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Official Review by Drew Cieszynski, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
With by far the largest population in the United States, land in California comes at a premium. Consequently, when Roger Penske wanted to bring a racetrack to the state, he had to use some creativity on the location. In 1994, the site he eventually chose was that of the Kaiser Steel Mill, which had been out of operation since 1983.
Just a few months later, NASCAR would do a first; committing to a race prior to a track’s completion. Construction would begin in 1995 and the “D-shaped” track would reach completion in 1996. When the California Speedway hosted its first race in 1997, the 100 foot water tower from the steel mill would still stand in the middle of the track.
Less than a decade later, lights were added to the venue and NASCAR granted a second race beginning in 2004. More races created a need for more fan interaction and the IE Fanzone was added in 2006 behind the grandstand. In 2008, the track was renamed as the Auto Club Speedway, with the naming rights creating more capital for future improvements to the venue.
With the track’s capacity over 90,000, an economic downturn made it difficult to fill the stands for two races annually. With fans also having options to attend the relatively nearby tracks in Phoenix and Las Vegas, Fontana was reduced to a single race annually.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The grandstand is peppered with all sorts of food and beverage vendors, but the real excitement in terms of the cuisine is out in the IE FanZone. Connected to the grandstand, all fans can access the FanZone even during the race.
The "winner's circle" of food vendors here is easily Juicy's Outlaw Grill, which offers giant western sausage ($9.75), ½ lb. Outlaw burger ($9.75), and the "texas-sized" turkey leg ($10.75).
Another popular vendor is the famous Pink's Hot Dogs, which offers the naked dog ($7), chili dog ($8), chili cheese dog ($9), kraut dog ($8), bacon cheese dog ($9), chili fries ($7), turkey dog ($7), polish dog ($9), and chili cheese fries ($8). Also, IE chain known as The King Taco has soft tacos ($1.75), burritos ($7-$8.50), and nachos ($7 or $8 with meat).
Then there are your everyday items that include pretzels ($5), churros ($4), french fries ($4), sweet potato fries ($6), boneless chicken wings ($8), chicken sandwich ($7), kettle corn ($7), suite 106 cupcakes ($4), sliders ($5), chicken nuggets ($4), grilled cheese ($4), apple slices ($2), corn dog ($4), hot dog ($4), popcorn ($2), salad ($8), deli sub ($7), chips and salsa ($5). gourmet black angus burger ($7 or $10 with fries), BBQ sausage or pork ($8 or $10 with rice bowl).
The beverages include lemonade ($5), 16 oz beer ($7), non-alcoholic beer ($4), juice ($1), Gatorade ($4), all sorts of lattes, coffees and expressos ($3-$6), and 20 oz bottles of Coke products ($4).
While it was not to my surprise, this was the first venue that I have ever visited that sold cigarettes in the concession stands, at a price of $10.
There are a lot of different ways to describe the atmosphere at sporting events. While it may seem amateur, I would sum it up in the single word of "fun." All weekend long the fans were socializing, tailgating, spectating, partaking in the free games in the Fan Zone, and cheering on their favorite racer at every glimpse. I find it to be such an interesting dynamic, having fanbases at an event that are not cheering for just one or two participants, but over a dozen.
With Fontana certainly being away from the hustle and bustle of the coastal cities, it is also a rather relaxing setting, often with the blue skies and towering mountains surrounding the track.
Of course, the most exciting part of the weekend is the hour or two leading up to the race. The racer introduction emit a combination of cheers and boos for the racers. Then, the famous "start your engines" line comes over the PA system and all fans are on their feet as the pace car leads the field around the track.
While Fontana and the Inland Empire may not be as nationally known as some of the larger California cities, it still contains one of the largest population bases in the country. If referenced on a map, fans will find it surrounded by some of the largest markets in the county: Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Los Angeles.
There is some of the most beautiful scenery surrounding the speedway, including the often snow capped Mount Baldy, where all sorts of winter sports take place.
