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Remembering the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway and looking at what’s next

In June 1997, Auto Club Speedway’s first weekend previewed how the track would reflect the champions, ebbs and flows and beloved elements of NASCAR in the subsequent years.

Jeff Gordon won the first NASCAR Cup Series race at the track, in front of a crowd of 85,000 people.

Gordon was one of many major-league racing champions who won at the track.

In fact, between 1997 and 2022, 35 of 46 races, across Cup, INDYCAR and CART competition, were won by champions of their motorsport.

Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with an insurmountable 6 wins, 13 top-5 finishes, 18 top-10s, 990 of 5,906 laps led and an average of 7.6 in 26 starts at the track.

Johnson, an El Cajon, Cali. native, kicked off his historic run in April 2002 when he earned his first Cup win at the track. He wouldn’t win there again until September 2007, but that kicked off a run of six ACS races where he won four times, including the September 2008 race where he led 228 of 250 laps.

Johnson’s last ACS win, in March 2016, helped propel him to his 7th and final Cup title. In February 2020, he finished 7th and led 10 laps during his final Cup race at the track.

Another 7-time Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt, only raced four times at the Auto Club Speedway before his untimely death in February 2001.

On what would’ve been Earnhardt’s 50th birthday, on April 29, 2001, fellow Cup champ and friend Rusty Wallace held off shared rival Jeff Gordon for his first ACS win. Wallace celebrated by paying tribute to Earnhardt with three fingers and a special flag held out the window.

Earnhardt’s successor, Kevin Harvick, won one of the most thrilling finishes in track history in March 2011.

In that race, Kyle Busch led 151 laps but was passed by Jimmie Johnson on Lap 198, with three to go. Kevin Harvick quickly chased down Johnson, pushed him into the final corners on the final lap and did a quasi-slingshot to the line and his first ACS win.

ACS was arguably saved by that race. From 2004 to 2010, they held two Cup races but only held one in 2011. The track lost a date due to attendance slipping and fans maligning the track as one of their least favorites.

In 2004, attendance estimates peaked at 120,000 for the spring race and an estimated 90,000 people for the fall race.

By 2010, spring race attendance dipped to an estimated 72,000 and fall race attendance dipped to 70,000.

Upon dropping to one date, estimated attendance jumped to 88,000 in 2011 and 90,000 in 2012.

It all set the stage for the 2013 Cup race weekend.

With 7 laps to go, Joey Logano passed former JGR teammate Kyle Busch and sought vengeance, but couldn’t get away from former teammate/new rival Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin and Logano beat and banged fenders the week before at Bristol, resulting in Hamlin spinning and a post-race confrontation.

On the final lap, Hamlin got his rematch but neither he or Logano emerged unscathed. Kyle Busch snuck by for the win while Hamlin wrecked and Logano spun in turn 3.

Hamlin was injured in the wreck and missed the next four races. Logano finished 3rd but was confronted by Tony Stewart, who brawled with him over a block on a restart with 11 laps to go.

The race solidified Auto Club Speedway as a favorite among NASCAR fans, echoing the sentiments of many open-wheel racing fans.

To open-wheel racing fans, ACS was the home of the CART season finale from 1997 to 2001 and the INDYCAR finale in 2005 and from 2012-14.

The final year of the INDYCAR finale being held at ACS saw Will Power finally break through for his first INDYCAR championship after three runner-up points finishes, including in 2012 when a wreck ended his title hopes.

To open-wheel racing fans, ACS was known as a mecca of speed and ultra-competitiveness.

In 2000, Gil de Ferran turned a track-record lap of 30.255 seconds, averaging 241.428 mph. His lap became the official world closed course speed record. Reports even say de Ferran went as fast as 260 mph on the backstretch.

CART’s final 500-mile race, in 2002, averaged 197.995 mph and held the title of fastest 500-mile motorsports race until the 2014 Pocono 500.

INDYCAR’s second 500-mile race, in 2003, averaged 207.151 mph and became the fastest race in motorsports history.

In 2000 and 2002, CART’s 500-mile races at the track saw 57 and 44 lead changes, respectively. In 2001, the shortened, 440-mile race saw a record 73 lead changes.

The record stood for 14 years until Graham Rahal won the June 2015 ACS race that saw 80 lead changes. The race was hailed as one of the greatest of all-time but was the last ACS open-wheel race to date, amid safety concerns.

On the topic of safety, lest we ever forget Greg Moore, a 5-time CART winner and young driver with promise.

Moore spun on Lap 9 of the October 1999 CART race, went airborne going from the grass to the pavement and hit the wall head-on.

Moore was killed in the crash. He was just 24 years old.

Adrian Fernandez won that day and paid tribute to Moore. Fernandez was the only driver to ever win in both CART and INDYCAR at the track.

Fernandez was among the non-champion greats who won at the track, which included Mark Martin.

Martin was the second Cup winner at Auto Club Speedway. He led 165 of 250 laps and won the May 1998 California 500.

In 22 ACS starts, Martin led 324 laps – the sixth most of any driver in track history.

Martin also raced at one of ACS’s predecessors, Riverside International Raceway. He earned one top-5 finish and three top-10s in four Cup races there, including the final June 1988 race before the track was closed down.

Before Riverside closed, it was used to film works such as the original Knight Rider TV series, Chips and The Love Bug, just as ACS was used for filming Herbie: Fully Loaded, Ford v. Ferrari and other works.

31 years of racing and film history was scrubbed away as the road course was developed into retail and residential developments.

Riverside’s fate was met just eight years after nearby Ontario Motor Speedway met theirs.

Like Riverside and ACS, Ontario held races and was a filming site. The track was open from 1970 to 1980 before the property was sold to developers and eventually turned into retail and business space.

Now, in 2023, the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway is set to be overhauled into a half-mile short track. A report by Sports Business Journal indicates 433 of ACS’s 522 acres was sold for around $544 million.

The SBJ report indicates the land will be for “logistic and e-commerce use” and NASCAR plans to reinvest the land money in the fan experience, track upgrades, evolving the schedule and paying down debt.

The sport seems to have found a happy medium: Money for the sanctioning body to invest in advancing the sport, a short track for fans to enjoy for years to come.

Still, the final plans and renderings of the forthcoming short track have yet to be revealed. ACS officials also confirmed the 2023 race will be the final for the 2-mile track and there won’t be another ACS race until 2025, at least.

No matter how this weekend goes, it’s a time for the industry to look at the track and its ups and downs one more time before a new, very interesting future lies ahead.

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