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Speed Reading California: Building a bridge across the Mississippi
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One of the great enduring images of U.S. history was captured on May 10, 1869. That's the day that the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies met in the Utah desert. The two crews shook hands and then drove a golden railroad spike into the ground, forever joining the two halves of America and opening up the untamed West to the densely populated East.
But like the railroad men before them, the tracks laid down by the 43 drivers that took to the California Speedway on June 22, 1997 have forever led NASCAR from its southeastern roots to a whole new world in the West.
"It's hard to remember now, but when we first went to Fontana, it was a big, big deal for us," recalls
1997 will forever be remembered as a landmark season for stock car racing. During the previous year, the then-Winston Cup Series raced west of the Mississippi river only twice, at Sonoma, Calif. and Phoenix. 1997 saw that number double. The Texas Motor Speedway was christened in April, but the real symbol of the "new NASCAR" was the moment when the gates to Roger Penske's sparkling new palace of speed were thrown open.
"We had struggled for a long time to get people in Southern California to pay attention to us," says
The grounds were immaculate. Pit road was lined by an endless row of infield skybox suites. Major highways and a rail station fed thousands of race fans into the two-mile oval. And the track was surrounded by what seemed like an endless sea of parking lots ... and not your typical grassy mud pit track parking. Every parking spot was paved and, even more amazingly, free of charge.
"I remember being in that garage for three days and then realizing that I hadn't seen a single piece of garbage on the ground or anywhere else," says Wallace. "And I asked Roger about it, and he told me that he had sent his employees down the road to Disneyland to watch their park workers and see how they did things. That's when I realized he had hired an entire crew just to walk around and pick up trash all day. Trust me, no other racetracks were doing that back then."
The people turned out in droves and returned the following year in even more massive numbers. Celebrities began making the long trek out to Fontana from the Hollywood Hills. The So Cal-based media also showed up, including the Los Angeles Times, The Tonight Show, and Fox Sports.
"Suddenly, it became cool to go to a race," remembers
And once NASCAR recognized what was happening, the push West was officially on. Las Vegas was added to the calendar one year later. And in 2005, eight Nextel Cup races will be held west of the Mighty Mississippi including two stops in Fontana. In addition, the league continues to shop itself around the Pacific Northwest, courting both the Seattle and Portland markets. And the league now has a large corporate office right smack in the middle of L.A., a western outpost designed to drum up business and attention within the entertainment industry.
Not surprisingly, the left coast fan base has grown proportionately with the left coast driver base. A garage that was dominated by Southern-born drivers just 10 years ago has become a virtual Hotel California. Of the 49 racers on this weekend's entry list, seven were born in California, including
This isn't your Granddaddy's 'shine-running stock car racing anymore.
"It is exciting and scary all at the same time," observes
Surf's up, dude.
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images and Senior Producer of NASCAR Nation on SPEED Channel. He can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.