Attendance remains an issue at ACS. (LAT photos)
The state motto of California is “Eureka,” meaning, “I have found it.” It's a reflection of the optimism newcomers to the Golden State feel upon arrival in this land of conspicuous consumption, endless sun and perfect bodies. But all idealized visions are eventually tempered by reality. The state's diversity of population, geographical spread and variety of entertainment options make it a challenging place for professional sports to gain a foothold – even the NFL has been unable to establish a franchise in Los Angeles for many years. For auto racing, too, California's golden promise has proven difficult to realize.
Back in the 1960s, when motorsports appeared to be on a rapid national upswing in popularity, a group of visionaries backed by investment bankers built a duplicate of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile oval on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Opening on Labor Day in 1970 to huge fanfare for a 500-mile Indy car race, Ontario Motor Speedway was widely hailed as the world's grandest racing stadium, featuring 155,000 permanent seats and an air-conditioned private club – unheard of at the time. A sellout crowd estimated at 178,000 seemed to be a perfect launch.
The track itself was billed as an improved version of Indy, with a wider racing surface and shallow banking in the short chutes to enhance passing. While IMS was exclusively the preserve of the 500 at that time, OMS immediately branched out to all forms of racing, fielding NASCAR and NHRA as well as Indy cars in its first year, and even managing to put a deal together to run a one-off race for Formula 1 and Formula 5000 cars on a 4.19-mile infield road course. The latter was actually run as a test for a mooted U.S. Grand Prix at Ontario, but a “disappointing” crowd of 55,000 for the Questor Grand Prix – won by Mario Andretti in an F1 Ferrari – put paid to that idea.
Unfortunately, disappointment would become a common theme at OMS. The crowd for the second California 500 was down by an estimated 30,000, and would continue to drop off through the 1970s – putting increasing pressure on the speedway to service the massive debt it had incurred in the construction phase. Adding events like rock concerts and Evel Knievel motorcycle jumps were merely bandages on a hemorrhage of red ink. Just 10 years after its grand opening, OMS was sold to Chevron's land development arm, which opted to scrap the facility and turn it into an industrial park.
Yet hope springs eternal and, buoyed by the commercial success of NASCAR and CART Indy car racing in the 1990s, a new group of entrepreneurs aimed to plow the same field – almost literally – that OMS had. Penske Motorsports developed California Speedway as an “improved version” of another racetrack – its own Michigan Speedway – on the grounds of the former Kaiser Steel mill in Fontana, less than two miles from the site of the failed Ontario venture. Both its CART and NASCAR events were well attended upon the track's opening in 1997; financing debt wasn't an issue. Roger Penske's decision in 1999 to sell his speedway operating arm to International Speedway Corporation appeared to give the track an ironclad deal for NASCAR events, at least.
But ISC found that the NASCAR cachet in of itself did not guarantee massive attendance in the fickle Southern California marketplace, and serious shortfalls in ticket sales led to the track's abandonment of open-wheel and professional road racing events. For 2011, Auto Club Speedway, as the track is now known, will host just one NASCAR Sprint Cup event, although speedway officials insist they are working to expand on this schedule. For California race fans, the historical parallels are worrisome. Can ACS avoid OMS's fate?