By Gary Montgomery
Mother Nature fails to cooperate but racing goes on!
During this weekends' Auto Club 550 at the newly named Auto Club Speedway, NASCAR fans showed why their sport lays claim to being the biggest spectator sport in the country. NASCAR's first California event of the 2008 racing season got caught in a game of start and stop with Mother Nature. A continuous succession of brief rain showers pelted Fontana creating lots of idle time for the drivers, fans, vendors and media representatives.
Surprisingly, and estimated 50,000 fans hung around and endured a two-hour rain delay to see their favorite drivers start the race. Chargers Linebacker Shawne Merriman waived the green flag to start the featured race at 3:32 p.m. and exactly 14 laps into the event Denny Hamlin found a wet spot on the track and hit the wall triggering the first red flag of the day. Shortly after Hamlin ended his day, Casey Mears followed and wiped out his ride.
"It's really bad out here! I don't think that machine can get the dry track dry enough to race safely" said Elliot Sadler. "Anytime you hit a little puddle you're going to have some trouble."
Mears crash caught at least three other cars and caused another red flag that lasted more than an hour while the track crew searched desperately for the wet spot that caused Mears to crash.
After racing for three hours, enduring two red flags, four yellow flags and four accidents in 87 laps Mother Nature opened the skies and dropped a hard blowing 15 minutes of rain on the place sending about 30,000 of the 50,000 fans to the exits.
Track officials worked on the track for another 2 hours trying to get back to racing before finally calling the race around 9:30 p.m. Something about Fontana homeowners wanting to get some sleep.
"We just couldn't keep up with it, as hard as we tried we just couldn't keep the track ready to race" said one NASCAR official.
You have to feel for any executive management team in the position NASCAR officials found themselves on Sunday. If it was a baseball game you would merely rip off the tarp and get back to work. But, in this sport you need hours to dry the track and then you may not have a completely safe surface to compete on. The only way to know for sure is to send the cars out and see what happens and if you are wrong, what happens probably won't be good.
Looking something similar to a hairdryer on steroids, the jet dryer is mounted on the back of a truck and pulled slowly around the racetrack. Drying the track's surface is a painfully slow process and then you can still miss spots.
On the other hand, the pressure to make the race happen must be enormous. With an estimated 50,000 loyal fans draped in rain gear and waiting patiently, a TV audience of millions and thousands of support personnel and vendors on hand the pressure to avoid a cancellation is easy to understand.
The Speed Channel killed time by running old driver documentaries. The Fox on-air broadcast team nearly ran out of people to talk to. Trackside personnel killed time conducting on-camera interviews with anyone they could get to talk to them including assistant crew chiefs of several teams. You really have to know your NASCAR to know who these guys were.
Racing resumed at 10 a.m. on Monday morning under a beautiful bright California sun, but not in front of many fans. The estimated crowd of 20,000 to 25,000 loyal fans who skipped work and came back on Monday got to see Carl Edwards and his No. 99 car blow the doors off the field. Edwards passed Jimmie Johnson with 13 laps left to win the Sprint Cup Series race.
The Stater Bros. 300 originally scheduled for 4:30 Saturday was run immediately following the 500 race. Tony Steward, driving the number 20 Joe Gibbs Racing car won leading 136 of the 150 laps.
The occasional showers wreaked havoc all weekend long canceling practices and shoving schedules around. The Craftsman Truck Series 200 was the only race that ran on its scheduled day. After a 2 hour delay the race got underway with 22-year old Kyle Busch holding off Todd Bodine for the win.
It was a tough weekend for NASCAR, something they are not accustomed to seeing in California, but the consensus among fans seems to be "oh well" we can't wait until August when NASCAR returns to the Auto Club Speedway.
g.montgomery can be reached @ email@example.com