Gutsy “Busch Light CLASH at the Coliseum” revs up a large new audience for NASCAR
Who says you cannot have 3-wide racing on a 1/4-mile racetrack?!
You really have to hand it to NASCAR for trying something so radically different for its first race of the 2022 Cup season, in an effort to reverse the trend of declining audiences in recent years.
The annual CLASH exhibition race is NASCAR’s first race of the Cup season, welcoming back fans after the winter to meet the new year’s drivers, see their colorful new sponsor graphics and, this year, to get their first racing look at NASCAR’s radically new Next Gen (Gen-7) racecars.
In past years this race has been held at the Daytona International Speedway, shortly before the season opening Daytona 500, but this year — for the very first time — it would leave Daytona and be held clear across the county at Los Angeles’ Exposition Park, inside the LA Memorial Coliseum.
At only a quarter-mile in length, this track was much shorter than even the shortest tracks that the NASCAR Cup Series races on. Would the Coliseum track be too short to provide the drivers enough room to race each other?
Would the freshly laid asphalt track come up under the weight of these heavy cars as they race lap after lap? Even my pace laps riding in the Toyota Camry pace car generated significant g-force. No one knew what would happen.
It is speculated that the cost to build, and then immediately remove, this quarter-mile, asphalt race track inside the LA Memorial Coliseum (above the grass of its football field , which will have to be replaced, and its irrigation system) was over $1,000,000. The track met NASCAR safety standards, complete with SAFER Barriers, plus strong, tall safety fencing (borrowed from the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, before it is needed for that popular street racing event in April).
The inside of the LA Coliseum is so much smaller than any other racetrack that NASCAR competes on, that the track designers had no choice but to locate the garage area and the haulers several blocks away.
The competitors had to drive their racecars through fenced-off parking lots to get to the Coliseum, and enter through its famous tunnel.
While no one knew for certain if this radical experiment would actually work, the drivers were enthusiastic and expressed their support for racing in the magnificent, historic, LA Memorial Coliseum — site of two Olympics (the first was in 1932) and soon to be three.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. suited up and borrowed Alex Bowman’s Ally Chevrolet on Friday night, to record footage for a Super Bowl pre-game TV commercial — and in the process was one of four drivers who took the first laps around the brand-new racetrack in the Next Gen racecar.
Will this become a lost speedway? With Dale’s “Lost Speedways” TV show in mind, on Saturday I asked him if he would be collecting a sample of this track when they tear it up after the race. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
On Saturday afternoon there was a two-hour practice, followed by single-car qualifying under the Coliseum’s bright lights — to determine the fields and lineups for Sunday’s first four heat races.
On Sunday the drivers could not afford to hold anything back, or risk not making the field, since there were more cars (36) than spots in the starting grid (23) for the 150-lap feature.
The format for this CLASH was more like that for a traditional local short track race. The day began with four qualifying, nine-car heat races, followed by two last-chance qualifiers that would set the field for the 150-lap CLASH. Despite the very short track, there was still plenty of passing, with cars racing up to three-wide at times, and then some!
The new composite bodies were tested, as there was plenty of ‘bumping & banging’ going on — especially in the second last-chance qualifier, with its seven cautions and the elimination of Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman, due to damage to their cars. The new composite bodies likely kept tire failures to a minimum, whereas in the past damaged metal bodies tended to cut tires down.
BUMPING & BANGING
Thanks to this year’s new, larger wheels, there are also larger brakes, which seemed to work really well, given the number of cars that locked them up going into the tight turns. Pit stops this year (beginning with the Daytona 500) will probably be quicker, now that NASCAR has changed from five conventional lug nuts to one large, central locking nut per wheel.
To sweeten the deal for those who attended in-person, NASCAR added a pre-race concert with rapper and NASCAR race team co-owner Pit Bull (and dancers!), on-stage in the peristyle.
At a break mid-way through the feature race, LA’s popular rapper Ice Cube entertained during a half-time concert.
The 150-lap “Busch Light CLASH at the Coliseum” went by quickly, given the very short laps. Laps that were driven under “caution” were not counted.
The race did not have the wild, last laps shootout that many had expected. Joey Logano, with his wife due to have a baby the next day, would not be beaten, leading pole-sitter and racing laps leader Kyle Busch across the Start/Finish line by a comfortable margin.
Was this project an insane thing to do, as some speculated? No, it was actually brilliant, and hugely successful. According to a FOX Sports PR tweet on Feb. 8th, citing Neilson Media Research, the inaugural Busch Light CLASH at the Coliseum delivered 4,283,000 viewers — way up by 168% over last year’s 1,598,000 viewers. This was the “most viewers for the event since 2016.” The tweet went on to say that Los Angeles had its best non-Daytona 500 Cup Series rating (2.7) in nearly six years.
70% of the fans in attendance had never been to a NASCAR race before. This is definitive proof that NASCAR’s read of the potential LA-centered audience was right on the mark.
Sure enough — shortly after 6:00 PM on Sunday, as I sat in the empty grandstands eating my chicken parmigiana and vegetables dinner (thank you NASCAR!) — workers had already begun to tear the track apart.
For more information, visit www.nascar.com.
For more racing action, join me again later this month as I cover NHRA Winternationals drag racing in Pomona, followed by the NASCAR race weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
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