NASCAR goes West to LA Coliseum as warmup for the Super Bowl

FILE - Overall view of the Los Angeles Coliseum before an NCAA college football game between Southern California and Washington State in Los Angeles, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. NASCAR is sliding into Los Angeles a week ahead of the Super Bowl with the exhibition Clash, the unofficial season-opening NASCAR version of the Pro Bowl, moved from Daytona to the iconic Memorial Coliseum. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, File) (Alex Gallardo, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is hitting Los Angeles a week ahead of the Super Bowl, grabbing the spotlight with its wildest idea yet: The Clash, the unofficial season-opening, stock-car version of the Pro Bowl, will run at the iconic Coliseum in a made-for-Fox Sports spectacular.

Yes, that's correct. A temporary track has been built inside the Coliseum, where race cars will rattle around a quarter mile of asphalt carefully laid over the grass field that has hosted two summer Olympics, the USC Trojans and the hometown Rams for four seasons until their new stadium opened in 2020.

The first Super Bowl in 1967 was played at the Coliseum, but the Rams will play for the NFL championship 10 miles away at Sofi Stadium a week from Sunday. NASCAR is offering an appetizer with its season-opening event, until now raced every year since its 1979 inception at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

Run under different formats with different presenting sponsors over the years, The Clash was the opening event of Speed Weeks and a warmup for the Daytona 500 — NASCAR's own version of Super Bowl. But NASCAR has been willing to look beyond cookie-cutter tracks in traditional markets.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR's senior vice president of strategy and innovation, brainstormed moving The Clash exhibition out of Daytona for the first time and instead stage it as a Hollywood event not all that far from Hollywood. The Busch Light Clash will run Sunday night, heat races will set the field, DJ Skee will play during cautions and Ice Cube will headline a halftime show.

The Coliseum accommodates about 78,000, but modifications to build the track has cut capacity for Sunday night to roughly 60,000 seats. Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's chief racing development officer, said polling shows 70% of ticket-buyers have never previously purchased a ticket to a NASCAR race.

Add in some six-plus hours of coverage across Fox Sports and NASCAR has already deemed the event a success.

“You want to put on a good race,” O'Donnell said. “But I would say, already it is a success. The number of celebrities we have showing up, the enthusiasm and promotion we've seen from Fox just for this race, even during NFL broadcasts, it's been unprecedented.”

The Clash will at long last mark the debut of NASCAR's new car, a years-long project meant to design a cost-efficient but competitive vehicle that can potentially close the gap between the NASCAR powerhouses and the small teams looking to gain footing in the series. The pandemic delayed the rollout of the Next Gen by a year, and no matter how much testing has been done, there is no clear idea how the car will race until a real trophy is on the line.

William Byron tested the Next Gen last week at Phoenix and isn't concerned about his Chevrolet.

“Honestly the car from Phoenix is not that different, feeling-wise, of how it drives versus the old car,” Byron said. “I am pretty optimistic for how it drives already.”

What Sunday night's on-track show looks like will be critical in how NASCAR's gamble in the Coliseum is graded. The quarter-mile surface will be the shortest in history for a Cup Series race, and NASCAR has had its struggles at new venues. Last year's debut on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a bit of a wreckfest, and transforming Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track last spring was a messy challenge for drivers who had driven on pavement their entire career.

Many say the Coliseum shares the characteristics of Martinsville Speedway, a 0.526-mile short track in Virginia won in three of the last five races by Martin Truex Jr. He believes it won't matter if the race ends up something of a joke.

“At the end of the day, we want to put on a good show,” Truex said. "We don’t want there to be a lot of cautions and wrecks, not a lot of chaos, just a good race to put on a good show with all the attention it’s getting and make it a successful event. I think a lot of new fans will be tuning in and I think we need to put on a good show.”

Kyle Larson, the reigning NASCAR champion, also believes the race needs to be free of drama. Of every driver in the field, none race at as many different venues across the country as Larson but the Coliseum will be unique even to him. The closest he's come was a 2015 dirt race on the arena floor of the Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where the Pacers of the NBA played the night before his event.

Some fans might want to see the winner cross the finish line in a beat-up race car, its hood up and smoke pouring from the engine — the end result of close-contact racing on the shortest track the drivers have ever raced. But Larson hopes the show “won't be that bad.”

He predicts The Clash could resemble a typical race at Martinsville — some bumping and banging, but not a demolition derby.

“I think there's going to be points of the race where you get caution after caution and you can't get into a rhythm, but there also may be portions where, who knows? You might run the first 75 laps under green,” Larson said. "It's going to be hard to pass, it's going to be single-file, and people are going to be moving each other out of the way.

“But as long as there aren't things popping up that delay the show, somebody gets into an inside wall and now it needs 15 to 20 minutes to get a forklift out and fix the wall,” he added. “Stuff that delays the show, I think that will turn off new race fans who are curious about this event and we need to make sure they enjoy what they saw.”


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