The Loss of Auto Club Speedway Adds Early Intrigue to the 2024 NASCAR Schedule
NASCAR executives have been much more willing to make changes to the Cup Series schedule from year to year since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic forced them to shift many dates throughout the schedule. And now, they already have an opportunity to add a change to the 2024 schedule.
Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen confirmed recently that the 2.0-mile oval in Fontana, California, will not host a NASCAR race next year and possibly the year after as it transitions to a 0.5-mile layout.
Auto Club Speedway has been a staple on the NASCAR schedule for more than 25 years
Auto Club Speedway has held NASCAR races since 1997 and even held two dates on the Cup Series schedule from 2005 to 2010 as the sanctioning body tried to capture the attendance and TV viewership numbers of the country’s second-largest media market.
However, that strategy did not work so well.
Many fans were upset that Darlington Raceway had to give up its traditional Labor Day weekend date for the sport to have a second race in Southern California. Announced attendance also dropped from 100,000 in the fall 2005 race at Auto Club Speedway to 70,000 by 2010.
The speedway dropped back to one race date in 2011 and has settled into a spot early in each season during the West Coast Swing that has followed shortly after the Daytona 500 with races at Fontana, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix Raceway in consecutive weeks.
It did sit silent in 2021, but that was because California still had strict pandemic rules in place that would have severely restricted attendance. The speedway returned last year and put on a fascinating show for the first non-superspeedway race with the Next Gen car. Drivers struggled to navigate what has become a rough racing surface, and Kyle Larson won an event that featured a track record-tying 12 cautions.
Talk of converting the track into a 0.5-mile oval has lingered for several years now. The pandemic delayed initial plans, but now officials are set to move forward with the project after the February 26 race. The idea is to convert the frontstretch and pit road area into the short track that officials envision, although all of the details about the layout are not yet finalized.
Either way, it is a massive project, and track officials are unsure if they can complete the project in time to host a race in 2025, which would still be 24 months out, assuming the speedway would return to its early season February spot on the schedule.
NASCAR has surprisingly limited options to replace Auto Club Speedway in 2024
NASCAR will have to find an alternative in the meantime, and a leading candidate has yet to emerge. Rumors of turning the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum into a points-paying race circled throughout the weekend, but drivers widely panned the idea after a 150-lap feature race with only 27 cars produced 16 caution flags.
The addition of at least nine more cars to give all of the charter teams a starting spot would potentially crowd the track beyond capacity. And that was arguably already one of the problems in Sunday’s race after NASCAR expanded the field by four cars from the inaugural event a year ago.
The idea to make the Clash a points event seemingly came from the desire to keep an event that counts toward the championship in the LA market, but few obvious options exist.
The WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca road course is closer to Sonoma Raceway and the Bay Area than it is in Los Angeles, and nearby Irwindale Speedway does not have the infrastructure NASCAR is likely looking for in a major event with its 6,500 seating capacity, although it is a 0.5-mile race track.
NASCAR might be able to look into doing a Grand Prix of Long Beach type of race if its experiment in July with the Chicago Street Race is a success. Still, NASCAR and the City of Chicago have an agreement to hold the event in both 2024 and 2025, and two street course races might quickly become overkill.
The sanctioning body could also punt on the Southern California idea outside of the Clash for the next two years. Perhaps Homestead-Miami Speedway could get a second date. It is much closer to where many of the teams are based in Charlotte.
And the previous week’s race at Daytona International Speedway and the weather is almost guaranteed to be warm even in February. But back-to-back races in Florida might be a drag on attendance for the second weekend.
Weather is a limiting factor so early in the season. NASCAR could just move the Las Vegas and Phoenix races up a week and possibly move the Circuit of the Americas event in Austin, Texas, to the tail end of the West Coast Swing before the series heads back to Atlanta Motor Speedway. An extra race somewhere would still be necessary, however.
In a unique twist, the Silly Season for the 2024 schedule has already begun before the series has even arrived for the first points race of the current season.