Bubba Wallace couldn’t help but react before the whole question about Auto Club Speedway could be asked. But Wallace has heard enough when reminded this weekend is the final race on the two-mile oval configuration.
“That’s such a shame,” he said.
NASCAR officials and those from Auto Club are working toward turning the facility into a short track. It’s been nearly three years since the plans were first announced, delayed through the pandemic and other business variables such as supply chain issues, selling the land surrounding the track, and finalizing the new track layout.
“It’s one of the best circuits,” said Wallace. “I wish we could just pick it up and move it. Move it to my backyard – it’s not that big, but move it somewhere where we could go race there weekly. It’s that type of racetrack. It’s fun. It’s bumpy. It’s worn-out.
“It always provides great racing, I feel like. You just slip and slide. It’s a bigger Homestead. I think the best tracks are in the middle of nowhere. Fontana is in L.A., yes, but Miami, you have to travel so far to get there. It’s going to be bittersweet, but hopefully, we can win it.”
Auto Club has become a favorite over the years with fans and drivers. There were the rough years of the track having two races and low attendance, and the racing was not entertaining. But Kevin Harvick – who is from Bakersfield, California – summed it up by saying one year, a light switch went off.
Drivers are challenged when they go to Auto Club. There are bumps on the backstretch to navigate and hope the car handles well dealing with, and multiple lanes of the racing surface to try and find time and speed.
“I love that racetrack as is,” said Kyle Larson, who won at Auto Club last season. “I feel like it produces amazing racing, but at the same time, I think we need more short tracks. I feel like sitting in the stands, it’s hard to view a two-mile track or even mile-and-a-half (tracks). They’re so big.
“I think short tracks produce exciting racing, exciting finishes, tempers and stuff like that. I’m a proponent of making it a short track, and I think we need more of them.”
Corey LaJoie quickly noted that sometimes there is a disconnect between what the garage wants and want the fans enjoy watching. NASCAR went through a period of the schedule being dominated by intermediate tracks before responding to the calls for more road courses. Now the cries are for more short tracks on the schedule.
“I think that what the drivers like a lot of times isn’t what the fans show up in droves to see,” LaJoie said. “Fontana is a really fun racetrack. It has a lot of character with the ability to run five lanes, the ability to run on the fence, to use some tire conservation. But, then again, it also plays into a stretched-out race with not a ton of passes, not a lot of cars close together which for the viewers on TV they don’t necessarily love that.
“I can take it or leave it one way or the other. If they have a plan that makes sense that’s what they’re going to do. If it’s a half-mile, I hope that they take some considerations from the drivers about what the configuration should look like. Hopefully, they can lean into the driver advisory council a little bit and get our input on what a track layout would look like and be the best racing. A lot of challenges, but I think they’re going to figure it out, whether it’s a 2-mile oval or a reconfigured short track.”
There are no short tracks on the NASCAR schedule west of the Mississippi. When NASCAR goes west each year, it’s for the ovals of Las Vegas and Fontana or the road course in Sonoma. Turning Auto Club Speedway into a short track would give NASCAR fans something they don’t get to see with the three national series.
“I definitely care (what happens to it),” Ryan Blaney said. “I wish they would leave it. I think you talk to any driver who is going to come through there, and they will tell you the same thing. That place is one of the funnest, coolest race tracks that we go to. We all said the same about Atlanta. We all said the same about Chicago and Texas. And they have evolved and changed. So, I hate to see that place go.
“I am sure the half-mile is going to be fun and it will be different, but that place is so unique, and the drivers have so much fun there, and it puts on great racing. It is just a shame that something like that is going to have its last (race). There will be a big emphasis on trying to win the last one.”
Tyler Reddick said he’s going to make sure to soak in the last race this weekend. Reddick “really wants” to win on the configuration before it goes away, and he’ll have two chances with being entered in both the Xfinity Series race and the Cup Series race.
Martin Truex Jr. admitted he is not one to pick favorite racetracks, but Auto Club is one for him. Truex and Chase Briscoe both used the word bittersweet when looking at what this weekend would feel like.
“It’s one of my favorite tracks for sure to go to just because I feel like that’s one of the tracks where you, as a driver, can make quite a bit of a difference,” said Briscoe. “But, yeah, a half-mile, the West Coast doesn’t really have any half-miles either, short track stuff for us, so if we go that route, I guess we go that route. I’m sure land out there is quite expensive, so if they can sell off a lot of that land that a lot of that racetrack takes up, that probably helps too.
“I think for the drivers we’re all going to be sad to see it go if it does go away, but hopefully, the fans come out. Hopefully, we put on a really good race and, who knows, they pushed Atlanta back a couple of years. Maybe we can do that to Auto Club, too.”
Auto Club hosted its first NASCAR Cup Series race in 1997 before holding two races from 2004 through 2010. The Xfinity Series has had the same schedule at the track, while the Craftsman Truck Series competed in Fontana from 1997 through 2009.
There have been some memorable moments at the track over the years. Jimmie Johnson scored his first Cup Series win in Fontana in 2002, while Kyle Busch scored his 200th NASCAR victory there in 2019 when he won the Cup Series race.
Tony Stewart’s viral moment of telling the late Steve Byrnes he was going to “bust his ass” about Joey Logano came after the two had a scuffle in 2013. Denny Hamlin was injured in the same race, suffering a compression fracture in his lower back after hitting the inside wall following a last-lap battle with Logano.
The list goes on. Auto Club will be missed for the good racing, the bad racing, and even the good and bad weather.
“I love that racetrack. I love that place,” said Daniel Suarez. “The community there always makes me feel at home. With that being said, I hope everything is to make things better, make the sport better. Another hope is that we come back soon because that’s an amazing place for me. Personally, those fans that community makes me feel like home.
“The Hispanic community there is huge. Even though I wish that the racetrack stays the same, I know that that won’t happen. I’m going to enjoy it one more time and hopefully — hopefully — we come back very soon.”
NASCAR will not compete at Auto Club in 2024 as construction is slated to finally begin. For Suarez, whatever the future holds for the track, NASCAR having a presence in southern California is his biggest concern going forward.
“Definitely,” he said. “For me, it’s very important because the community there is unbelievable. There are so many great fans. I have enjoyed racing there a lot.
“I think it will be very sad if we wouldn’t come back. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though. But I think definitely there is going to be a main change. I just hope that transition happens quick and we can come back and don’t miss anything else.”