A visit to Fontana: Scenes of racetrack demolition spark sadness and hope

FONTANA, Calif. — Since the demolition of the track formerly known as Auto Club Speedway began last year, every leaked construction site image or drone shot has hit the same.

To those of us who had some sort of connection to the Southern California track, it was hard footage to watch, a reminder that the sweeping 2-mile track — once maligned and later beloved — is never coming back.

You can’t fault NASCAR for getting more than a half-billion dollars by selling off most of the property. Sentimentality is one thing, but that kind of money will always override emotion.

Still, Fontana’s demise has been painful to see from afar. As a former local newspaper employee who covered the track regularly at a pivotal time in my life, an annual return to Fontana always brought a sense of comfort and familiarity.

Over there was the spot where my former sports editor, the late Louis Brewster, sat with me during a 2005 job interview. That spot along the fence is where I got grabbed by security when accidentally walking onto a “hot track” during my first race with a NASCAR hard card (and got it temporarily taken away). There was the old press conference room where I summoned the courage to start asking questions regularly, shaking off the butterflies that come with inexperience.

There would have been plenty of reasons just to let the memories live in my head, untouched and unspoiled by reality, but there are some things you just need to see for yourself. So last week, before the Clash at the Coliseum, I made the 50-mile drive out to my former home track and was granted access to take a look around.

I thought I knew what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for the shock.

An old sign on the approach to the infield reads “Caution: Racing Ahead.” That seemed hopeful. After all, NASCAR’s stated intention is still to build a new short track on the remaining property that has yet to be sold. And the drive into the infield didn’t seem that bad. Yes, much of the sponsor signage is gone, trees have been knocked down to their trunks, foam blocks from SAFER barriers are scattered onto the outside of the banking like children’s toys and chunks of the grandstands are gone.

But once inside, the red-roofed garages are still intact. The multi-story pit suites building has barely been touched. The view through the gates onto the frontstretch still shows a paved racetrack and the familiar red-and-yellow bleachers (albeit less of them).

If you had just been dropped into that part of the track, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious this is no longer an active racing circuit.

But once you climb to the stairs of the infield suites, it doesn’t take long to get a gut punch of a view.

At the border of the No. 1 pit stall, where pit road used to begin its merge with the racetrack, the NASCAR-owned property line suddenly ends. White Jersey barriers block off the end of pit road, and with good reason — beyond it is simply a vast nothingness. It was breathtaking to see for the first time and prompted multiple curse words that were preceded by “Holy …”

Instead of Turn 1, where a digital sign used to show the eye-popping corner entry speeds, there’s just dirt, mud and rubble. That part of the track, including the banking, is just … gone. It bothered me that even after 19 years of visiting the place, I could no longer get my mind to picture exactly where Turns 1 and 2 used to bend off into the distance.

My brain had so much trouble processing the images that there was much less emotion than expected. My head was too busy trying to understand what I was seeing and comparing it to what my memory thought that area should look like.

Less than a year ago, I stood atop the same pit suites and watched the final racing lap at Fontana — a nighttime Xfinity Series race, won by John Hunter Nemechek, after it had been postponed by rain and snow. Afterward, some of us with connections to the track went and stood on the quiet finish line and took in the scene, knowing it was likely the last time we’d be there.

That part of the track still exists, but that’s about it. The backstretch has been torn up and will soon look like Turns 1 and 2 — as if that area never existed. Turns 3 and 4 still have their banking for now but are no longer covered by asphalt. Stripped, weathered billboards hauntingly tower over the dirt banking.

Plenty in the NASCAR industry are skeptical the Fontana short-track plan will ever go through. Track president Dave Allen told the Los Angeles Times last week any project wouldn’t be completed before 2026 — and no recent renderings or blueprints have been made public. It seems possible NASCAR could pull the plug altogether, citing inflation and the increased cost of materials.

But for those holding out hope, visiting Fontana also provides enough reason for optimism a new track could be built on the site. If you want a reason to believe, it’s possible to stand atop the pit suites, look over the frontstretch and remaining stands, and convince yourself racing could return one day. That, after all, is what NASCAR said from the beginning.

For now, there’s not much reason to linger at the track. It’s a site in transition with an unknown future. On the way out of the tunnel, though, there’s a sign that has been there for years: “Race you later!” it says.

We can dream, right?

(Top photo of the view from the pit suites looking down toward what used to be Turn 1: Jeff Gluck / The Athletic)

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