(Keep feelin’) Fascination

I was in Chicago last week working at Chicagoland Speedway. It was a great trip. I got to see old friends, sample an excellent neighborhood Italian place that an old friend recommended Oggi Trattoria on Grand Avenue (make sure you try the Oggi Special pasta, it’s absolutely fantastic) and I got to spend time in downtown Chicago.

I love to visit Chicago. It’s a wonderful city.

And of course, I had my fix of deep dish pizza at Giordano’s on Van Buren.

While in Chicago, I got to talk to a lot of folks both in and around the track, at restaurants, gas stations, fellow hotel guests and the local and regional journalists. One of the things I wanted to know was their thoughts on the impact of having the opening round of the 2011 Chase at Chicagoland Speedway in September. What I heard was pretty surprising.

Nearly everyone who wasn’t affiliated with the track or racing didn’t even know what I was talking about.

Chase? Who’s chasing what? That was pretty much the reaction.

I wasn’t surprised at all. Chicago is a real stick and ball town. One guy told me that if you want to watch a race, you go to Milwaukee.

On the flight back home I started thinking about NASCAR’s fascination, no…make that obsession, with having a race in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Let’s face it, New York City is about as stick and ball as they come and that attitude extends to northern New Jersey, too. The Yankees, the Mets, the Knicks, the Giants, the Jets. All marquee franchises.

Chicago is THE stick and ball town in America. Nothing else matters in the city where Michael Jordan held court, the Bears rule the world and you’ve got two major league baseball teams to choose from. It’s an attitude that extends all the way down to the high school sports level.

And then there’s L.A.

L.A. is an entertainment town – period. Sports is about the last thing on an Angeleno’s mind, unless they’ve got a team in the playoffs. And younger Angelenos would prefer to play their sports virtually on the latest game console, rather than pay to watch someone else play.

There is one plus for Chicago race fans and that’s their close proximity to the race track. It’s about a 60 minutes drive from downtown. However, I would think the majority of fans come from the northern suburbs, which is another 30 minutes away.

New York City fans have to drive a couple of hours to Pocono Raceway, which (for reasons of full disclosure) happens to be my home track and is located in a really beautiful area of Pennsylvania. Pocono gets a bad rap from the media, but the drivers seem to like it. So do the fans. Now, I’ll admit, Pocono isn’t the greatest place to watch a Cup race and its two races are 100 miles too long. But, track owner Dr. Mattioli was there for Bill France Sr. when NASCAR’s patriarch needed a place to expand his growing racing series out of the southeast and so their two races remain on the schedule, for now (although I for one, would like to see one of their dates become a Cup date at Montreal).

Then there’s the redheaded stepchild of International Speedway Corporation — Auto Club Speedway. California Speedway. Fontana. Penske’s Folly. Call it what you will it’s in the middle of what is called the Inland Empire that for out-of-towners is another name for Nowheresville. It was originally designed and built to accommodate Indy Cars and I’ve seen many great open wheel races there (in an era when open wheel cars would reach nearly 250 mph on the backstretch), but they don’t race there anymore. So now we get 3 ½ boring hours of single file, can’t wait until it’s over Cup racing.

I’d like to see ISC change the configuration, either make it smaller like Richmond or bank it higher and turn it into a restrictor plate track. Either one of those changes will bring more people out to the middle of Bumpluck, Egypt to watch a Cup race.

One more thing about ACS that’s always bugged me. Why does track management think that people will drive out to Nowheresville to see a Hollywood star as part of the pre-race festivities? If you live in Los Angeles, you’re likely to see that same person at the local gas station, where you can at least have a conversation and possibly invite them out for a beer.

The obsession with New York City got so bad a few years back that some at ISC actually got themselves believing that they could build a track on Staten Island. Then, everyone sobered up, the sun came up in the morning and many millions of dollars later, the project was abandoned.

Which brings me back to Chicago and the opening round of the 2011 Chase. On that first weekend of the Chase, local sports editors in the tri-state area will have to choose between NASCAR, NCAA football and the football programs at secondary schools in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. If there’s an NFL season (and there likely will be), it will be in its second week and the Bears will be on television playing in New Orleans. Where do you think NASCAR coverage will rank?

No matter what the storylines are headed into that first race (and I know NASCAR hopes the inclusion of Dale Jr. in the Chase is one of them), it’ll be an uphill climb for the NASCAR PR machine for sure.

Coming up: Off The Menu – who would you invite to dinner from NASCAR?

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