Race tracks in Southern California tend to be quite far away from “civilization.” Usually, you’re due for at least a two hour drive (at minimum) to remote locations, known for little else other than the racetracks often of the same name. Even if you live in the Northern-most part of Los Angeles (county, not city-of), Willow Springs is over 60 miles away. Buttonwillow Raceway Park, one of my favorite tracks in SoCal, requires that you head up the I-5 as if you were going to San Francisco, and then make a detour out into prarielands, some 100 miles or so North of North L.A. When the traffic Gods turn on you, either of these destinations will be more like three to four hours away. If you want to go to Chuckwalla, which no one ever knows where that is, it’s easier to explain that you’re considering driving to Arizona.
But, there’s an alternative. AAA - Auto Club Speedway, a popular venue for NASCAR is also home to regularly held track events. Located in Fontana, California, about 40 miles East of L.A., Auto Club is the closest SoCal track to civilzation. You can leave the facility and find things such as: other living beings, food, shelter, and cell phone signal. It’s a revelation.
You may be saying “why would you want to drive just a NASCAR oval in a street car?” That’s a fair question, NASCAR is fun it it’s own way, but it’s not for all of us, myself included. Fortunately for all of us, the fine folks of ACS opted to design an in-field road course that weaves between the Oval and the paddock and grounds inside of the oval.
Depending on how it’s set up, the infield road course, is a short, but technically challenging design. Also, quick cars will touch 130mph between T13 and T1, so it’s faster than it looks.
But what if you wanted more?
Speed junkies clamored for more, and the ROVAL was born.
Combining the technical elements of the infield with half of the NASCAR oval, the ROVAL has proven to be the popular track day and club racing configuration here. Fast cars will exceed 150mph in the front straight, and carry speeds in excess of 130mph through the banking of T2. This track rewards those who with bravery, as even at these high speeds, from the exit of T21 onto the oval to the infield entrace of T3, the oval is approximately 40% of your total lap time.
It’s time for a new adventure, in a new place. Before we can jump into this, we need to back up to the day before:
One oil change, quickie bleed fluid touch up and a brake inspection, coming right up.
Glove up for safety:
Visual inspection checks out. Pistons look okay. A few of the dust boots are loose, but that’s also fine. One of the boots tore clean off, which is annoying. The front pads look like they have one track day left before needing to be changed.
Okay, let’s pack things up and get on with the show.
And just like that, we were here.
It has to be said that ACS is a spectacular facility, for drivers and spectators alike. Granted, this shouldn’t be surprising considering that their slated capacity is 68,000 people. Still, the pit garages are large, plentiful and clean. The driver’s debriefing room is an actual conference room and not just a half-used garage. Restrooms are regularly serviced, oh yeah, and the view for spectating is excellent!
Our motley crew:
A view of some of today’s cars:
After unpacking, checking the cars over, and fueling up, it was off to the Driver’s meeting.
I want to reiterate how refreshing it is to run with Speed Ventures. The clientele that they attract are usually faster, better drivers and the people running the show keep everything organized, easy to navigate and timely. Many thanks to them.
After the driver’s meeting, the first run group of the day began to grid up. Since I had about 45 minutes of free time, I decided to hit the grandstands.
The views here are killer.
If the Roval view isn’t to your liking, you can also take a stroll to the other side of the paddock and visit “the bridge.” Made from two shipping containers cut in half, the bridge is exactly what it sounds like, going over the infield course, allowing for access to the inside of the course:
Eventually, I was up.
As our group idled through the paddock, and into the pit lane, it happened. I was overcome with by a wave of excitement. Rolling up next to the Oval, it strikes me as to how huge it is. If they were feeling brave, I could see a four-way battle breaking out on the front straight. The banking is steep, yet progressive, and is way deeper than pictures convey. I’m excited.
And it exciting it was! I didn’t bother to film this first session, as it was my first time here, and I was sure that it wouldn’t be too impressive a spectacle. It’s bizarre being at a “new” track. You have no sort of expectations for yourself or the car. It’s a great way to be out of your element, and very refreshing.
