It has been almost seven years since the IZOD IndyCar Series last set Firestones on the asphalt at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
The sprawling two-mile oval is the site of some of American open-wheel racing's best moments, highlighted by two world speed records, including the fastest-ever lap turned on a closed course and the fastest-ever closed course average race speed. It produced incredibly intense, incredibly thrilling high-speed multi-groove racing - never better than when the CART Champ Car Series introduced the Handford Device to their cars' rear wings.
It is also the scene of some of open-wheel racing's worst sights. Archive images of nearly-empty grandstands during CART, Champ Car, and IndyCar races abound. And then there is that spot in the infield where Greg Moore was killed.
For better or for worse, the IZOD IndyCar Series is going back to Cali next season for a race under the lights, marking the first break in the INDYCAR-ISC mutual boycott since it took hold late last year.
Auto Club Speedway is technically located in Fontana, California, but it is less than 10 minutes east of Ontario. It's not exactly in a tony or ritzy section of Southern California - indeed, the only ritz around are the crackers for sale at the local grocery store, and the only real tony is the guy washing semis at the truck stop across the highway.
The facility itself is top-notch, a modern superspeedway carved out of a former industrial park. But from I-10, the major artery that runs just south of the track, you barely know it's there - indeed on the highway all you see are the somewhat claustrophobic sights of standard Southern California suburbia, replete with trees and slightly run-down buildings and homes.
The Ontario International Airport is conveniently situated just west of the track, but that's about the only convenient thing for the Los Angeles market about the track. Unless you are a celebrity invited to the track flying in by helicopter - and indeed there are plenty of them invited for every event, sometimes from as high up as the B-list - the only way Auto Club Speedway could be thought of as being in the Los Angeles metro area is by seeing it on a small-scale map and ignoring the spaghetti that passes for the California highway system.
If I sound like I'm making excuses for the track's low attendance, well... maybe I am. Then again, maybe Californians simply aren't that interested in racing at Auto Club Speedway. The desultory "crowds" that CART, then IndyCar drew in the last decade were only slightly bettered by NASCAR's draws there. It was as if after the inaugural events, which were packed solid with fans and celebrities, races in Fontana stopped being a place to see and be seen, and in the succeeding years the crowds have dwindled.
Which is a real shame, because Auto Club Speedway is a real jewel for superspeedway racing. Not banked as high as sister track Michigan International Speedway, it nonetheless has the same amount of real estate to maneuver with significantly fewer bumps than its Midwestern counterpart. That leads to three-, four-, and even five-wide racing at times, with space to spare in case one of the drivers gets out of shape.
Unfortunately, that also frequently leads to fuel-mileage contests because the incident frequency is so low. While drivers (and crews) may love the fact that the likelihood of a wreck is lower at Auto Club Speedway, the fans have come to expect that races will come down to who got the most drops of fuel in the tank on the final pit stop. The exception to this was during the years of CART's Handford Device, a rear wing addition which acted almost like a parachute that created pack racing and slingshot passing and never allowed cars to build large leads.
There are three variables that may shake up the status quo - at least for this upcoming event - and draw larger crowds than we have come to expect at the track. First, INDYCAR will have their new 2012 race car in play, and since the Fontana night-race will most likely occur after Indianapolis, the highly-anticipated aero kits will also be in evidence (assuming anyone buys them). Second, the market has been without open-wheel racing for the better part of a decade, and there will be a novelty factor for many who either don't remember or never saw the races when they ran. The novelty factor is increased by the third variable - the night race, which will be the first IndyCar night race on a two-mile oval track in the series' history.
INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard and Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker are saying all the right things about high-speed, record-setting wheel-to-wheel action, but the truth is that nobody really knows what's going to happen. A new car, a series with three different engine marques, a night race, and a fan base that seems to need to be convinced to see racing in person all add up to a great deal of uncertainty.
Still, there's no question that IndyCar racing belongs at the Auto Club Speedway, and it is to the series' - and the track's - credit that they are making another go of it. Let's hope that this time around it works out better.