Another One Bites The Dust: R.I.P. Auto Club Dragway


Another One Bites The Dust: R.I.P. Auto Club Dragway

(Words and Photos by Darr Hawthorne) – In a terse Facebook page proclamation on Friday December 3, 2021, Auto Club Speedway management declared, “After careful consideration on the best direction forward for Auto Club Speedway, the difficult decision has been made to permanently close Auto Club Dragway. We thank all of the competitors, fans and corporate partners who made so many wonderful memories at Auto Club Dragway through the years, and we look forward to making new ones as we embark on our 25th Anniversary Season at the 2-mile oval in 2022.”

Here’s a little background.

The Dragstrip at California Speedway has always been the red-headed stepchild of the International Speedway Corporation, basically the owner of NASCAR and many of their tracks. From its beginnings in the parking lot on the South side of the two-mile oval grandstands, to it’s current location on the North side, neither of these drag strip venues ever seemed permanent to local sportsman racers.

For nearly two years Auto Club Dragway has remained dormant during the Southern California Covid-19 lockdowns, and its current fate appears to be part of a master plan presented to the San Bernardino County Government for a remodeling of the existing infrastructure. The plan was to reduce the size of the two-mile NASCAR oval to a half-mile “Bullring” like Bristol, Martinsville, or Richmond. That’d render acres of land surplus, land that had originally been reclaimed by the EPA’s Superfund (funded by US Taxpayers) into a commodity that could be parceled out for other uses, long after the steel mill closed. (If you aren’t familiar, California Speedway and Auto Club Dragway, sit on land that was a former steel mill that had been left sitting for decades and was considered unsavable until Roger Penske and Kaiser Steel got together.)

In recent years, many of us locals wondered how long either the NASCAR track or the Dragway could remain with only one Spring NASCAR Race per year and a poorly fan-attended quarter-mile with a relatively short top-end shutdown.  Spectators in the Fontana area just weren’t much interested in motorsports anymore, and like most NASCAR facilities, track management has already removed banks of grandstands on the ends to make a better presentation for televised NASCAR races. (Chad Note: One thing I’ve never been able to understand about Fontana is that while it is only 15 minutes or so past Irwindale, they had a hard time getting people to come race there outside of bracket races and NHRA Sportsman events. With that said, events that were promoted well had great turnout, so I believe the right management could have made a difference here in a big way.)

Strangely during the draconian lockdowns in California, the parking lots still thrived with sellout Autocross participation sponsored by NMCA, SCCA and others in the southwest parking lots. The go-karts and RC tracks thrived as well on most weekends. As a very large facility, with limited “big” events per year, the only way to make it profitable is to have a multi-use facility mentality and have lots of things happening all the time on-site, and even during the pandemic lockdowns, all these outdoor facilities could have events going on.

And even with limitations on attendance, etc, a very loyal group of Dragway bracket racers, Test-n-Tuners, and specialty races kept the quarter-mile regularly booked during the year. There were even a few NHRA LODRS Divisionals held here too. Many of us appreciated the immense efforts to keep that 1320 feet going, after AAA’s Tom McKernan and Lucas Oil’s Forrest and Charlotte Lucas stepped forward to help build the County Mandated sound attenuation wall after a much-publicized lawsuit was settled a few years ago, and were glad to see it still surviving even during these lockdowns.

Rumor has it that as part of the pitch to San Bernardino County to re-purpose the existing infrastructure, the prime real estate on which the Dragway sits would become a vast building to warehouse an Amazon distribution center. (Keep in mind that there are multiple locations that have MILLIONS, and we’re not exaggerating, of square feet of Amazon distribution centers within 15 miles of  the track.) Just what the world needs in a time of Street Takeovers and weekly organized Street Racing and bystander deaths. The deaths leave local hand-wringing politicians on TV news decrying exhibitions of speed and carnage on city streets – yet herald the progress and job creation of yet another Amazon Distribution Center in a county with square miles of vacant land. Yes, you read that right, this area of Southern California has a lot of empty land that would be much easier and quicker to build on that tearing down facilities at this track.

Ironically, NASCAR will break ground in mid-December at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, so they can hold a quarter-mile short track spectacle entitled “Clash at the Coliseum” sponsored by Busch Light on February 5-6, 2022 – to be broadcast on FOX Sports, the weekend prior to the Super Bowl.

In what is arguably the Cradle of Civilized drag racing; Southern California, that leaves three remaining drag strips and the new Lions Automobilia Museum along with the lackluster NHRA Motorsports Museum at Pomona Fairgrounds. The survivors are 1/8-mile tracks at Barona Indian Reservation near San Diego and Irwindale Speedway’s multi-use facility. Pomona Raceway is only for elite NHRA National Events, not for locals, Jr Drag Racers, or any weekly sportsman program. None of these locations will support really fast cars.

Local street racing deaths will continue to be tearfully reported in the Los Angeles Times and on local newscasts, but NHRA, an organization with deep roots in this area continues to shrink for its own survival.  NHRA recently sold their spacious Glendora headquarters, relocating much of the remaining crew to Indy, while management maintains a small corporate office near Raging Waters in San Dimas.

