AutoMatters & More: Gutsy ‘Busch Light CLASH at the Coliseum’ attracts major new audience for NASCAR
You really have to give it to NASCAR for trying something so drastically different for its first race of the 2022 Cup season, in an effort to reverse the downward trend in viewership in recent years.
The annual CLASH show race is NASCAR’s first race of the Cup season, welcoming fans after winter to meet the new year’s drivers, see their colorful new sponsor graphics and, this year, to have their first look at racing NASCAR’s radically new Next Gen (Gen-7) race cars. For the past few years, this race has been held at Daytona International Speedway, shortly before the Daytona 500 season opener, but this year – for the very first time – it would leave Daytona and run across the county in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park, inside the LA Memorial Coliseum.
At only a quarter mile long, this track was much shorter than even the shortest tracks the NASCAR Cup Series races on. Would the Colosseum track be too short to give the drivers enough space to compete? Would this “event” become a poorly designed and failed crash-fest? Would the freshly laid asphalt track stand up under the weight of those heavy cars as they raced lap after lap? Even my speed laps in the Toyota Camry race car generated significant g-force. Nobody knew what was going to happen.
It is assumed that the cost of constructing, and then immediately removing, this quarter-mile asphalt running track inside the LA Memorial Coliseum (above the grass of its soccer field, which will need to be replaced, and its irrigation system) was completed. $1 million. The track met NASCAR safety standards, with SAFER barriers, as well as strong, tall safety fencing (borrowed from the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, before they were needed for this popular street racing event in April).
The interior of the LA Coliseum is so much smaller than any other NASCAR track, that track designers had no choice but to locate the garage and transporters several blocks away. Competitors had to drive their racing cars through fenced parking lots to get to the Colosseum and enter through its famous tunnel.
While no one was sure if this radical experiment would actually work, pilots were enthusiastic and expressed their support for the race in the beautiful and historic LA Memorial Coliseum – site of two Olympic Games (the first was in 1932) and soon to be three .
Dale Earnhardt Jr. dressed up and borrowed Alex Bowman’s Chevrolet Ally 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 racing circuit in the Next Gen race car.
Will it become a lost fast lane? Thinking of Dale’s “Lost Speedways” TV show on Saturday, I asked him if he would collect a sample of that track when they ripped it up after the race. I don’t think that will happen.
Saturday afternoon saw a two-hour practice session, followed by single-seater qualifying under the bright lights of the Coliseum – to determine the field and line-ups for Sunday’s first four races.
Drivers couldn’t afford to hold anything back on Sunday, nor risk missing out on the field, as there were more cars (36) than grid spots (23) for the race of 150 rounds.
The format of this CLASH was more like that of a traditional local short track race. The day started with four nine-car qualifying races, followed by two last-ditch qualifying that would pave the way for the 150-lap CLASH. Despite the very short track, there was still plenty of overtaking, with cars sometimes up to three wide, and more! The new composite bodies were tested as there was a lot of ‘knocking and banging’ – especially in the last chance second qualifying, with its seven warnings and the elimination of Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman, due damage to their cars. Newer composite bodies have likely minimized tire failures, whereas in the past, damaged metal bodies tended to reduce tires.
Thanks to the new larger wheels this year, there are also bigger brakes, which seemed to work very well, given how many cars were locking them up in tight corners. Pit stops this year (starting with the Daytona 500) will likely be quicker now that NASCAR has moved from five conventional lug nuts to one large center lock 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; and during a mid-race break, popular Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube entertained during a halftime gig.
The 150-lap “Busch Light CLASH at the Coliseum” passed quickly, considering the very short laps. Laps performed with “caution” were not counted.
The race did not have the wild shootout of the final laps that many expected. Joey Logano, along with his wife who was due to have a baby the next day, would not be beaten, leading poleman and race lap leader Kyle Busch across the start/finish line by a comfortable margin.
Was this project a crazy thing to do, as some have speculated? No, it was actually brilliant and extremely successful. According to a February 8 tweet from FOX Sports PR, citing Neilson Media Research, the first Busch Light CLASH at the Coliseum drew 4,283,000 viewers, a 168% increase from last year’s 1,598,000 viewers. It was “the highest viewership for the event since 2016”. The tweet went on to say that Los Angeles had its highest non-Daytona 500 Cup Series rating (2.7) in nearly six years.
70% of fans in attendance had never attended a NASCAR race before. It’s definitive proof that the potential LA-centric audience’s reading of NASCAR was fair.
Sure enough — shortly after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, as I sat in the empty grandstands eating my chicken parmigiana and vegetable dinner (thanks NASCAR!) — the workers had already begun demolishing the track.
For more information, visit www.nascar.com. For more racing action, join me later this month as I cover the NHRA Winternationals drag races in Pomona, followed by the NASCAR race weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
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