Props to NASCAR for not merely thinking outside the box but for also shredding the box into tiny pieces and then incinerating what’s left.
Last year, in an effort to reconnect with lapsed fans and attract new ones, America’s most powerful sanctioning body staged races on the road circuit at Daytona, on the dirt at Bristol and in the rain at COTA. But in about a week, NASCAR will take its biggest swing at the ball when it opens the 2022 season on a temporary track fashioned out of an American football stadium.
The venue is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a landmark that’s hosted two Olympic Games, two Super Bowls, a World Series and a papal mass since it was built in 1923. On February 6, it will be the site of the Busch Light Clash, and even though the event is an exhibition rather than a points-paying race, the competition should be fierce.
“I’ve talked to a few drivers, and I think each of them wants to be the one to put their name on that first trophy for the inaugural event,” says Patrick Rogers, the NASCAR vice president in charge of building the track. “I don’t know that I’d want to be the leader going into the last lap, that’s for sure.”
The race grew out of internal NASCAR discussions in 2019 about the future of the series. Although the executive offices are in Daytona Beach, Florida, and virtually all the teams are based around Charlotte, North Carolina, NASCAR has long since outgrown its blue-collar Southern roots. Believe it or not, chi-chi Southern California is stock-car country.
“If you look at the data, LA is our biggest market per capita,” Rogers says. “It’s also our biggest market for Hispanic fans. And also, number one with that younger demographic we’re going after – 18-to-34-year-olds. So it’s imperative that we have a presence out there.”
Auto Club Speedway in nearby Fontana has been on the NASCAR schedule since 1997. But poor attendance for everything other than the annual Cup Series race has led to rumours that the facility will be dismantled, leaving NASCAR without a footprint in Southern California. Because no viable alternatives existed, NASCAR execs started noodling over the idea of transforming the Coliseum into a temporary short track.
As it happens, NASCAR has been down this road before. Stock cars raced at Soldier Field, another monumental American football stadium, in the 1950s. There was also a race at a Southern baseball field. (This one featured Lee Petty’s car wedged nose-first in a dugout.) Bowman Gray Stadium, a small football arena, has been hosting events since 1949.
Transforming a facility that’s showcased everything from a Nelson Mandela rally to a Rolling Stones concert into a racetrack was obviously a much more ambitious undertaking. But general manager Joe Furin wasn’t scared away when he was approached by NASCAR officials. On the contrary, he says, “I was here when Mickey Thompson ran his off-road trucks at the Coliseum. I’ve seen the, quote, unquote, radical change from a football field to something completely different. So, honestly, my initial reaction was, logistically, there’s no problem.”
Thompson, renowned for his exploits at Bonneville and Indianapolis, inaugurated the sport of stadium racing with the first Off-Road Gran Prix at the Coliseum in 1979. Races continued to be run there into the 1990s. (One of the stars was a young kid named Jimmie Johnson.) More recently, Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks have hurtled through the iconic peristyle where gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson famously rekindled the Olympic torch in 1984.
NASCAR leased the facility after the Kanye West/Drake concert in early December. Since then, 9,200 cubic yards of base material and 13,700 cubic yards of asphalt have been gingerly laid down over the gridiron. (Although the grass will die, care has to be taken to avoid damaging the irrigation system.) Rogers estimates the entire project will cost roughly $1 million.
NASCAR opted for a quarter-mile track with flat straightaways and corners banked at 2.5 degrees – essentially a half-size version of Martinsville Speedway. For safety reasons, and to ensure good sightlines, the front 14 rows of the grandstands won’t be used. Rogers says he expects seating capacity to be in the low-to-mid-50,000 range. “Ticket sales are trending really, really well,” he says.
Because the track is too small to accommodate the entire NASCAR armada – typically about 38 cars – the event will be run in a multi-part format. There will be four 25-lap heat races, with the top four finishers from each advancing to the final. This will be followed by two last-chance-qualifying races, with the first three moving on to the feature. The 23rd and final spot will be reserved for the highest points finisher in 2021. The feature race will be 150 laps, with a mandatory break halfway through because there isn’t enough space to accommodate green-flag pit stops.
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With such a tight track and nothing on the line other than pride and prize money, the Clash is bound to produce carnage and bruised feelings in roughly equal measures. “I think the heat races will be fairly safe because nobody’s going to want to risk using up their car,” Rogers says. “But I think the last-chance qualifier races are going to be intense. And then the Clash itself, man ….” I can almost hear him shrugging over the phone.
As with any first-time event, teething pains are inevitable – especially since the race will also mark the debut of the revolutionary Next Gen stock car, which represents a paradigm shift for a series that has often seemed impervious to technological advances. But the early signs suggest that the race at the Coliseum won’t be a one-and-done deal.
“It makes sense to come back and do this for a few years, and then maybe you’ll build a model that you take to another venue, or you go to another market, or maybe you can go overseas,” Rogers says.
Heads up, Formula 1. NASCAR may be headed your way.