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All Dressed Up

Times Staff Writer

Gillian Zucker gamely picked her way in heels through misshapen shards of steel and clouds of concrete dust in a moonscape of construction debris.

It was scarcely a month shy of one of the Fontana track’s top annual events, the Labor Day weekend running of NASCAR’s Sony HD 500, and it was hard for a visitor to envision the site being finished and cleaned up in time. With the racetrack’s hulking grandstand behind her, the relentlessly enthusiastic Zucker insisted, “We’re not really in a time crunch at all.”

Zucker, 37, was named president of the track by its parent International Speedway Corp. just over a year ago, with the explicit assignment to raise its two signature NASCAR Nextel Cup weekends into the mainstream of the Southern California sports and entertainment market. The $10-million upgrade of fan amenities at the 9-year-old track is a centerpiece of her strategy.

The entertainment and concession Midway has been relocated, doubled in size, and dressed up with a new retail store and a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. (It also has been moved behind the gates, so it’s no longer accessible to anybody without an admissions ticket.) Fans will find upgraded food menus, more lawn and shade trees for picnickers, and new decor featuring bright primary colors. The changes all are based on responses Zucker says she received from a mailing to thousands of race-goers who had visited California Speedway in the past but had not been back recently.

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There is no question that success at the Fontana track is a top priority for both NASCAR and ISC, which see it as a linchpin of their expansion from their Southeastern roots toward a bigger national footprint. The two racing entities are related by blood. The France family, which controls NASCAR, is also the majority shareholder in ISC, the largest operator of motor sports tracks in the country. Before the 2005 season, NASCAR moved two Nextel Cup races from ISC tracks in the Southeast to larger ISC tracks in Phoenix and Fontana, a move that strengthened NASCAR’s presence in the West. “You have an enormous consumer base in Los Angeles,” says Thomas Russo, whose Lancaster, Pa., investment firm Russo, Gardner & Russo is one of ISC’s largest stockholders, with about 1 million shares. “Advertisers like having the opportunity to address that large consumer base with billboards all over the city, co-branding, and so on. Also, they get suites to entertain customers on the West Coast. The package ought to work in L.A.”

Yet, ISC plainly has been disappointed in the performance of major race weekends in Fontana. The company has disclosed that total attendance at Fontana’s February race weekend, which is highlighted by the Auto Club 500 Nextel Cup race, has declined for the last two years.

“What we’ve learned in California is that the NASCAR brand isn’t as developed, if you will, as it is in the Midwest and the eastern United States,” ISC’s chief operating officer, John Saunders, told investment analysts in April.

Zucker’s appointment shows ISC’s determination to change that. One of the company’s rising stars, she helped guide its Kansas City racetrack toward its launch in 2001 and worked as the vice president of business operations and development at the company’s flagship Daytona International Speedway before being named the first woman to run a top NASCAR facility.

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Before moving to California, she received her marching orders directly from ISC Chairman Bill France Jr., son of NASCAR founder Bill France.

“He shared his vision that there’s no reason why California Speedway can’t be the Daytona of the West Coast,” she recalls. “He said NASCAR can and will capture the Los Angeles market and I should go get it. He forgot to give me the details on exactly how to do that,” she adds with a laugh, “so that’s what we’ve been working on.”

On arriving, Zucker discovered that NASCAR has never shed its provincial image here.

“We’ve been tackling that,” she says. “I think it’s just an educational process, in terms of NASCAR awareness. I was surprised when I got here [at] how many people didn’t even know where California Speedway was.”

The answer: More than 40 miles east of downtown L.A.

Zucker scoffs at the suggestion that that’s too far for affluent Angelenos living west of the 710 freeway to drive.

“This is a special event,” she says. “If the Super Bowl were here, no one would think twice about it.”

One initiative of the track is to reach out to the Latino community, which has been largely untapped by NASCAR. That’s changing, with the addition in 2005 of a Mexico City race to its second-tier Busch series and the addition next season of Juan Pablo Montoya, one of the world’s top Latino drivers, from Formula One to Nextel Cup racing. California Speedway is advertising on Spanish-language media. But some of California Speedway’s problems may have nothing to do with local consumer habits. One rap against the wide, two-mile D-shaped speedway is that it consistently produces dull races, which lack the tightly bunched fields and side-by-side running that NASCAR devotees relish. A fix could mean tearing up and narrowing the track, increasing the banking in the turns, along the lines of a project begun this year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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“I’ve done a lot of research on what could create a more competitive racing surface,” says Zucker says, who polled drivers after the Las Vegas race in March. “There was no consensus, and sometimes conflicting thoughts.”

At first sight, one might think that Southern California is prime ground for NASCAR. After all, it was not so long ago that the region boasted three NASCAR cup races a year -- one at Ontario Motor Speedway and two on the revered road course at Riverside International.

Located only a few miles from Fontana, the Ontario track, a $25-million replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was regarded as a palace among raceways when it opened in 1970. The facility drew more than 170,000 fans to its first major Sunday race. But it was downhill from there. Never a moneymaker, Ontario was shuttered in 1980 and sold to commercial real estate developers.

Riverside had a longer run but suffered the same fate. Opened in 1958, the 2.62-mile road course was described in 1988 by Shav Glick, The Times’ longtime motor sports writer, as “possibly the most famous road racing course in America and one of the highest regarded in the world.” That year, the track closed.

By then, the region’s zest for motor sports seemed to be fading. Riverside’s closure left Southern California without a NASCAR venue during the circuit’s explosive growth surge, until Penske Speedways opened California Speedway in Fontana, on the site of the old Kaiser Steel factory, in 1997. Some racing followers believe that the nine-year hiatus contributed to a waning of local interest in NASCAR. That doesn’t mean that Southern California is exactly barren ground for NASCAR. Zucker notes that the addition of the second Cup race and the grandstand’s expansion to 92,000 seats from 70,000 means that the seat inventory for major races has grown to 184,000 a year from 70,000. Track executives point out too, that the waiting list for one of the 1,800 RV parking spots in the infield, from which fans can watch the races in a weekend-long vehicular outing, is five years long.

It’s also possible that the inherent drama of the NASCAR season could create a sellout for the night before Labor Day race. The race is the second-to-last event before the Nextel Cup championship field gets pared to 10 drivers for 10-race Chase for the Cup and has no regional competition. But a sellout or two isn’t enough in a market as competitive as Southern California’s. Zucker’s goal is to sell out months in advance, so that annual passes get renewed and the race weekends become “appointment events” on a par with, say, USC football games.

Zucker knows that’s a tall order in a community where, thanks to good weather and an abundance of entertainment options, consumers tend to wait until the last minute to buy tickets for all but the hottest attractions.

“We want to get this facility to a point where people can’t imagine not renewing their tickets because they are concerned about losing their seat location or thinking how will they get a better one,” Zucker says.

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“And that’s where we’re headed.”


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