"They did a really good job out here." That was the general consensus of fans and race officials who attended the opening night Saturday at Kern County Raceway Park.
What looked like a capacity crowd of 8,000 fans showed up, to the delight of NASCAR and park officials, even while park accommodations were overwhelmed. Families with small children, young and mature couples, hipsters with piercings and tattoos, good ol' boys and groups of teenagers all appeared excited and happy, all but the youngest having waited years to again attend a local NASCAR-sanctioned race.
"Beautiful," said Tom and Marilyn Kirk, in unison, with Tom adding: "This is awesome, this is a real track."
The Kirks were regulars at Mesa Marin and also at Bakersfield Speedway. Marilyn said fans were not happy when Mesa Marin closed.
"That track was there long before those people bought those houses," Kirk said. "So I was a little mad."
The Kirks said they liked the wide open track and spacious seating, but hadn't committed to season tickets yet.
"Not yet, we're deciding," Tom Kirk said.
"I used to live out (by Mesa Marin) and we always used to go there when I was a kid," said 16-year-old Shelby Martin. "Now that this is open we're going here."
Martin attended the race with her family and her friend Savannah August, 15. Both teens said they were happy with the new track.
"I like how it's big and it's just really nice and clean," August said.
Reese Maricich, 10, came to his first race with his dad, Jim, an employee of Lewis Barricade, the company that placed all the traffic signs for the raceway.
"I think I'm going to see action," Reese said. "I know about big cars: they go fast, lots of seat belts and they have really cool drivers."
Rooting for local drivers seems to be a big attraction beyond the action of the track. Fans are devoted to these young drivers, who are beginning their careers at this track, which hosts the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series developmental races.
"This track is a big deal for us up and down the state," said Ken Clapp, a former NASCAR vice president and a consultant for the track.
Clapp said there hasn't been a NASCAR track of this type between Stockton and Irwindale since Mesa Marin closed.
"We needed a support in the central-south part of the state," Clapp said. "This fulfills that."
Clapp and NASCAR business development director Bob Duvall gave the raceway park a "9.75 out of 10" compared to other tracks around the country.
"This is the newest, nicest track that we've sanctioned in the last decade," Duvall said. "It's also the newest track in North America."
Both men praised the construction of the track, the facilities, and also the community support for the track, which they hope will continue. They also liked the "fan-friendly" amenities.
The KCRP includes general admission bleacher seating, a reserved section and two patios that are open to everyone. There are 21 suites in the four-story concrete and steel grandstand: they go for $2,000 a night or $40,000 a year. One suite owner, Kevin Small, said it's worth it.
"For a half-mile track, the facilities here are as good as any in the nation except for Bristol (Motor Speedway)," Small said.
Even without a suite, there's not a bad seat in the house. Fans can see directly into the pits to watch everything going on. The multiple tracks -- one-eighth, one-quarter and half mile -- accommodate events to please everyone. An army of security guards, visible and accessible, kept the crowds moving and answered questions cheerfully. There is ample parking, and people were able to move smoothly from the ticket booth through the security check. A lot of parents outfitted their children with noise-reduction headsets, a safety precaution against the roar of the race cars' engines. There is also plenty of wheelchair and power chair access.
The best of the amenities: The raceway faces east, which means the grandstand is between you and the sun. By 4:30 p.m., most of the fans were sitting in the shade.
No opening night is without its problems. Most went unnoticed, but three weren't: Just after the opening ceremony, a fan suffered a heart attack. Media director Steven Blakesley said it took 45 minutes for a second ambulance to arrive, "which is just unacceptable," he said.
While women's bathrooms are traditionally hidden from view, the women's bathrooms at the KCRP were too well hidden; eventually, signs were taped up to direct fans.
Probably presenting the biggest PR problem for the track occurred at the concession stands. The 16 concession windows were busy all evening, with as many as 25 people in lines. Some fans reported standing in the lines an hour. According to two food employees, the concessioner kept running out of food, necessitating the caterer to bring in an industrial-strength barbecue and cook on site. Even that didn't help the lines.
"It's crazy," said Ted Coakley of Bakersfield, who was standing in one of the lines.
The food servers stayed cheerful as they were forced to keep apologizing, but tempers wore a little thin as fans who had drawn the short straw for going for food found they had missed a lot of the action.
"I won't do this again," Coakley said. "I'll eat at home next time."
Despite these problems, fans were treated to a full evening's entertainment in a facility that seemed to please everyone.
"I can't take any credit for what they did here," Clapp said, referring to the track's owners.
"This is huge," Duvall said. "From our perspective, it's great."
"We want people to realize there is NASCAR racing in their community," Duvall added.