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Chasing fans in Fontana

Times Staff Writer

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently was asked whether NASCAR’s growth was slowing, the popular Nextel Cup driver pointed to California Speedway and its lack of sellout crowds.

With two Cup stock car races a year, “there was an oversized expectation to be able to fill those seats out there,” he said, referring to the 92,000 seats at the track 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Then Earnhardt added, “People in Hollywood could care less.”

Not true, says Greg Garcia, creator of “My Name Is Earl” and other television shows.

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“I can tell you that on our set, as soon as we start talking about NASCAR, a lot of rabid fans start coming out of the woodwork,” Garcia said. “I can’t get enough of it, and I plan to go every time.”

Few of NASCAR’s destinations spark more debate about stock car racing’s health than California Speedway. That’s because the 565-acre facility has failed to sell out the seven Cup races it has held in the three-plus years since it expanded from one race a year to two.

The second race, on Labor Day weekend, was eventually shifted to the Fontana track from one of NASCAR’s oldest venues, Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C., which Saturday runs its remaining race, the Dodge Avenger 500.

Earnhardt’s remarks exemplify an attitude among many NASCAR observers who see California Speedway as the poster child of the sport’s flattening appeal or evidence that NASCAR’s national expansion from its Southeastern roots hasn’t always worked.

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To be sure, the races at California Speedway have a huge following, one officials at the two-mile D-shaped oval contend is steadily getting bigger. The track runs one race in late February that draws more than 85,000, including spectators in the infield, and the other, on Labor Day weekend, an evening event that draws 100,000 or more. Few other single-day sporting events in Southern California can make that claim.

However, if NASCAR is so popular, the reasoning goes, why can’t California Speedway sell out two races when the track sits in one of the most populated markets in the nation?

Take last February’s Auto Club 500, which arrived with a tailwind of publicity about Toyota’s entry into Nextel Cup racing and the arrival of Juan Pablo Montoya, the celebrated Colombian driver who switched from Formula One.

In addition, NASCAR had just run its crown-jewel race, the Daytona 500, which ended with a dramatic, accident-filled dash to the checkered flag.

Yet the stands at California Speedway appeared to be only two-thirds full for the Auto Club 500 on an overcast, chilly day.

The speedway doesn’t release attendance figures, though track President Gillian Zucker said it had sold more tickets than a year earlier and that many fans left their seats to seek warmth beneath the grandstands. NASCAR did estimate the attendance, including those in the infield, at 87,000. But that figure drew skepticism.

“You have to wonder if California Speedway deserves two Nextel Cup dates,” wrote one reporter.

Wrote another, “Don’t tell us everything is fine, as Zucker does after every non-sellout.”

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Zucker, who became track president in 2005, is unmoved.

“The media’s idea of success and our idea of success are different,” she said, adding that the speedway was gaining “a significant amount of new patrons.”

The track is owned by International Speedway Corp., which is run by the France family that also controls NASCAR. ISC President Lesa France Kennedy said this year that California Speedway was profitable and that the company was pleased with the track’s progress.

In the meantime, Zucker is fed up with her facility being singled out.

“I am really sick of talking about this,” she said.

Other NASCAR tracks -- there are 14 that play host to two events a season -- don’t get the same publicity when they fail to sell out, she said, adding, “There’s definitely a different standard that’s placed on this part of the country.”

As for Earnhardt?

"[He] is a race-car driver,” she said. “I don’t tell him how to drive his car, I don’t expect him to tell me how to run my racetrack. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion. It doesn’t make him an expert.”

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But why doesn’t California Speedway sell out? There are several theories:

* Its February race, in particular, is only two weeks before a Cup race in Las Vegas. Given a choice, many fans prefer a weekend in Sin City instead of Fontana. Also, the weather can be lousy that time of year.

One reason for the move from May to February, however, was a search for better weather. In 2004, the last time NASCAR raced at Fontana in May, temperatures neared 100 degrees and about 1,000 spectators were treated for heat-related problems at the track’s care center and first-aid stations.

* Ticket prices are getting too high -- from $55 to $105 for a grandstand seat. With fans facing an hour’s drive from Los Angeles or Orange County, soaring gasoline prices aren’t helping, either.

* The races are often boring on the speedway’s wide oval with too little passing.

* The track simply has too many seats to support two races a year, especially if NASCAR’s overall growth is indeed leveling off.

Zucker and Kennedy maintain that no one theory carries particular weight, and that they have to work with whatever schedule NASCAR assigns.

Rather, they said, Southern California -- with its diverse population and entertainment choices -- is more difficult and expensive to penetrate than some other markets, and expanding the fan base will take time.

Adding a second race also doubled the number of seats the track must sell each year.

“It’s just more challenging when you add more inventory,” Kennedy said.

The track could reduce prices or offer promotional discounts, but Zucker refuses.

“If you want to have this grandstand filled, I can absolutely fill it,” she said. “But once you start discounting tickets, what you send in terms of a message to people is that this has no value, or it has a lower value than what we’re [normally] charging for it.”

Instead, she says, she has worked to add value to current prices and make a speedway visit more enjoyable, with improved traffic flow, a new “fan zone” with entertainment and improved food and merchandise concessions.

She’s also trying to market NASCAR races as hip, must-see events that stand out among the myriad entertainment choices in the region.

“This is about growing a business,” Zucker said. “We’re trying to court Southern Californians. It’s about where the sport is going to be 10 years from now.”

james.peltz@latimes.com


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