The Great Paradigm Shift of Auto Club Speedway

February 22, 2023 | Blog

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A paradigm shift is defined as a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.

When it comes to Auto Club Speedway of Southern California, it may be the biggest paradigm shift in the history of NASCAR. Let me explain.

When NASCAR went back to Southern California in 1997 after a nearly-decade absence of racing, it was at the bright, shiny, new California Speedway (the original name of the 2-mile oval built by Roger Penske.) The track was welcomed to the schedule warmly by drivers, teams, media, and fans. But it wasn’t long before the track took center stage to a dark page in NASCAR history.

Flash forward a few years and the racing at Auto Club Speedway was becoming noticeable lackluster. Combine that with the track taking the coveted Labor Day Weekend slot on the NASCAR schedule in 2004 away from Darlington Raceway and it was becoming clear that Auto Club Speedway was no longer the shiny, new racetrack that people loved just a few years earlier.

From 2005 to around the spring of 2010, I detested the place. And then, almost overnight, that paradigm shift I was talking about earlier happened for me. And I think a lot of other people too.

So What Happened?

Well for me one of the reasons for this shift of hating Auto Club Speedway to loving it was actually going to a race there. When I started working in the sport in 2010, the second race on the schedule was Auto Club Speedway. Back then it was a 500-mile race and it was another Jimmie Johnson show, with the California native cruising to a 1.5+ second win. But when we came back to Southern California in the fall of 2010, I began to notice how great the track was, how cool of a location it was in, AND… the racing was significantly better. All of a sudden Auto Club Speedway was one of my favorite trips and when we went back to one race a year there, it became a weekend I was always excited about.

But it wasn’t just finding a great restaurant to eat at or seeing the scenic views of the San Gabriel Mountains behind the backstretch. It was the racing was better because the asphalt had finally aged enough to allow cars to spread out and utilize all five lines to race. Add in a reduction of 100-miles off the race length (400 miles instead of 500 miles,) and you had something special. Soon fans were craving a race at Auto Club Speedway because they wanted to see crazy restarts and 2-, 3-, 4-, and sometimes 5-wide racing. Everything was going great for Auto Club Speedway. But soon what made the track a fan favorite was becoming a big problem.

What Lies Beneath

I remember watching that movie on a band trip once. Couldn’t tell you what it was about or when I saw it but that’s not important.

The problem Auto Club Speedway was facing was an old, worn out racing surface that was becoming bumpy and was in danger of needing replacement. The track was originally paved in early 1996 and other than an occasional patching here and there, the original asphalt layer is what drivers will face in Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and MRN.) Around the spring of 2020, it was determined it was time to do something about the deteriorating racing surface. Instead of simply repaving, the track will now be completely redesigned and turned into a high-banked short track was the decision. But with the pandemic and supply chain issues, it wasn’t until early 2023 when NASCAR announced the transformation would actually take place. Sunday’s race will be the last on the 2-mile layout and tentatively it could be 2025 before a return to the newly re-configured track.

The irony here is we say we want more short tracks on the schedule. And that’s exactly what NASCAR is giving us with a (potential) reconfiguration of this track into a short track. Yet we want to keep this 2-mile intermediate layout. What a weird time.

The Swan Song

So that means that the track we once loved to hate is going away, and I for one will be sad to see it go. 2007 Robbie would probably ask me if I was crazy by saying, but it’s the end of an era for a track that was once surround by controversy and now is a track that I can’t get enough of. It’s possible with the way California is so locked down and supply chain issues it could be multiple years before NASCAR goes back to Fontana, if ever.

If the last 10 years of racing is any indication, and with the way the new Next Gen car is performing on intermediate tracks, we should be in for a show. Plus everyone is going to want to win the last race on the current layout. The lore of Auto Club Speedway will never go away, just like the memories of multiple second margin of victories we saw for so many years.

But in the end it won’t be boring racing that Auto Club Speedway will be remembered for. It’ll be five wide restarts, 200+ miles per hour into the turns, and a feeling of nostalgia of the early days of the track that fans will forever remember. And if we never go back to Auto Club Speedway (in whatever iteration if may be,) that will be a shame.

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