AutoMatters & More: NASCAR’s Auto Club 400 in Southern California

Jimmie Johnson passes Kevin Harvick on the backstretch for the win

On a beautiful, sunny day in Fontana, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made its one and only stop in Southern California for the 2016 season.

The Auto Club 400 was a nail biter right until the end, when California driver and local favorite Jimmie Johnson in his Hendrick Motorsports #48 Lowe’s/Superman Chevrolet got quick service in a late race pit stop – under the watchful supervision of his long time crew chief Chad Knaus. Jimmie then outsmarted the competition and charged from a few spots back in the field to pass Kevin Harvick – who had led most of the race – for the lead when it counted, on the last lap, to take the checkered flag and victory!

That was how the race ended but for fans of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, the race to the checkered flag is only the highlight of their weekend. There is so much more to see and do.

Tech inspection with templates

Many dedicated NASCAR fan families follow the circuit across the country in their motor homes, taking in as many race weekends as they are able. Long before they take their seats in the grandstands, they park in the grassy infield and set up for the weekend in instant towns, with their kids riding around on their bikes and food cooking on the BBQ.

A large fan zone offers live entertainment, contests, opportunities to meet favorite drivers, all sorts of souvenirs of the various race teams, and a variety of food to eat and beverages to drink – much like at a county fair.

A big part of going to the races is getting to spend time in the garage area, up close to the colorful race cars as the teams make adjustments to prepare them for qualifying and the race. Guided tours are readily available and, at Auto Club Speedway, race fans may enter a garage and walk along an elevated walkway to see from overhead the teams as they work on their racecars below.

Racing in Turn 1 at 207 MPH

Qualifying is held to determine how the cars will line up to start the race, but before the cars are allowed to race they must pass tech inspection. Lined up and pushed along by team members, the cars proceed slowly towards the NASCAR Tech Inspection tent, where an overhead framework is lowered close to the car. Brand-specific templates (Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota) are attached to the frame and placed next to each car, to make sure that their body dimensions and shapes are in compliance with NASCAR’s rules.

Shortly before the big race, fans are allowed to walk along pit lane to see all of the cars lined up. They also gather on the front stretch to watch and cheer as the drivers are introduced on the stage, just before they are paraded in pickup trucks around the track.

Teams are ready for a pit stop

In NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, some rules have the effect of keeping cars close to each other during the race, which makes the racing more exciting. Caution laps, driven at reduced speed for anything from major wrecks to debris spotted on the racetrack, tighten up the field. Under certain circumstances, when there is a caution the nearest lapped car to the leader gets a “free pass” that advances that car by one lap. This gives drivers who have gone laps down the possibility to make up laps.

Racing pit stops are rehearsed over and over again, and are exciting to watch. In only a few seconds the crews can change two or four tires, pour in cans of fuel, make chassis and other adjustments, and then send their cars out with a cloud of smoke billowing from under their spinning rear tires, as the drivers race each other to the line at the end of the pit lane – being careful to not break the speed limit, for which they would suffer a pit lane speeding penalty.

Carl Edwards’ Subway Toyota pit stop

Even the end of the race can be adjusted for the benefit of “the show.” A set of rules surround the concept of a green – white – checker situation, whereby if there is a very late race caution, the track is cleaned up and the race goes into overtime – to improve the chances of providing an exciting finish for the race fans, as opposed to just letting the race finish slowly under caution.

That, my friends, is the essence of a NASCAR race.

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Copyright © 2016 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #430r1