Most nationally known chains can be found within 15 minutes of the track, including Chili's, Hooters, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and California Pizza Kitchen. Other not so well-known restaurants recommended by the Speedway itself include Boston's Gourmet Pizza and Sports Bar, New York Grill and Black Angus Steak House.
Despite the perceived glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Californians, the fans of this state do love their racing. From the Grand Prix in Long Beach to the many Supercross events hosted annually, it is not difficult to fill a venue with racing fans.
Unfortunately the second annual race caused a significant decline in the attendance, as fans had two chances to attend the speedway. Reducing it to one race annually magnifies the event that much more and the fans now circle it on the calendar. It becomes a weekend-long event, with many fans traveling from all over California to engage in the spectacle of the weekend. I even read that some fans were hoping for rain and the race being rescheduled for the next day, just so they could spend one more day at the event.
Many Californians are transplants, so it's difficult to pinpoint them into any specific group or having any special traditions. To get a good sense for the fans, I'd recommend walking the parking lot and taking in the IE Fanzone as attendees will get one of the more diverse crowds in all of the state.
The speedway is easily accessible via Interstate 10 and 15, but both will back up closer to race time. The 15 is the same freeway that many Southern California fans use to get to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
All parking is free, so fans need not concern themselves with many of the overpriced parking fees associated with Southern California. Be warned however, that there are some serious fans who get there as early as early as possible and the late arrivals will have more of a hike to get to the grandstand.
Once inside the venue, fans will not have a difficult time finding their seat as a single large grandstand hugs the track. Caution should be given that there are several steps just to get to the lower levels, and several more to get to the upper levels.
Even with over 70,000 fans in attendance, I was pleasantly surprised that I did not notice any issues with the restrooms backing up. Each of them was a bit small and rather aged, but there seemed to be a large enough quantity to fulfill the need.
NASCAR breaks the trend of closer seating being more expensive as the higher seats allow for a much better vantage point of the track, not to mention the beautiful surrounding settings.
Tickets for the race start at $35 and go up in $20 increments over five pricing tiers (the most expensive being $105. Of course there are pit passes ($55 for the weekend) and all sorts of add-ins that fans can take advantage of. On the Auto Club Speedway website, there are numerous packages and discounts that are available to fans.
There are simply too many tempting food & merchandise options available for fans to ignore, so prepare to have a little extra spending cash available.
California, and even the entire west coast does not have a lot of options in terms of stock car racing, so I found this to be a great value for even just the day. As many of the residents reside near the coast, this presents a good opportunity to see the settings of the Inland Empire. I would recommend the weekend trip as there are simply too many things to see and do at the track to conquer in just a single day.
The most notable "extra" can be seen when fans take their seats in the grandstand. At the center of the track is the100 foot water tower; all that remains of the Kaiser Mill Steel Mill, which was originally built and supplied ships during World War II.
The Discover IE (Inland Empire) FanZone provides an entertaining experience for fans of ages prior to the race. There are all sorts of merchandise, food, and vendor stands; many even offering free promotional items for stopping by. Two of the more notable stops were the concert stage where Night Ranger performed and the Metal Mulisha Extreme Stunt Show.
At Gate 12, fans can take a look at the Auto Club Speedway's Walk of Fame. Racers such as Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, and Rusty Wallace have been enshrined in the past.
Lastly, being just an hour away from Hollywood, the track has had its time of the silver screen. Movies such as The Terminator, Charlie's Angels, and Herbie: Fully Loaded all had scenes filmed on this track. Even well-known actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman took a lap around the track in the movie The Bucket List.
Regardless of the direction fans come from, the drive into Fontana is certainly breathtaking and the weekend-long party is one of the best events in the Inland Empire. There are numerous entertainment options in Southern California, but everyone should carve out a weekend to visit the Auto Club Speedway.
Follow Drew's travels through Southern California on Twitter @Big10Drew.
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