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TORRES: Fontana’s Fate is a Complicated Oddity

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Will Ferrell’s “I’m not even mad. That’s amazing” and Lindsay Ellis’ “Thanks, I hate it!”

If there’s ever been a moment in NASCAR where those two quotes works like fine wine, Tuesday’s shocking development of NASCAR submitting a plan of converting Auto Club Speedway from a 2-mile circuit to a banked half-mile short track is it.

When I woke up at 10 a.m. PT to open Twitter, I couldn’t believe what I was reading from The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi. Fontana might become a short track circuit beginning in 2022.

The emotions kicked in and deep inside I was outraged because next year’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana may well be the 25th and final year they’ll compete on one of the more unique tracks in NASCAR.

Why “upgrade” one of only two 2-mile tracks (the other being Michigan) on the NASCAR calendar at the expense of having a short track the fans ever so desire?

First things first, I’m not one of those folks who think they should convert Kentucky and Texas into a short track because that’s not how it works. Those are SMI (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) tracks, Fontana is an ISC (International Speedway Corporation) venue which means it’s easier to pull such mixed bag Herculean effort because it’s a NASCAR owned track.

My issue with the change is the fact Fontana is one of the more better tracks out there and kills off any chance of INDYCAR ever coming back to the Southern California oval.

Let’s digest the notion of why Fontana is one of the more better tracks in NASCAR.

When you have high speeds and a surface that hasn’t been repaved since it opened in 1997, it creates character that most circuits lack these days. Drivers can use any part of the track to make a pass without any true punishment as seen this past decade with battles like 2011 when Kevin Harvick holding off Jimmie Johnson or that thrilling duel between Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano two years later.

Yes, the racing has been up and down with the current package not receiving a lot of love and it has hurt the quality of competition in SoCal, but that’s the thing. The package needs a lot of improvement, not the track and that’s the bigger issue.

If it wasn’t for what I’ve found while reading Gluck and Bianchi’s article, I’d be more upset. Anyways, I sorely hope the “Next Gen” car in 2022 can fix some of the pitfalls where we can talk about the competition, not the package hindrance.

Not only that, killing off a speedway to cater the fans who’ve been craving for short tracks since I began covering the sport a few years ago has ruined any last shot of INDYCAR ever coming back.

It’s been half a decade since the sport ran in Fontana because they’ll only welcome INDYCAR if they host the finale and in the fall. I do believe fans and critics were spoiled that one vile warm June afternoon saw quite frankly the best racing we’ve ever seen, but can we blame ourselves feeling such sentiment?

INDYCAR fans want more ovals. Some feel mixed about the return to Nashville is a street course rather than the oval which NASCAR will make its anticipating return next season. I can’t blame them because I’d love to see more variety in that sport.

In an ideal world, I’d have Laguna Seca and Fontana as the final two races of the year, but we’ll never get that due to NASCAR’s proposal which have their eyes of beginning construction next year and be fully done in 2023.

Bias or unbias, it’s an expense I can’t fully love due to those reasons which had me upset. Fontana is a unique track, we need more of those but not under those circumstances.

It’s not all pessimistic because interestingly enough, there’s a valid issue where my issues have to take a backseat.

How will the quality of racing look like if and when the time would come for a repave?

In a time period where patience is completely out the damn window, they aren’t going to wait about a decade for the racing to get good just because of the surface. Fontana isn’t alone as Atlanta is another track where repaving would raise a lot of red flags.

Drivers halted Atlanta from making necessary changes the past few years, but we need to consider how the venues feel about delaying repaving plans. They’re not going to wait forever because repaving the track is inevitable and when it happens, the judgmental folks will stick to their guns and if the racing isn’t good, there’s no looking back.

It’s one of the few arguments I can’t be mad because I remember back in high school a decade ago, reading the forums and columns saying Fontana was right up there with Pocono as one of the most worst tracks as far as racing productivity.

Another argument I see it as a blessing in disguise is having another short track out West which let’s be honest, we could use one when it comes to mainstream racing. That’s where the amazing element comes into foray.

Although California has Irwindale and Kern County, both tracks that have garnered a lot of fanfare over the years, but if it doesn’t host a major race, then in many close minded people’s eyes, who cares.

With “Next Gen in California” in its early process, I do hope that just maybe as few folks on Twitter pointed out, it could help the ARCA Menards Series West and boost some interest for the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series because let’s face it, my region isn’t taken seriously where the prize money out West can be viewed as baffling.

We’re viewed as a bunch of bullringers that won’t amount to anything because there’s only 10-15 cars, and I’d imagine some saying ‘Oh, the West was only relevant because of Hailie Deegan.’

A short track where bankings inspired from Bristol intrigues me because there’s some promise and with NASCAR being the driving force of such project, having those divisions may bring necessary eyeballs.

If it’s an instant hit, fans will finally give folks like Blaine Perkins and Derek Thorn its due as prominent Westerners like Ron Hornaday and Hershel McGriff had back in the day.

The final argument I can understand NASCAR’s motive of making Fontana into a short track is the Grand Moolah aka money.

A venue that’s less than 50 miles away from Los Angeles has excellent value and while I was mad to the point I didn’t have a single comment, I get it. I’d rather not lose a track for good, even if I don’t like the idea of such good venue fall at the expense of having a short track.

nascarman and Brock Beard’s “Cookie Cutter” video is an excellent example of how the sport’s landscape has changed and what folks want now, wasn’t what the sport was doing for during the pinnacle time period of auto racing. Quite the irony we’re living right now and what we’ll be seeing the next few years.

Overall, that’s just part of the wicked nature business does to folks sometimes and rather than lose a track for good like Riverside and Ontario, a track reconstruction is wise in the longer run.

NASCAR keeps its property and it opens up a large area for other folks to purchase without necessarily worrying about another venue falling victim to the housing and shopping market. SoCal is a valuable area, so at least it won’t rot like North Wilkesboro and Nazareth have since NASCAR stopped visiting those venues after 1996 and 2004 respectively.

Whether it’s the surface, reducing the race from 500 to 400 miles, the rule package or vice versa, Fontana’s reputation has changed for the better and seeing other folks feeling this way speaks volumes.

Right now, NASCAR had just submitted those plans to San Bernadino County and should it pass, which is a key trait people must realize — SHOULD IT PASS. Their plan of bulldozing the 2-mile track is next year.

It won’t likely mean Fontana will be out of the 2022 calendar because we’ve seen Daytona and Phoenix run its races under construction, so don’t fret. SoCal racing will happen in NASCAR.

Nevertheless, such fruition will make for a very sad March 2021 because when the checkered flag drops after 200 laps of hopefully good quality of racing (fingers crossed the package NASCAR will dab on is ideal), the images of Richmond 1988 will kick in when the Fairgrounds was already being torn apart to make way for the current 0.75-mile circuit.

With that, it’ll be the end of an era as the once boring NASCAR track and site of the fastest closed course speed in American Open Wheel Racing history of 241.428 mph set by Gil de Ferran in 2000 will be gone.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography ranging from Idaho athletics to auto racing with ambitions of having his work recognized.