Fortunately, there’s still an all concrete quarter-mile about two hours north of SoCal, down a country road, near Bakersfield at legendary Famoso Dragstrip, where nitro racers race dragsters and funny cars, and where fuel altereds meet. Where Imports gather, nostalgia sanctioning bodies thrive and the Good Vibrations March Meet welcomes spectators back to their roots in the Spring.

Sadly, we lose another dragstrip, but as time marches on, we’ll all see if that small hunk of Fontana land was better used to lure dangerous street racers off of the city streets or to distribute truckloads of products.

 


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12 thoughts on “Another One Bites The Dust: R.I.P. Auto Club Dragway

  1. Loren

    Open-air gatherings and businesses, where people are not packed in together such as concerts, should never have been closed due to virus. Fontana always had a feeling of “temporary” about it but that was a stupid reason to kill it.

    Yay let’s have yet more legacy retail space go to blight out in our neighborhoods while Amazon takes land that in this case was already set up for a needed use. Bezos could not have engineered a better situation for himself, and a worse one for everybody else in retail, than California’s government has for him by their knee-jerk responses to covid-19. They are not going to ruin CA for me, but anybody care to think about who you’re doing business with and avoid using Amazon yet, and favor local businesses when possible instead? I know I do.

    I love Barona but it’s on Tribal land, no one else can own it or really, anything on it (members can effectively seize outsider’s property) so you get the feeling the track hangs on that thread and be gone as soon as another use is preferred. May that never happen,,,

    Hang on, Irwindale and Famosa.

    Reply
    1. Paul

      Why would Baron Tribe seize >>outsiders property<< what does that actually mean. I have had nothing but positive experiences there .

      Reply
      1. Loren

        I also have had nothing but positive experiences there, and deeply appreciate that the land is provided by the tribe for such use. Just know that if you’re a non-member on the reservation and some unattended belonging disappears, as long as that item stays on the res’ you have no recourse there, they are the law-keepers of their own land. That affects which kind of outsider businesses work and which don’t, and it’s not a complaint just a warning about a deal which is not widely abused but exists all the same. As with the casino, the entrance guard booth exists partly to manage local trouble-makers who might wish to take advantage, so that business reputation is not affected.

        Reply
    1. Brian B

      Would you run it like your cousin’s business Sevenly? Or his fake school? Because Partridge in charge of a business doesn’t really give me a lot of confidence.

      Reply
      1. Jim Partridge

        Since I don’t know you, I’m confident you don’t know me, my family or our history. Trolling me with that comment makes your opinion irrelevant.

        Reply
  2. Bill Sampson

    I agree with you on management issues with the track. From what I have read, Walmart owns the land that The Irwindale Speedway is built on. This may be the next casualty.

    Reply
  3. Michael

    In what world is Irwindale only 15 minutes from Auto Club Speedway? They are 35 miles apart on good day you would be lucky to make it in an hour with traffic.

    Reply
  4. Michael S. Hoyt

    New England Dragway almost closed this year, someone offered to buy the land for $12.5 Mil. Got voted down by the Stockholders by a huge majority luckily. Good thing it’s a Stockholder owned track where it takes a majority to decide that. Yet people keep giving us shit for that. At least we’re still open.

    Reply
  5. Daniel

    The remainder of the facility could run because they were rented out by private organizations with their own equipment, employees, safety crews hired, and insurance.

    The drag strip was always run through the track which is owned by NASCAR corporate, and relied on their NHRA partnership for the track insurance policy. When outside events were hosted the facility was rented including the staff and equipment etc.

    Starting shortly after March 2020 they fired all their employees, sold/moved out all the drag strip equipment and supplies, and made the property essentially a storage yard. Even if a full track rental were to happen, the track would’ve needed probably a couple weeks of full time work and $$$$ to revive it, and still the pits were full of other junk being stored.

    This is a massive devastating loss for the community – especially bracket racing – but a major reason the drag strip at Fontana was a failure is the disconnect between what people want, and what was actually offered.

    For drag racing to survive in Socal there desperately needs to be a place to run that isn’t saddled by NHRA regulations, corporate inefficiency and bureaucracy, and the burden of a multi-million dollar facility.

    Yeah sure – for bracket racing to continue we need an NHRA style track with prep, lights, timing system etc, but really we really just need a strip of road where people are allowed to take their cars out and have fun without being bothered by LEO, or bothering anyone else with the noise. The ability to run noprep/lights out/street car style races that’re drawing all the crowds in the rest of the country would be amazing too. This primarily is where the money and excitement in drag racing is today.

    As terrible as it is for the bracket racers, Fontana/Irwindale/Bakersfield/Barona – none of these tracks fill the void that will actually get people off the street and having fun in a responsible and safe environment. 9 and 10 second cars are standard off the showroom today. You think all these cars with a few bolt-ons making 1000+ horsepower today have cut up their car to put in a 10 point cage with certification, seat, harnesses, window nets, SFI balancer, flywheel, trans shield etc etc etc? No – these cars are still perfectly capable street driven cars and will never be built to NHRA regulations.

    These fast street cars are still all going to be doing highway pulls to 150+ mph on the street at night because there is nowhere else to do it, and having Fontucky open or not didn’t make a difference there.

    This is a massive missed opportunity to capitalize on the growth and resurgence of interest in drag racing everywhere else in the country.

    Reply

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