Hillwood’s Acquisition Of Fontana Acreage Means Demise Of Speedway

More than 50 years after the ultimately unsuccessful effort to establish Southern California as world-class professional racing venue, officials have once more given up on that Quixotic dream.
This week, San Bernardino County officials threw in the towel on the quarter of a century-long effort to have the Fontana Speedway take its place on the world stage with the likes of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona, Le Mans Circuit de la Sarthe, Shanghai International Circuit, Circuit de Monaco and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Ross Perot Jr’s Dallas-based Hillwood Development Company and Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis Investment Management acquired the 433-acre property for just under $560 million, it was announced this week. Simultaneously disclosed was that Hillwood, which in the last three decades has acquired almost 250 million square feet of land which it has developed or otherwise converted into industrial/warehousing or logistics space/operations along with developing 90 residential communities nationwide, is intent on transforming the property now known as Auto Club Speedway into what is referred to as a “logistics hub.” Word was that 6.6 million square feet of the property will be utilized as warehousing, logistics facilities and trucking/transport headquarters. The property falls within 2.5 miles of the I-10, I-210 and I-15 freeways, and is immediately adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe/Union Pacific Southern Pacific railway line.
While the precise involvement of Ross Perot Jr, the scion of the late Texas Instruments founder and 1992 and 1996 independent presidential candidate, was not anticipated, the sale was to some degree presaged by the ownership/management of the Auto Club Speedway obtaining in 2021 permission from San Bernardino County to reduce the footprint of the existing two-mile track in favor of developing a more modest half-mile track and beginning preliminary efforts toward creating a less-than-fully-described logistics center on the property, which had been reclaimed from what had once been the Kaiser Steel Mill.
The Fontana Speedway, which found the Auto Club as its sponsor a decade-and-a-half ago, came to life while Dave Eshleman, Fontana’s “racing mayor,” was in office. Though the facility lies within the community of Fontana and the city’s sphere of influence, it stands on unincorporated county land, over which San Bernardino County and its land use services division have authority.
The Fontana power play by Hillwood, which more than two decades ago entered into a public-private partnership with the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and the Inland Valley Development Authority and was able to effectuate its strategy of constructing the massive-scale Eastgate Air Cargo Facility on the northeast portion of what was formerly Norton Air Force Base as a key element of the effective transformation of the aerodrome in the county seat to civilian use, comes amid intense controversy over the construction of warehousing and logistics-related projects in the Inland Empire. While Fontana’s mayor for the last 12 plus years, Acquanetta Warren, has embraced warehouse development and welcomed both warehouse operators and developers building such facilities at City Hall’s planning counter and through its land use approval processes, residents of Fontana and elsewhere in San Bernardino County as well as public officials with other local cities have begun to question whether warehousing represents the highest and best use of land still readily available for development in the region. Based upon environmental considerations, urban planners have begun to question the wisdom of wholesale construction of warehouses throughout the area, particularly as warehouse operations entail a heavy reliance on large diesel-burning trucks and generated excessive traffic. Economists, as well, have sounded a note of caution with regard to warehouse construction, pointing to the relatively paltry wages paid to warehouse workers. In 2021, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed suit against Fontana over what he maintained was the city’s inadequate examination and regulation of environmental issues pertaining to the operation of warehouses the city was routinely approving for construction.
Hillwood, apparently, was unfazed by the sometimes hostile reception warehouse proposals are garnering, evincing confidence that Warren, who was reelected last year and will remain in place at least until 2026 and has sufficient funding in her electioneering account to remain as mayor beyond that, will prove accommodating of the company’s plans, whether it chooses to construct the logistics hub under the county’s regulations or annex into the City of Fontana before proceeding.
Southern California, with its Long Beach and San Pedro ports and available rail lines along with its interstate freeway system running across the country to the East Coast and north to Canada, is considered the preeminent logistics center nationwide. Despite the saturation of warehouses and logistics facilities in the Inland Empire, which includes both San Bernardino and Riverside counties, only 1.2 percent of the space in those facilities was vacant last year, while lease rates in the sector increased by more than 30 percent on average. The vacancy rate on warehousing in Fontana approached zero during the same timeframe, according to Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis. For that reason, both Hillwood and Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis are convinced that planting the warehouse/logistics flag in Fontana is a sound investment scheme.
They will not be giving up entirely on having a racing venue at the property. Once the two-mile Auto Club Speedway track is shut down, another track, roughly one-quarter its length, which is scheduled to be completed by 2024, will reopen on a 90-acre site. Some 106 acres on the property will be available for a parking lot for the race venue while offering ample space for truck parking for the logistics hub.
Meanwhile, Eshleman, one of Warren’s predecessors who died in a bulldozer rollover mishap in May 2021, is spinning in his grave. Eshleman was wildly enthusiastic about what at that time was branded as California Speedway and the NASCAR events it hosted becoming a celebrated element of the Fontana community. Development of the Fontana track, designed by Roger Penske, began in 1995, shortly after the initiation of Eshleman’s first term as mayor. In rapid fashion, the project progressed, and the track was completed and opened in 1996. The venue hosted its first NASCAR race in 1997.
NASCAR and other types of races have remained a strong draw, and that puzzles many fans who cannot understand why the track is going to be razed if it is so popular and successful. As recently as February 26, the Pala 400 NASCAR CUP Series race held there sold out, despite inclement weather.
Like Ontario Motor Speedway, which hosted the inaugural California 500 in 1969 in what was hoped would become a West Coast version of the Indianapolis 500, Auto Club Speedway is surrendering to fiscal reality, which holds that amount of acreage in Southern California is more profitably utilized either or both commercial or industrial endeavors than as a car racing venue.
-Mark Gutglueck 

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