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Second-guessing follows rain-delayed race

Times Staff Writer

Optimism ran high at the Auto Club Speedway last weekend that the massive Fontana track would draw perhaps its best crowd in at least two years for NASCAR stock-car racing.

But when the weekend arrived, so did rain, and then most everything went very wrong.

Races, practices and qualifying sessions had to be canceled or delayed. The weekend’s marquee race, the Auto Club 500, started Sunday but ended Monday.

Weather disruptions at sporting events are as common as changing weather. But the manner in which NASCAR and speedway officials tried to get the 500 completed Sunday raised complaints from some drivers and the media.

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Officials first were criticized for starting the race too soon and then, after more rain interrupted the event, questioned again for trying to resume the race so late at night.

All of which added up to another frustrating weekend for the track formerly called California Speedway.

The 565-acre facility holds two major NASCAR races a year, in late February and on Labor Day weekend. Since the track began playing host to two races a year, in 2004, it’s been unable to sell out all 92,000 of its grandstand seats at either event.

If one counts spectators in the infield, the races still typically draw 80,000 or more apiece, a turnout few other sporting events in Southern California can claim.

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But the lack of sellouts keeps resurrecting questions about whether, despite NASCAR’s nationwide popularity, the region can support two Cup races a year.

To be sure, weather hasn’t helped. The Auto Club 500 was held on a cold day a year ago, and temperatures hit 110 at the Labor Day race last year.

This time it was persistent rain, which turned Sunday’s Cup race into a long day’s journey into night -- and into the next day. The race started more than two hours late Sunday afternoon. Within the first 25 laps, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in wrecks and both griped on national TV that the track wasn’t ready, that there were still wet spots.

NASCAR and track crews spent another hour drying the pavement, re-started the race and got in 87 of the 250 laps when more rain arrived.

Crews then spent another four hours trying to dry the track, until about 10:30 p.m., as a few thousand fans waited in the chilly, damp air. NASCAR finally gave up and rescheduled the race for Monday.

NASCAR already had postponed one of its second-tier races, in the Nationwide Series, until Monday. So why didn’t it decide earlier to push the Cup race to Monday as well?

The decision was NASCAR’s call and “we felt, at the initial time we started the drying process, that we could get there” to finish Sunday night, said NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp.

NASCAR kept trying “because you take into consideration the fans that stayed, the teams that have to travel,” he said.

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“All the teams basically need to go back to North Carolina [where most are headquartered] and regroup and get ready for Las Vegas,” site of Sunday’s next race.

Track President Gillian Zucker said “we’re heart-broken. . . . We were way up in terms of our [ticket] sales going into this event. I felt like, wow, we’ve got some momentum going. And then? It rained on our parade.”

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon sympathized with Zucker and NASCAR.

“They gave [the fans] every best effort to run this race,” Gordon said Monday, adding that he had never seen spectators wait so long for a race to resume as they did Sunday night. Meanwhile, Zucker said she’s contacted the Indy Racing League offering to have Auto Club Speedway again play host to one of its races now that the IRL and the other major open-wheel racing circuit, the Champ Car World Series, are merging. The track last held an IRL race in 2005.

IRL officials have scheduled a news conference for today to discuss the merger and its schedule for this year. Because the IRL and Champ Car already had set their 2008 schedules before the merger, it’s unlikely Auto Club Speedway could play host to a race before 2009.

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james.peltz@latimes.com


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