In recent years, the NASCAR Cup Series has only made one stop in Southern California at The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Built in 1997 on the site of an old Kaiser Steel Mill roughly sixty miles east of Los Angeles, the Speedway’s two-mile oval track is a technical challenge for racers.
While it’s not as outwardly visible as other sports, NASCAR requires quick minute adjustments to perform at a high level and keep control of the car. All racetracks have a unique surface texture that affects things like tire choice and what line a racer can safely take. Auto Club Speedway hasn’t been repaved since it was built, and twenty years of racing have molded the track into an uneven destination for frequent passing and historically close finishes.
This past weekend was the third time the Speedway played host to HARD Summer, the dance/electronic music festival started in 2007 by Gary Richards. Dance music fans mirror the respect NASCAR racers have for the track: They don’t mind if it’s a little uneven at times.
Originally, the festival was hosted in downtown Los Angeles, but in 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors established an ordinance requiring that electronic music festivals comply with recommendations from an EDM task force if the event expects more than 10,000 attendees. This was likely a deterring measure on the part of local government in response to drug-related deaths at EDM events, and as such HARD Summer has taken its 150,000 average attendance to venues across the Inland Empire for the last four years.
On August 4-5, the festival, now fully operated by Insomniac Events, spread its six tents and stages across the length of the Speedway extending down the middle of what looked like part of the drag strip and pit areas. If you paid attention to the ground you could see the “tar snakes” -- shiny and slick sealed cracks in the asphalt -- that give the track its weathered reputation. While the enormous festival footprint is obviously required for the volume of attendees, there’s a natural exhaustion factor to the layout once you’ve trekked it for the fourth time in a day during peak desert heat.
The promoters used sheets of green felt to minimize the heat screaming off the pavement and to soften the ground. This mostly worked well, unless the felt edges folded over and fans had to avoid tripping on the bunches. On Sunday the temperature reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the festival included a considerable number of industrial-size fans, tents, awnings and mist tunnels to keep the crowd from overheating. And once a crescent moon replaced the sun over the empty red and yellow bleachers that usually seat racing fans, none of the festival-goers remembered the heat.
Even during the sweltering hours between noon and 5 p.m. attendees were eager for the dance and rap acts spread across the track. Besides the standard music festival fare of water stations, food vendors and expensive Coronas, there were markings of the largely Gen Z demographic: Pickle Rick totems, CUDI SAVED MY LIFE sleeveless t-shirts and a small booth tucked away in the V.I.P. section where you could get your Juul engraved.
Due to travel and the logistics of parking and entering the Speedway, there were noticeably fewer people inside during the day on Saturday. Still there were significant crowds for early Saturday sets, whether they preferred Swedish DJ Kasbo and his cooling BPMs or the stuffy atmosphere of East Hollywood degenerates Shoreline Mafia, a last-minute addition to the lineup. That night, while GTA and a packed stage of friends frenzied the crowd at the east end, Kid Cudi closed out the main stage with a mixture of his recent work with Kanye West on last year’s Kids See Ghost, and what many in the crowd seemed to consider formative music from his early career.
Sunday’s rising temperatures didn’t ward off the crowd from the theatrical and L.A.-centric performance by Yultron or the entrancing set of a red-spectacled Lauren Lane. As A-Trak was mixing YG’s latest hit “Go Loco” on the east main stage, the Purple Tent started a five artist run of hip-hop acts to close out the festival.
Rapper-producer JPEGMAFIA squished his self-described “dirty-ass rap music” and diatribes against Morrissey between the bubble-gum stylings of MadeinTYO and the surprisingly well-aged, original viral Internet rap deity, Soulja Boy. Before marquee acts Major Lazer, Flux Pavilion and Gunna simultaneously closed the stages, Kenny Beats blended current Los Angeles rap hits from AzChike and 1TakeJay with live performances from collaborators Rico Nasty, JPEGMAFIA, and comedian Zack Fox.
While you would have hoped for more Los Angeles rap representation from HARD Summer, the music was universally well-received when it echoed down the drag strip. That local acknowledgement in more prominent positions would have distinguished them from newer events like Rolling Loud, who have dominated the space of rap festivals with lineups featuring HARD Summer crossovers like Gunna and Juice WRLD.
Los Angeles rap fans weren’t the key audience demographic for HARD Summer, though. As a dance festival, it represented the range found in the genre today, from booming trap to condensed house, and peppered the lineup with rap acts that exist well in both spaces. I can’t recall hearing an attendee complaint during the two days and, given the logistical difficulties of hosting a festival at a racetrack in 100 degree weather, that’s an accomplishment.