It seems as though there is always something happening at California Speedway. The NASCAR track has been part of the motorsport landscape since it first opened its gates in 1950 and has remained one of the most popular venues since then. The track recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and over the years, the track layout has undergone multiple changes, some for the better and some for the worse. In this article, we’ll take a trip back in time to explore some of the most significant updates to the layout of the famed oval.
In the very early days, the track was nothing more than a dirt road with a few grandstands and some grassy areas to sit or lie down in before the races. The track was originally known as Riverside Speedway and when it opened its doors in 1950, it had a seating capacity of 5,500 spectators. The first asphalt sports car race was held at the track on June 22nd, 1954 with a capacity crowd in attendance.
In its first few years, the track layout was relatively simple. The turns were fairly short and there were only a few cars per race (generally between 3-6), meaning there wasn’t a lot of passing going on. This resulted in lots of one-sided races where the side with the better traction would typically win. The starting grid for the first few races was determined by the draw of lots and the feature race in each event was often decided by a single-car showdown. This was in essence the Golden State Raceways format that is still used today. Before the advent of the polycarbonate windshields that we see on most race cars today, drivers would often wear bandanas around their heads to protect their helmets from getting torn off during the race. This happened more often than not since the track was laid out in a way that forced the drivers to frequently cut each other off in order to improve their chances of winning. During that time period, some of the most memorable names in motorsport competed at the track including Richard Petty, Joe Boyce, Fred Lorenzen, and George Snider.
As the track grew in significance and popularity, it became apparent that a few improvements were needed. For one, the track needed more room. Shortly after the inception of the new layout, the grassy area directly behind the grandstands was leveled out and trees were planted to provide some much-needed shade. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the track underwent a significant re-configuration. The original track was approximately 1.6 miles long, making it one of the shorter tracks on the circuit. The corners were sharp and there were no real slow-turns, resulting in a high rate of accidents and incidents. To combat this, the turning points were moved and the entire track was stretched out, resulting in a 2.4 mile race route.
This new layout was met with mixed reviews. While the longer distance provided a more scenic route for the spectators, it put a damper on the competitive prospects of the event. Due to the longer distance, the average lap time increased from 12.6 to 14.4 minutes, meaning that the overall pace of the race slowed down significantly. This wasn’t beneficial to the overall health of the sport. By making the turns longer and straighter, the track designers sacrificed a little bit of its uniqueness, as well as its ability to be competitive. One of the biggest gripes that the fans had with the new layout was the lack of variety in the turns. The new turns consisted of a long, sweeping bend followed by a short straightaway. This meant that the cars would constantly be speeding up and slowing down, causing a severe strain on the drivers’ legs and an increased risk of accidents or incidents.
Things started to change in the 1990s when NASCAR made the decision to allow the use of traction control devices and ABS brakes on race cars. This resulted in safer and more sophisticated race cars. The shorter the track, the more exposure the driver and vehicle have to the wind, which can make or break a driver’s chance of winning. This is particularly relevant in a place like California, where the wind is always a factor and can either help or hurt your cause. With the introduction of these new technologies, the sport started to see a resurgence. To capitalize on this, Hockenheimring, which is equivalent to California Speedway in terms of its layout and size, was among the first tracks to implement the new guidelines. This resulted in the track being significantly lengthened and several new turns and curves added to the mix. The overall effect was a more interesting array of turns, which provided a better sense of variety for the drivers and spectators.
The Biggest Change
The most significant change to California Speedway came in 2014, when NASCAR introduced an entirely new track layout. Current track president Jody Shookbaum, who took over for former NASCAR chief Brian France a few years back, stated that the new layout would result in “more action, more passing, and more variety in the races.” Shookbaum went on to state that “This new version of the race track brings everything we have been striving for since it opened.” The new 1.9 mile layout takes the shape of a giant ‘H’, extending from the back of the grandstands to beyond the backstretch, as the name implies. The big idea behind the new design is to put the emphasis on the drivers, as opposed to the cars, by making the turns progressively tighter, adding in real slow-turns and chicanes to create interesting and dynamic opportunities for the participants. The result is an overall more interesting race, regardless of whether you’re a spectator or a driver.
The new track is an evolution of sorts, incorporating the best bits of previous incarnations while eliminating the flaws that have been noted over the years. Gone are the long, smooth straights and the open road that the early years of the track saw. Instead, we have a mix of various turns, including some that are very reminiscent of Sonoma, where Shookbaum has a fondness for racing. The track also now features some tight hairpins, which provide a close-up glimpse of the cars and their drivers, or the grandstands and their spectacular views of the race, depending on which side of the track you’re on.
The new track was an instant hit with fans and drivers alike. The tighter turns and the added interest provided by the new layout resulted in the biggest attendance at races in years. With the track being such an integral part of NASCAR history, the sport has a special place in its heart for this iconic track.
Ultimately, California Speedway has been through it all and has remained one of the most popular tracks in the industry, due in part to its wonderful atmosphere and its ability to bring in fans from near and far. It is always an interesting experience to take a trip back in time to explore how a track layout has evolved over the years. The story of California Speedway will continue to be written as time passes and more significant changes are sure to be made.