NASCAR returned to the South Land, three weeks after the CLASH at USC’s Coliseum. This race, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, located about 50 miles East of Los Angeles, was the start of NASCAR’s West Coast swing, starting in California, before traveling to Nevada and Arizona. Unlike the Clash, which was more of a party—an event—than an actual point-scoring race, the Fontana event, would be the regular NASCAR race.
With its 2.6-mile track layout, the D-shaped Oval superspeedway provided early challenges for their Next Gen cars. Qualifying on Saturday ended with many crashes. Winds were very high, and a bump in the track seemed to cause issues as the cars would become unsettled and lose control. This might have been partly driver error as a majority of the drivers are used to using side force, which allowed the cars to yaw in the previous generation car—staying in control, while being sideways.
Later Saturday, after the Cup Series Qualifying, the Xfinity Series cars raced–The NASCAR undercard series, if you will. That race, filled with cars that resemble the previous NASCAR vehicles, with their spec bodies and five lug 15-inch wheels, went on track. To describe this race is really to say only two things: domination by the 07 car and a never-ending slew of accidents that caused almost five overtimes.
Cole Custer, the #07 driver, seemed to always have the upper hand in his Ford Mustang. During restarts, others would contest his lead, but as he entered turn 2, he would storm ahead as if he had sails attached to his car that were catching the wind, pushing him ahead. His win seemed like a foregone conclusion, but when late-race crashes kept causing overtimes, he had to try and continue to keep his lead as many cars would try to take it and, steal the checkered flag.
Custer finally did win, after 4 overtimes, that seemed to be heading to a fifth, when another car crashed on the last lap.
There was one huge crash when a Toyota lost control and hit the sand barrels leading to pit road. This crash demolished the car and threw loads of sand onto the track, which caused a 10-15 minute red flag where the race was stopped.
THE CUP SERIES
The Cup Series race was a very different affair. Held on Saturday, the race started early at 12 pm. The gusting wind had disappeared, leaving just a beautiful race day. As the cars lined up on the pit lane, the fans entered.
Being on the pit road, the one thing that fans do not see is the colorful and lighted Pit lane signs. On their own, they would rival any lighted sign outside of a business, but together, they look like the strip on Vegas.
The cars once on track did something that I’ve never seen in racing, they saluted the fans, by driving, behind the pace car, in a 5-wide formation, where all of the cars bunched up into rows of 5 cars. It was the closest thing that I have seen to watching the Air Force’s Thunderbird demonstration team, performing a formation as they flew over fans at the air force base. It was a sight to see, and when it was done, they reformed their poll position places in turns 1 and 2.
The race had many different leaders. The most dominant was Californian Tyler Reddick, who seemed that he was on a mission driving his number 8 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He was dominant early on, passing anyone and leaving the pack. It seemed like he was assured the win, but this is NASCAR, and a late crash put a hole through his door. That ended his bid for victory as when he returned, he had a gigantic silver patch on his door that pieced his bodywork back together.
The lead switched many different times, with Chase Briscoe’s number 14 Ford Mustang, taking control at the front. Near the end, and after multiple restarts, that changed again with Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson becoming the frontrunner, but he was chased by Ford’s Joey Logano. A fierce battle broke out between the two, and at many points, it seemed as if Ford would take another win this season, but as the final lap came, Larson took control and took the checkered flag.
It was fun doing this NASCAR stint of Coliseum and Fontana. NASCAR and California used to be closely linked in the past, but today it was obvious that the sport is not generally popular. The crowd at the Saturday, Xfinity race, rivaled those of any high school football game crowd—that is if that game was held at the Autoclub Speedway—there were many empty seats. The Sunday race only had about half of its stands filled. For decades, NASCAR has been synonymous with a type of fan, a type of crowd, and although the Coliseum was able to attract 70% new fans who attended their first NASCAR event ever, it was a special race that drew attraction. A race at Fontana was not going to draw those people out of LA. The environment was different too. NASCAR is trying to make their sport inclusive to all, but many of the fans who showed up at Fontana chants and flags clearly struct a divisive tone.
NASCAR still has a long way to go in trying to make their sport just about racing. Hopefully, they succeed, and if they do, they will have a place in Southern California’s sporting landscape. I wish them well on that venture.