Kevin Harvick is one of 10 Californians who showed up Friday to qualify to drive in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race.
Hailing from Bakersfield, he loves coming home to perform for family and friends. He used to race in Fontana twice each NASCAR season. Now he does it once.
He’s fine with that. In fact, he endorses it. When Auto Club sent its second Sprint Cup date to Kansas in 2011, Harvick saw it as progress, something certain other tracks should emulate.
“I think this race track is a great example of a lot of lessons that a lot of people don’t pay attention to,” said Harvick, who qualified second Friday behind Kurt Busch.
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“Sometimes if you take one really great thing, you can really easily make them into two mediocres. We do that all the time in our sport.”
Harvick’s grammar might not have been great, but his point was bold. For a long time NASCAR’s approach to growth has been if one race is good, then two must be better.
That’s understandable, considering how expensive it is to build the infrastructure necessary to host a Sprint Cup race. But bigger isn’t always better. As Harvick noted, two races in Southern California (the other was usually in early September, often in stifling heat) just made for mediocre attendance both weekends. One race in this market made it more of a can’t-miss event with great attendance.
Harvick, the leader in the Sprint Cup standings with two wins already, says there is a lesson in what’s happened with Fontana, which announced a sell-out Saturday of its 68,000 seats.
“I think some markets are just one-race markets,” Harvick said. “I would say 90 percent of them are one-race markets, but a lot of them still have two races. You just see those mediocre crowds.
“I think when people know that you’re only coming one time a year, you have to go to that particular race.”
Thirteen tracks on the Sprint Cup series currently have multiple races: Daytona Beach, Fla., Phoenix, Martinsville, Va., Texas, Richmond, Va., Talladega, Ala., Kansas, Charlotte, Pocono, Michigan,New Hampshire, Bristol, Tenn., and Dover, Del.
Charlotte Motor Speedway also hosts the Sprint Showdown and the All-Star race on consecutive days in May.
Harvick wasn’t saying all those venues are oversaturated. But he was saying the notion that more is always better should be scrutinized as NASCAR manages its country-wide growth from what was once a regional sport.
“I think, all in all, it’s come full circle,” Harvick said of the Fontana experience. “I think everything is good for this particular track.”
Harvick wasn’t alone Friday in raising this point.
“I agree,” A.J. Allmendinger said. “I’d like to see a little bit more diversity in the schedule.
“And they should put in about eight or nine more road courses in,” Allmendinger joked, referring to his specialty.
Humor aside, Allmendinger said it’s awkward when NASCAR shoe-horns multiple races at the same track within weeks of each other. That tends to happen more in the North, where summer is the only time suitable to host a major race.
“If you look at a place like Pocono, although they do get good crowds there, you go there twice in eight weeks. Michigan is kind of the same way,” Allmendinger said. “I remember talking to Roger Curtis (president of Michigan International Speedway), asking what is the same crowd? It’s 60 percent different from one race to the next.”
Neither Harvick nor Allmendinger was suggesting there is one perfect formula for whether a given market can support multiple Sprint Cup weekends. Rather, they were suggesting common sense must apply. And a steamy second race in Fontana in late August or early September wasn’t an act of common sense.
“The second race was always Labor Day and it was like 115 degrees here,” Allmendinger recalled. “We don’t want to sit in that in a race car in that, let alone fans sitting in a metal grandstand.”