Speed Reading California: Building a bridge across the Mississippi

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Ryan McGee

Westward ho for NASCAR shows
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.

One hundred twenty-eight years later, NASCAR's version of the golden spike was driven into the ground ... only it wasn't a spike at all. Rather, it was a row of gigantic palm trees. And the only thing being driven was a Chevy Monte Carlo by one Mr. Jeff Gordon.

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 Rusty Wallace, 2001 California track champ. "Even though we're talking about less than 10 years ago, we really hadn't gotten a good foothold in the West before that. Now it seems like we are racing out there all the time."

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 Kyle Petty. "The Riverside Raceway was just down the road from Fontana, but we never drew very well there. And the Ontario Speedway was almost exactly where the new track is, but people stopped coming there after a while, too. Because of that, I think a lot of people thought Penske was crazy for building another big track in basically the same spot. But as soon as we all saw it, we realized this was different."

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."

Now they all are, as well as doing anything else they can to try and reach the bar that Penske set so high during that one single summer weekend. Why? Because they saw the reaction of the fans and the teams — not to mention the corporate sponsors — to the California Speedway experience.

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 Jeff Gordon, California native and winner of the inaugural Fontana event. "Our sponsors realized that we could make some appearances in L.A. for the first time, and we immediately starting taking advantage of the California race weekend to make some media stops that we had to work too hard to get out there before."

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 Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. Another five are from other West Coast states, from Nevada to Oregon to Washington.

This isn't your Granddaddy's 'shine-running stock car racing anymore.

"It is exciting and scary all at the same time," observes Ricky Rudd, who made his Cup debut in 1975, a season that held just three of 30 events in the Pacific time zone. "For teams, it is a lot more costly to criss-cross the country so many times. But for the sponsors, they want to go where the people are. And there are more and more people moving out west every single year. And that means places like Rockingham and Darlington have to pay the price for progress. That progress means pushing west."

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:

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  • NASCARTV lives on SPEED
  • Busch Beat
    Here come the hired guns. As the NASCAR Busch Series prepares for the Mexico 200 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on March 6 (3 p.m. ET on FOX) — the road racing specialists are once again landing one-off gigs.

    Ron Fellows will be behind the wheel of Joe Nemechek's No. 87 Nemco Chevy, looking for his fourth career NBS road course victory. Boris Said will pilot the No. 1 Phoenix Racing machine as teammate to Johnny Sauter. Local heroes and Indy Car vets Michel Joudain Jr. and Adrian Fernandez will also be behind the wheel of Busch rides, Fernandez in a Lowe's Chevy fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.

    Truck Stop
    Rick Crawford makes his 200th career NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series start this weekend at the California Speedway (Friday, 9 p.m. ET on SPEED). Crawford and truck owner Tom Mitchell first showed up at the track in 1997 with little money and nearly no full-time employees. The team ran its first six races with only one truck and one engine. Two hundred consecutive races and three wins later, Crawford is one of the 10-year series' living legends. "Yeah, we've been around so long that a lot of guys have come and gone and then come back again. I just hope they feel like I have raced them the right way — clean and fair."

    Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
    Richard Petty started all nine Cup races held at the Ontario Motor Speedway, which sat just a few miles up I-10 from the current location of California Speedway until it was demolished in 1981. The King never won on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis clone, but he did leave SoCal with one very large trophy. Petty finished fifth in the 1979 L.A. Times 500 to seal his seventh and final Winston Cup title. Darrell Waltrip had led Petty by a whopping 187 points with seven races to go before falling 11 points shy of the title.

    Is Jeff the best ever?
    The time has come to ask a very serious question. A question that will no doubt be painful for many of you to read and will no doubt leave my inbox jammed with more hate mail than The Dixie Chicks'.

    Is Jeff Gordon the greatest NASCAR driver of all time?

    Now before you start hurling Budweiser cans at me, let's break this down. I mean, the guy did just win his third Daytona 500. And he pulled it off the same way he did the two previous times — by driving his Pepsi-drinking butt off.

    A fact that seemed to sneak by everyone on Sunday afternoon was that the victory wasn't just his third in the Great American Race. It was his 70th career Cup win. 70th!

  • Read the entire story
  • Speed Mail of the Week
    I have to admit, after Monday's "Is Jeff Gordon The Best Ever?" column, I was expecting my inbox to be buried with hate mail. Turns out, it was just the opposite. E-mails like this one from Joyce Roenfeld from Omaha, Neb. outnumbered the bashes 10 to one:

    "His driving ability is matched by none — thank you for pointing out the obvious statistical facts! I plan to read your stories from now on; I may not always agree with everything you publish, but I will always remember this article and how good you made us Die-hard Gordon fans feel!"

    Gee, Joyce, I'm blushing.

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