The Oval was a blast. My first time out there, I was skirting 150mph in the straight, before wussing out and slowing to about 115mph for the banking. With some practice, I could easily carry more speed through there.
The most noticeable handling characteristic was oversteer. The infield was much more loose in feel than other tracks. The car was very tail happy, and amusing to drive. I would exit a lot of corners at the bottom of 3rd gear and the car would still transition into lovely, deep, controllable slides. Loose is fast, as it allows the car to turn and transition quickly, too loose, and you’re losing time blazing rubber and drifting all over the place.
Time: 2:09.5, with a lot of room for improvement.
Now I had a game plan. I knew where to push, where not to push, and generally how the car would react. There were still some surprises in terms of braking and turn-in points, where the car would turn faster or slower, or brake sooner than I anticipated. I lowered the rear tire pressure a touch to try and counteract the sliding, but not too much because it was a ton of fun to drive as is.
This time I was firmly hitting the 155mph speed limiter in the front straight, and carrying about 120 through the banking.
Well, there was still sliding, and some second gear rolling burnouts, but that’s the power of power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Time: 2:01.9, progress!
I felt that the car had a good balance in it’s current setup, so I changed nothing. You can imagine my surprise when I ended up going much slower than the previous session. You can imagine that surprise up until you watch this incriminating video showing exactly why my lap times did not improve:
Enjoy the corny royalty-free music. The external mic attached to the GoPro was in and out all day, resulting in half the lap just being static.
Time: 2:02.7. Leaving tire smoke coming out of T9: Priceless.
“Alright, try to be calm, try to be calm, don’t drift half the infield, try to be calm. Oh hey I can take the oval way faster than I thought.”
That pretty much sums up session #4. Things were tidier, I got a little bit braver, and the results speak to that.
The Hankook tires had taken a beating and had noticeably dropped off in terms of performance, but that’s alright for my first event at ACS. That said, the tidier driving paid dividends:
So close to the going sub-2, but it just wasn’t meant to be today. That’s alright, I have a sneaking suspicion that for my next event here, I’ll come back swinging [Note: As of writing this story, I already managed to squeeze in another track day here with fresh rubber. Holy smokes. Stay tuned :)].
All that remained for the day was an abbreviated fifth session as an end cap. I loaded the car up with my friend Daud and set out to finish those rear tires in spectacular fashion.
Or, I would have done that, but two laps out the car lost it’s brakes and there was a disconcerting, constant, loud grinding noise coming from the car. Hmm.
The rear brake pads were toast. The grinding sound was from the backing plate grinding into the rotor. I know I’m hard on brakes, but goddamn! Oh well, it was the end of the day, so I packed my things up, said my goodbyes to my track day buddies, and began to head home. My tires were hosed too, ACS is apparently brutal on both brakes and tires.
The baby Bimmer did well for it’s inaugural outing at Autoclub. Time to come back from fresh brakes and rubber and go deep in the 1:5x’s.
If you’re in SoCal, or even close by, you definitely need to make time for a track day at ACS, it’s worth the drive for you NorCal folks. Momentum cars can drive flat out for almost the whole track,and power cars hit top speeds unheard of at other venues, it’s a blast. Beyond the actual track day, you can leave the track and find civilization (and great Mexican food!), and the proximity for me covers the price premium of an Auto Club track day with fuel saved getting there and back. I was home in just under an hour, and felt oddly refreshed. Compare that with being exhausted beyond belief coming home from other tracks, and benefits really stack up in ACS’ favor. Finally, I get to brag about running a famous NASCAR oval. Even if you’re not a NASCAR fan, that’s still pretty cool. It makes me one step closer to being a race car driver, in my mind at least.
Jake Stumph is a track day bro and freelance writer. If you find his antics amusing, or want to know more about getting on track, trying to win an SCCA Autocross championship, or what it’s like trying to keep car’s track ready and not explode violently, then you can follow him on Facebook. He posts amusing anecdotes, track-side reports and fun pictures.