Future of rebuilt race track in Fontana remains up in the air

The history of the auto racing track located some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, known colloquially as just Fontana, is rich with the biggest names in stock car racing having competed there. And some may remember its frequent appearances in movies, most recently it pretended to be the Daytona International Speedway in the 2019 film “Ford v Ferrari.”

But now, the history of the track is on hold with no restart date. After the conclusion of last year’s NASCAR race in February, demolition of the 2-mile oval began. All that remains are a few grandstands and suites. Race fans in Southern California are eager to return to a track that will be rebuilt at a half-mile and bring a style of racing that is a mix of Martinsville and Bristol.

However, eager has turned to anxious for race fans as NASCAR still has no final plan or date when racing will return to the area where ground was broken in 1995 on the site of the former Kaiser Steel Mill.

“We’ve got some internal approvals to work through, but the hope is to have something to go out with sometime in the near future,” said Dave Allen, track president of the NASCAR-owned property. “Right now we just don’t have anything to discuss until we have some approvals done.”

The final race at the track was on Feb. 26. Why NASCAR, a company built on speed, has been so slow to make a decision remains hidden behind closed doors. Allen speaks in generalities about the delay but is candid about not knowing a date.

“You’ve got to look at everything we’ve gone through,” Allen said. “We’ve gone through COVID, we’ve gone through a lot of different things. Everything has not played into our favor. We’re looking to do things right and not rush it. If the timeframe moves then the timeframe moves. We’re just not in a position to commit to a timeframe right now.”

With a build time of 12 to 18 months, Allen doesn’t see this project as just a one-year absence from racing.

“Yeah, most likely it wouldn’t be ready next year,” he said.

NASCAR’s top executives seem committed to keeping racing alive in Southern California after this year.

“I would say that we are still planning on building a short track in Fontana,” Steve Phelps, NASCAR president, said in a news conference in November in Phoenix. “What the timing of that is, I don’t know. This isn’t the best time to be building based on inflation, the cost of capital, etc. But our intention is to continue to be in the Southern California market. For 2024, we will be at the Coliseum. It is our intention to build a short track in the Inland Empire.”

The Busch Lite Clash at the Coliseum will be held Sunday. It’s an exhibition of a series of heat races, concluding with a championship race. This year there is also the King Taco La Batalla en El Coliseo, a part of the Mexico series and the only race on the circuit in the United States.

This is the third of a three-year contract during which the Coliseum is transformed from a mostly football facility to a squeezed-in race track. NASCAR has not announced its plans for next year, and it could depend on how well the event does this year, if the race will return or move elsewhere. If it doesn’t come back, it would leave NASCAR with no presence in the coveted Southern California market.

The list of winners at Fontana is who’s who of NASCAR since the sport went national. Jimmie Johnson won a race there six times, Kyle Busch has five wins. Add in Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and the list of winners goes on.

“I hate to see it go, I think it was great race track,” said Chase Elliott, who was voted most popular driver for the sixth year in a row. “I enjoyed the race track, it’s a long ways out there, though. It always seemed to have a good crowd, too. … Who knows what’s next? I think it was a good facility but I understand the logistics behind the property, the way that Roger [Penske] bought into that property and NASCAR acquiring it. I get it. I understand the business moves behind it. We’ll see what they do with it.”

The original footprint of the property was 560 acres before 40 acres on the outskirts were sold. But after the final race last February, it was reported that 433 acres of the property were sold to Hillwood Investment Properties, owned by Ross Perot Jr., and CBRE Investment Management for $569 million. That leaves about 90 acres for NASCAR to build its new track and possibly an entertainment complex.

Allen says deciding what entertainment options will be offered is one of the things still being decided.

“There are so many other things that go into it,” Allen said. “We need to find the white space in the market, what the needs are. Do we build a restaurant on top of the suites that’s open throughout the year? Will we have the ability to have concerts and do other things at the track throughout the year. There are a lot of things that factor in as to how we build the facility.”

Regardless of which options are chosen some will always have memories of Fontana the way it used to be.

Kyle Busch, starting his 20th year in Cup racing, has a memory of Fontana that goes beyond his highly successful career.

“I remember going there in 2000 and I was supposed to start my first Truck series race, it was actually my sixth start in the series,” Busch said. “It was Marlboro 500 weekend for the Indy cars and there was signage painted on the grass with the Marlboro sponsorship. The state attorney general read a news article that said 16-year-old Kyle Busch is competing in the Marlboro 500 weekend and immediately canceled my participation on the weekend because of the cigarette sponsorship. That was my first memory of California Speedway. Not too fond of that one.”

Busch’s good memories of the track far exceed that negative one.

“The first time I was there in a Cup series car, I sat on the pole, got my first pole award,” Busch said. “The following race that same year [when there were two NASCAR races a year] I won my first Cup series race. That was pretty awesome. In 2009 they had a doubleheader with the Truck series and the Xfinity series. I won both those races and it was the first time a NASCAR driver won two races on the same day.

“I won my 200th Cup series race there in 2019. There are a lot of good memories there. I won my first RCR (Richard Childress Racing) race there, which is the last race that we will all ever have on that speedway [at 2-miles]. I get to go out of there with the last trophy ever given out.”

The last trophy until the question to which everyone has is answered.

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