Assuming things go to plan, Auto Club Speedway will look very different in 2023. On Tuesday, The Athletic reported NASCAR has submitted plans to San Bernardino County to transform the two-mile oval into a half-mile short track.
Auto Club Speedway, located in Fontana, California and developed with the support of Roger Penske, opened in 1997 and is one of the Cup Series‘ fastest ovals similar to Michigan International Speedway. The two-mile, D-shaped course currently hosts the Cup Series’ Auto Club 400, and welcomed the IndyCar Series from 2002 to 2005 and 2012 to 2015. The speedway also features an infield road course that has been used for motorcycle and sports car racing, including the Rolex Sports Car Series in the early 2000s.
However, the track has encountered various speed bumps in its history. A second Cup date on Labor Day weekend failed due to poor attendance, and low attendance figures would result in seating capacity being reduced in 2014. The track’s flagship race was also reduced from 500 to 400 miles in 2011. Other concerns raised include the age of the racing surface, with repaves at other circuits providing mixed results, and desirable land that could be repurposed if the track is changed to a smaller version.
“Y’all know the track surface at ACS is knocking on the door for a repave,” Xfinity Series driver Robby Lyons posted on Twitter. “The last thing any of us want is another decade-long waiting process for the surface ages enough and produce side by side racing. This is a W for everyone!”
The speedway was built on the site of a former steel mill, and its land could prove valuable for NASCAR and outside interests if the track size is slashed and the leftover area is sold; a similar strategy was outlined for Chicagoland Speedway, where NASCAR had hoped to sell nearby acres for warehouses to grow the area’s economy before it was shot down by the City of Joliet. Unlike predecessors Ontario Motor Speedway and Riverside International Raceway, Southern California would also not have to lose a track to other business developments. Auto Club Speedway is also owned by NASCAR via International Speedway Corporation, making any major track-related decisions easier for the sanctioning body to process.
Known as “Next Gen in California” (which continues a trend of NASCAR referring to future projects as “Next Gen” like the seventh-generation Cup car), the new raceway will take pages from fellow short tracks Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, featuring long straightaways similar to the latter and high banking like the former. Although short tracks are fan favourites on the NASCAR calendar, the Cup Series only visits three as of 2020, with two dates each at Bristol and Martinsville, plus Richmond Raceway. Many compared the blueprint for the new Fontana track to the defunct one-mile Raleigh Speedway, which held NASCAR races from 1953 to 1958.
“We are still very early in the process, but we are excited about what this ambitious project could mean for our loyal fans in Southern California,” said NASCAR Chief Innovation Officer Craig Neeb. “This is our first step towards creating a state-of-the-art facility that would deliver the intense short-track racing our fans love, an intimate viewing experience, and upgraded suites and hospitality areas that would position Auto Club Speedway among the top entertainment venues in the market.”
Despite excitement from fans about a potential new short track on the schedule, the plan has also been met with skepticism with various parties defending the current layout as one of the better ovals in NASCAR. Due to its proximity to Los Angeles and Hollywood, the track is occasionally used for filming racing scenes in television and movies, including the acclaimed 2019 movie Ford v Ferrari; with the switch to a short track configuration, it would be difficult to get such high-speed footage close to base for studios.
Xfinity driver Anthony Alfredo endorsed the arrival of more short tracks, but added “Auto Club is a great track that provides exciting races. I wish there was a way to keep the big track and add a short track. Then we could add some sort of double header weekend to the schedule with a race on each track.”
Others raised concerns due to the implications that its demise would have on the road course and road racing in Southern California. Although Willow Springs Raceway is over an hour away, it would be the only available track in the region for such disciplines.
“[Auto Club] serves as the home for almost every amateur motorcycle racer in Cali,” tweeted Asian Le Mans Series champion Cody Ware. “Auto Club is the only track in California that hosts a championship like CCS/ASRA & WERA regularly. Willow Springs occasionally does, and Vegas is the next closest thing. Not to mention all the SCCA stuff.”
Construction of the track is set to begin after the 2021 race and be fully completed by 2023. However, NASCAR will presumably continue racing at the track in 2022, not unlike when they competed at Daytona International Speedway and Phoenix Raceway during their renovations.