I’m not sure whose idea it was to build a quarter-mile racetrack inside the LA Memorial Coliseum, but I want to shake their hand. The Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum was one of the most entertaining sporting events I’ve been to in a long time. I have no idea how it came across on TV, but I can tell you being there live was an amazing experience. Mix 60,000+ spectators (a fair few of whom had never been to a NASCAR race I’m guessing) and more than 20 stock cars in a stadium designed for football in the biggest car/entertainment market in the world and you, my friend, have one hell of a show.
The weekend started off slow with practice and single-car runs in qualifying. There was barely a handful of fans in the stands and the slow speeds of a quarter-mile track doesn’t really lend itself to watching cars run around by themselves.
That being said, for race car nerds like yours truly, it was a great opportunity to watch the NextGen (really now the Gen 7 car) go to work up close. The new car is a complete departure from the old car. There is very little other than the engine that carries over. Sequential gearboxes, rack and pinion steering, composite bodywork, and real diffusers are all sourced from suppliers as opposed to being built by the teams themselves. The thought process was to tighten up the field and stop teams from just spending their way to the front. Also, having outside suppliers helps NASCAR put the binders on teams cheating, pushing the boundaries of the rules.
In another departure from the norm (I mean other in terms of running a NASCAR race in a football stadium) single-car qualifying set the field for four heat races with the top four from each heat race making it to the finals. The cars that didn’t make the cut got one more go at things with two last chance qualifying heats in which the top three from those heats advanced to the finals. Also advancing was the highest-placed finisher in last year’s championship who didn’t qualify through any of the heat races or the LCQ. What that ended up with was a 23-car field for the finals.
As much as NASCAR intended to shake up the status quo, it was still the usual suspects on top of the leaderboard when the dust settled after qualifying. With Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and last year’s series champ and short track wheelman extraordinaire, Kyle Larsen, all at or near the front.
The heat races were where things really started to um… heat up with desperate drivers just outside of the transfer positions taking bigger and bigger risks to try to get their car into the show. Due to the short duration of the lap and that the track was designed with only minimal banking, the inside line was the only fast way to get around. Any car unfortunate enough to be stuck on the outside was doomed to lose out.
The only real way to get around someone was to get a run on the car ahead and out-brake them into the next corner. Failing that, you were left to get to the lead car’s rear bumper for a little “bump and run” action where the following car “helps” the leading car to lose traction by unsettling the car with a tap.
Traditionally, NASCAR drivers have been known to be a bit clumsy with their attempts to “push to pass” and usually the lead car ends up backward and in the wall. For some reason, we didn’t see a huge amount of torn-up race cars at the Coliseum. Drivers were respectful and using very light pushes to slightly move the lead car out of the way, giving the following car the inside line and usually the pass for position.
In fact, we saw almost no yellows until almost the end of the second LCQ. But man when the yellows started to fly they were virtually nonstop with the #42 of Ty Dillon suspiciously in the middle of most of the carnage. Regardless of his involvement, Dillon found himself at the front of the pack for the last restart. Unfortunately for Dillon, he accelerated long before he got to the restart zone and was placed to the back of the field, meaning he was out of the finals. But Dillon’s miscue allowed both fan fave Bubba Wallace and Harrison Burton to make it through.
Through most of the heat races, the crowd at the Coliseum was still a bit sparse with the stands looking around 50 percent full and a few people were questioning NASCAR’s ability to draw a crowd in a non-NASCAR city. By the time new NASCAR team owner Pitbull took the stage for his pre-race concert, though, the crowd had swelled to close to capacity. (It was about 85 percent by my eyeballs.) More importantly, LA’s lifeblood, celebrities, made their obligatory appearances with Danny Trejo, Caitlyn Jenner, Ashton Kutcher, Reggie Bush, Chuck Liddell, Jermaine Dupri all showing up. Ice Cube provided the “halftime” entertainment and Ally Brooke sang the National Anthem. Basically, as un-NASCAR an event as you could get. It was exactly what NASCAR needs.
NASCAR has been trying to expand beyond its southern “good-ole-boy” roots for decades. Manufacturers Ford, Toyota and Chevy and major sponsors such as Doordash, M&M’s and Monster Energy demand as large and diverse fan base as possible. The NFL, MLB, and the NBA all have them and in order for NASCAR to compete for those sponsor dollars, they need events just like this one to prove they are a top draw.
With the stands now fully packed it was time for the finals. Up to this point, the most cars we had on track at one time was 10 but for the finals, 23 cars would take the green surprising the hell out of a fair bit of the crowd that wasn’t expecting the substantial increase in volume that a couple dozen, 670 horsepower, unmuffled cars would make when unleashed at the same time. And they loved it.
The energy in the Coliseum, which had been hovering at an eight all day, went straight to 11. It was just like going to Martinsville or Bristol. Just with more lattes.
As opposed to the absolute carnage most (myself included) were predicting, the finals were surprisingly carnage-free. Only a smattering amount of yellow flags broke up the long green flag runs and good racing. Even with the track, cars, and format all being new, the faces at the front weren’t. Kyle Busch and Logano put on a masterclass of short-track racing, with Busch leading through the mid-race break. (I’m struggling with calling it halftime.)
When the green flag dropped on the second half, Logano quickly got to Busch’s bumper and was able to move him out of the way and take the lead. From there Logano was able to make the most of lapped traffic to draw out a sizable lead, only for Busch to methodically close the gap. With a dozen laps left in the race, Busch got to within a hairsbreadth of Logano’s bumper and all 80,000 in attendance knew exactly what was about to happen. Except it didn’t.
Busch had used up too much of his car and never again got close enough for the guaranteed dump-and-run. With the race finishing under green and Logano taking the inaugural win with Busch a distant second.
While some have been calling the race a snooze fest (even before it began) they are missing the point. NASCAR racing in the Coliseum is like F1 racing at Monaco. It may not be the most exciting race we see all year but it doesn’t have to be because it’s not for you. No matter how boring the F1 race at Monaco gets it will always be on the calendar because the obscenely wealthy people that give F1 its luster will always want to be seen in the Principality. That race is for them.
NASCAR needs a showcase like the Busch Clash at the Coliseum to draw fans in that normally would be more focused on the Super Bowl (which coincidently passes through the city in exactly one week’s time). And by that measure, the Clash was a huge success. Every fan I talked to after the race was pumped on the event and to a man, woman and child said they would be back next year if NASCAR decided to hold it again next year. That, to me, is what makes a great race.