between leaders and fuel milage used to be the name of the game in the early days of the speedway.

However, over the past ten years as the surface has aged and gained character, arguably some of the best racing we’ve seen on the ‘big tracks’ has come from Auto Club Speedway.

That is why the recent submission made by NASCAR, who now owns the two mile speedway under the umbrella of ISC, (International Speedway Corporation) comes as a shock to many. Most seem happy to see another short track added to the NASCAR calendar, however the consensus seems to be that Auto Club Speedway is not the track they wish to see disappear forever.

The excitement is tempered with a sense of dread as this track that has had a coming of age will not see that age through.

Instead, most fans seem to think other tracks that were part of that westward expansion deserve to be reconfigured.

Most notably, Texas Motor Speedway. Though owned by Marcus Smith under Speedway Motorsports, the recent attempt to get Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway back on the NASCAR schedule showed a major interest in bringing more short track racing back to NASCAR’s top series from the other major track owner in the sport.

The question many have asked is, “Why isn’t North Wilkesboro being looked at? Surely the cost of tearing down and rebuilding TMS or Auto Club would outweigh rebuilding North Wilkesboro?”

That answer is as simple today as it was in 1996 when Jeff Gordon won the final race there. Market saturation.

There are too many tracks in or near the Carolinas to support another at the Cup Series level.

That just leaves Texas Motor Speedway for SMI to look at.

With two reconfigurations to TMS (one for weepers, one to change the profile of turns one and two), low fan attendance and the kind of racing that would’ve described Auto Club in the early days, many say why tear up a perfectly good racing facility when you have a struggling market in Texas that could use the boost?

Texas has many short tracks and short track fans that would flock to the newest, most modern short track in NASCAR.

California, though it does have a short track scene, isn’t traditionally geared toward that same kind of racing fan. Big speedways and road courses have made up California’s past, with Ontario Speedway and Riverside coming before the current Sonoma and Auto Club. Add in Laguna Seca and the Long Beach GP as being among being the state’s biggest racing events/venues. Fans may not be as interested in short track racing in that market as they would be in Texas.

Only time will show whether this was the right move for NASCAR to make, however in the short term, we will lose one of the few 1.5 mile or bigger tracks on the schedule that provide the very type of “big track” racing fans enjoy.

Hopefully, the concerns of fans with this change are met with a surprising level of great racing and a beautiful venue in California that brings new fans to the sport and help it to grow for the future, as was the intent of NASCAR’s move to the west in the first place.