California can, in its own way

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

Sometimes, ambition has a way of making the ambitious look foolish.

A few years ago, a coach named John Volek, who most of you have probably never heard of, declared his intention to make the football program at Sacramento State the Florida State of the West.

While you couldn't fault Volek for setting a high bar, there is something to be said about knowing your limitations. As a case in point, pole vaulters save their energy by waiting for the bar to reach a certain height before they begin vaulting. But they don't wait so long that the bar is too high for them to get over it.

This is what Volek did. He set the bar too high, way too high, in fact, for a football program that wasn't even a championship contender at the Division I-AA level. From there on out, every success they had, small or big, fell short of the intended goal.

Personal bests? They were nothing more than faults in that game.

This brings us to something the late Bill France Jr. said to Gillian Zucker a few years ago before she headed west to run what was then known as California Speedway.

Make it the Daytona of the West, he told her.

While this kind of sentiment makes for a good pep talk, how realistic is it, really?

All that Daytona International Speedway has working in its favor is that the nearby beaches were the birthplace of stock car racing, that the folks who live around there grew up on the sport of NASCAR and that the track hosts what has become the nation's most important automobile race of the year.

To its credit, Auto Club Speedway, as the California racetrack is now known, sits next door to where Arnold Schwarzenegger filmed "Terminator."

To be fair, Southern California has a rich racing tradition which includes NASCAR racing dating back to 1958 and will continue Sunday with the Pepsi 500. But when it comes to success, tradition means very little if you don't have the right tools. Just look at the Chicago Cubs over the last 99 years.

Besides residing in the belly of NASCAR's core audience, Daytona International Speedway is a narrow, 2.5-mile, high-banked bastion of speed where going from 15th to first can happen in the blink of an eye. Slap it down in the middle of Baghdad and people are going to show up just out of curiosity.

Conversely, Auto Club Speedway is a wide, sweeping, Sunday afternoon drive of a track where lead changes are fit for print. It's a driver's paradise because it allows them plenty of room to race without running into someone, which is exactly why fans don't like it.

Let's be honest about something. As much as the diehards love to complain about NASCAR leveling the playing field, it's the level playing field that makes the sport so damned exciting. The closest city to Bristol Motor Speedway is Knoxville, Tenn., a hundred miles away. Yet 160,000 show up at the track because they know they're going to see a fender bent on every lap. By comparison, Auto Club Speedway is surrounded by the second-largest metropolitan market in the country – around 13 million people – and the track struggles to draw 80,000.

On top of this, Los Angeles is the city where the NFL didn't work, and the NFL works everywhere.

This is the mountain Zucker has to climb.

"When I accepted this job, I knew it wouldn't be easy," she said. "I knew the criticism would be there."

And it has.

Since even before Zucker took over in 2005, Auto Club Speedway has been the poster child of all things wrong with NASCAR's expansion.

Maybe it was because the surfer-dude perception clashed with the work-hard-play-hard mentality of NASCAR's original fan base. And certainly the allegation that it "stole" Darlington Raceway's traditional Labor Day date didn't help.

Whatever the reason, the speedway has never been given a break. That the races there are far from sellouts is only fuel to the fire for those who think the track doesn't deserve two races, let alone one.

"I don't blame them," Zucker said of the fans who are ticked off that Darlington lost its Labor Day race. "If I was in one of those cities and I lost a race, I'd feel the same way they do.

"But if you take a step back and look at the big picture – and if you love this sport – for it to be a national or international and global brand, it's important to be in a market like this."

Branding might not mean much to the average fan. To you, that probably translates into more money in Brian France's pocket. However, if you have any interest in the sport's viability in a mainstream sort of way, then its reach has to be far more than just regional.

If you're reading this in South Carolina, you might not give a rat's ass about that. But if you're logged on in Phoenix, Ariz., you understand.

In some ways, the two races at Auto Club Speedway are necessary evils. They're important to the sport even if they aren't the best shows the sport has to offer.

It's not that Zucker doesn't understand this. She does. Does that mean she's considering reconfiguring the track to make the racing more fan friendly? Maybe. Nothing's off the table, she said.

Mostly what it means, though, is that Auto Club Speedway is here to stay, bi-yearly. Its second race didn't work on Labor Day, so next year they'll try it later in the schedule as one of the Chase dates.

"People have to remember, NASCAR didn't start out being as popular in Daytona, either," Zucker said.

Auto Club Speedway will probably never be Daytona. But the thing is, it doesn't have to be. And you know what? That's just fine.

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