NASCAR

McGEE: Fontana's fast & furious on, off track

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 
Fast and Furious SoCal culture embraces NASCAR on and off the California Speedway
When people around this great nation talk about southern California, they talk about a laid-back people. They talk about the language of "dude" and chilling out on the beach for a clam bake and some brew.

Yeah, right.

Have you ever driven on the 405? Have you seen The Fast and the Furious? The City of Angels is also the town that brought us the first live, televised high-speed police chases and dragster legends John Force and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.

Do you remember who invented the fast break? No, not the Minneapolis Lakers... the Los Angeles Lakers. Even the king of fast food, McDonalds, was born in So Cal.

But if you really want to haul the mail in the Golden State, you'll have to hit the roads leading out of L.A. and San Diego and into the wilderness that surrounds the urban sprawl. To the south is the Miramar Naval Air Station, home of the "Top Gun" fighter pilot training facility, and Mexico's Baja Peninsula, host to the Baja 1000 off-road marathon. To the north sits Edwards Air Force Base, where Chuck Yeager spent the 1940's breaking the sound barrier and the 1960's traveling a cool Mach 6 at an altitude of 65 miles and higher.

On this weekend, all paths to speed lead due east on Interstate 10 to Fontana, a suburb of around 100,000, sitting 46 miles from the L.A. courthouse where they hand out speeding tickets. Rising high above the massive warehouses and steel mills is Roger Penske's two-mile, D-shaped monument to velocity. With the throttle held wide open for nearly an entire 48-second lap, speeds will approach 200 miles per hour on the 2,500-foot backstretch, with the pole speed in the 188 mph range.

That's fast, agrees , but the man making his 655th career NASCAR Winston Cup start on Sunday says the real Cali speed demons won't be on the track, but, rather, sprinting around the skyboxes towering above and behind pit road. They won't be focused on wheel wells... they'll be focused on closing deals well.

"Every week, we're in a race on the track and every week, the sponsors are on a race off the track," Petty said. "Something that is a big race for us might not be as big of a race for them. Don't get me wrong. All of the races are big races, but the market might make something bigger for a sponsor one place than someplace else."

The last two stops on the Winston Cup schedule came in Talladega, Ala. and Martinsville, Va. Both of those towns sport populations of around 15,000. The headcount for the entire states of Virginia and Alabama are 7.1 and 4.4 million, respectively. The metro population of Los Angeles alone is listed at 9.5 million. To sponsors, that's 9.5 million potential buyers of cars, breakfast cereal and laundry detergent. It's also a chance to get their drivers -- and their products -- on the front page of the L.A. Times sports section, a chance to stop by Hollywood to shoot a TV commercial, pay a visit to , or hit Edison Field to throw out the first pitch before an Angels-Red Sox game.

will be doing all of the above on Friday alone... not to mention qualifying and practice for Sunday's race.

"I know it's a big place, and I know it's very important to be visible in the biggest city that we race in," says the defending Winston Cup champ. "But, man, it wears you out."

Not so long ago, the land of unstable earth all but told NASCAR to go away and never come back. From 1971 to 1980, the 2.5-mile Ontario Motor Speedway sat just five miles west of the current location of California Speedway. Crowds of over 70,000 in 1971 had dwindled to less than 15,000 by 1980, and the track was razed to make room for an industrial complex and shopping mall. Fifteen miles south of Fontana, the Riverside International Raceway hosted 48 Winston Cup races, including title clinchers by Bobby Allison, , Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. In 1988, the road course was plowed under in favor of condo construction.

"I guess we kind of gave up on the Los Angeles market at one point," says Petty. "Once they dug up Riverside. there just wasn't anything in southern California for us. A lot of people were talking but not many people were building. So we missed out on this market for a long time. It's huge for anybody, regardless of what kind of business. But just because it's huge doesn't mean you automatically succeed. The NFL ended up having a pretty rough time with the area. There are two major league baseball teams that seem to do pretty well, but the NBA teams, one does great and the other kind of struggles some. Who knows?"

When the California Speedway opened in 1997, it sat 75,000 fans. Now it plays host to nearly twice that many gearheads, old and new. Many of those fans will be driving over from the nearby Riverside Condominiums and the Ontario Mills Mall to catch the green flag. And believe you me, they will be making the trip at a high rate of speed. In SoCal, they don't know any other way.


Ryan McGee is the managing editor of and on Fox Sports Net.
He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.
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    Busch Series driver had been relegated to part-time racer status during the first 15 years of his career, due to his obligations as one of Hollywood's most coveted stuntmen. That all changed last November, when Jack Roush offered Barrett a chance to take over 's number 60 Busch ride when Biffle was promoted to Winston Cup.

    Barrett still managed to play The Fall Guy during the off-weekend, heading back to Hollywood for two weeks to double for James Franco on the set of Spider-Man 2.

    "It was a lot of fun," said Barrett."We designed a pulley-and-rope system for some of the movie's action scenes. I had to hang upside down on them outside of a building at one point, but nothing too dangerous."

    Yeah, not like going 185 miles per hour Saturday on FOX.

    DW Chat Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET
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    With the first short-track stretch of 2003 behind them, the Truckers are already focused on a high speed three-race stretch that includes their inaugural Charlotte race on May 16, Dover on May 30 and Texas on June 6. On Monday and Tuesday, six Chevy teams traveled to Fort Worth to prepare for Texas and its sister track at Charlotte.

    "We were working on the new 2003 Chevrolet Silverado nose," says . "We definitely need to make the Chevy better on the speedways."

    Texan David Starr agrees. "We don't have as much downforce as we did last year. You can see it on the clock, and you can feel it behind the steering wheel. We'll be there by May."

    The Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
    The King never ran a lap on the California Speedway, which opened five years after his retirement, but he did clinch his seventh and final Winston Cup in So Cal in 1979. Petty came to the season finale at the Ontario Motor Speedway trailing upstart Darrell Waltrip by a mere two points in the standings. DW spun his DiGard Chevy on lap 38, trying to avoid a spinning lapped car. He rallied to finish tenth, but The King came in fifth to win the title by 11 points. All of this after trailing Waltrip by a whopping 229 points in late August... and with STP spokesperson/guest Muhammad Ali in attendance.
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