NASCAR will be racing for the first time at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)
NASCAR will be racing for the first time at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

If you build it, they will come.

Hey, if an Iowa cornfield can be a setting for baseball, then why not the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for stock car racing?

It’s a toss-up which idea sounded more far-fetched, but what worked in the movies is now happening right in Hollywood’s backyard.

NASCAR, looking to expand its audience far beyond its Southern fried roots, chose to spend upwards of $1 million to build a temporary quarter-mile oval track at the iconic Coliseum for its first race of 2022 — The Busch Light Clash, a 150-lap event taking place Sunday across the country from its traditional home, the Daytona International Speedway.

“I remember when I first heard rumblings about it, I never thought it possible,” said Tyler Reddick, who grew up in Northern California in Redding but will be casting eyes upon the Coliseum for the first time when he shows up this weekend as the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet Camaro 2LI for the Richard Childress Racing Team.

“Everyone knows what the L.A. Coliseum is. All of sports know what it means” Reddick said. “And here we are, the track’s built, I got to work with NASCAR and iRacing to help come up with the banking and the layout, which makes it that much more exciting, being part of the brainstorming. Just counting the days, honestly.”

The Coliseum has just about seen it all since its doors opened in 1923 — two Olympics, a couple of Super Bowls, the NFL’s Rams and Raiders, college football’s USC and UCLA, baseball’s Dodgers, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, popes and presidents, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.. But it has never hosted the sport of The King — Richard Petty, the most decorated driver in NASCAR history.

That all changed three years ago when 29-year-old Ben Kennedy, the NASCAR vice president for strategy and innovation and great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., went bold and sold the Coliseum on the roar of the engines.

“It’s really cool that Ben Kennedy and all the folks at NASCAR got together and figured this deal out because, you know, it’s unique. It’s bringing a lot of energy,” said Michael Waltrip, the longtime NASCAR driver turned race analyst for Fox Sports, which is televising the day of races.

“And we have a new car,” said Waltrip, referring to the NextGen car that will be making its debut in The Clash. “You combine all those things and think of the history of the Coliseum, it’s pretty special.”

’It’s going to be crazy’

Speed has never been in short supply in the Coliseum, but that has historically meant Babe Didrikson and Carl Lewis, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush, Lynn Swann and Keyshawn Johnson, Maury Wills and Valerie Ann Brisco-Hooks and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Speed has never seen the likes of Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Cole Custer and the other NASCAR drivers who will line up 23 strong for the marquee event of the weekend.

Thirty-six drivers will start the weekend competing for those 23 spots. Only one driver, 2021 Cup Series champion Larson, is assured of a place in Sunday’s finale. The rest of the field will be determined by four heat races (top-four finishers in each heat qualify for the big race) and two 50-lap “Last Chance” qualifying races (top-three finishers in each of those races qualify).

Truth is, while the NextGen car has approached 185-190 mph in practice runs at other sites, the shortness of the Coliseum track — NASCAR hasn’t run on a track this short since the early 1970s — will mean there will be cars flying on the 110 Freeway outside the Coliseum at speeds faster than in the narrow spaces the NASCAR drivers will be navigating. Top speeds this weekend at The Clash are expected to be in the 60-mph range, with cars slowing as low as 20 mph while negotiating the turns.

It’ll be a far different race, to be sure, than the showcase Daytona 500 on February 20.

“I want to tell you, people get a little confused. They say, ‘Well, this is a gimmick. This isn’t a real race,’” Waltrip said. “Every Saturday night all over America, there are stock cars racing on tracks smaller than that track.”

Waltrip was at the Coliseum in December for groundbreaking ceremonies when Martin Flugger, NASCAR’s vice president of engineering services, began converting nearly 14,000 cubic yards of asphalt into a racetrack.

“You stand in the middle of the Coliseum and look out at the track, as a kid who grew up on short tracks, that’s a normal short track,” Waltrip said. “So I think people need to understand that, while it’s unique and we’ll see if it ever happens again, it certainly is a racetrack that will provide a lot of entertainment.”

Custer, the 24-year-old who grew up in Ladera Ranch, about an hour’s drive south of the Coliseum (less if he’s driving), also grew up on short tracks. The driver of the No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing, Custer won his first NASCAR Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway in just his 20th start, the first rookie to win in the Cup Series in nearly four years.

Custer began racing at age 4 in quarter midget races and first caught the attention of the racing world at age 13 when he finished fourth in a short-track race at Irwindale Speedway, east of L.A. His record in short-track races includes four wins and 17 top-five finishes.

“Basically, when it’s that small a racetrack, it makes huge traffic jams and it makes for a lot of beating and banging,” Custer said. “In such tight quarters, there are so many times people are stacking up the line. You’re gonna be hitting each other, and it’s going to be a very physical race, I guess you could call it. I think there’s going to be a fight on the front stretch I would expect after, and it’s going to be crazy.”

The kind of crazy reminiscent of another place with a quarter-mile track — the legendary Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“It’s called ‘The Madhouse.’ Google that if you want to see some crazy stuff,” Waltrip said. “It’s full-contact racing, and they pack that place out on Saturday nights to watch that action. I grew up on a track similar to that, the Kentucky Motor Speedway in Owensboro. My brother (Darrell) started racing there some 16 years before me. And he grew up racing on that track.

“To me, I don’t have this fear, ‘Is it going to be a s--- show, is it going to be a crash-fest? I don’t have that fear. Now, there’s probably going to be more contact than we’re used to seeing, but I’m OK with that.”

So is Reddick.

“I’ve been to a lot of short tracks throughout my childhood,” Reddick said. “I didn’t do a lot of asphalt racing growing up on short tracks, but I can promise you almost every time I’ve been at least two or three or four drivers get into it. They get mad, tempers flare and the fans go nuts. I’m hoping we see some of that. I just want to be on the positive end of it if I’m involved.”

New car, new test for drivers

Adding to the intrigue is the introduction of the new car, the NextGen 7, which is a radical redesign from past stock cars.

SCM-NextGen_Blueprint-Chevy-TW
SCM-NextGen_Blueprint-Chevy-TW

“Between the new car, the length of the track, how small it is, it amplifies the amount of freshness something completely new, something completely different that a lot of us have never experienced before,” Reddick said. “When you throw this brand new car into the mix, which is really nothing like its predecessors, it’s going to truly test us as drivers — who’s going to learn the fastest, who’s going to get acclimated the best.

“You’re going to be able to see a side of us that you don’t normally see. A lot of us have a lot of experience driving the previous cars throughout the years, decades of this sport, but all that has been kind of wiped away with this brand new car. Yes, we’ve tested it tested it at Daytona, tested it at Charlotte, tested it at Phoenix, Darlington, all those other racetracks, but we haven’t gone out there and raced for all the marbles yet. It’s going to put a lot of us on edge. Our comfort is going to be tested racing around the tight quarters of the Coliseum.”

“Under the skin,” Waltrip notes, will vary little with the NextGen 7 (the number of iterations NASCAR has had in its 74-year history), because teams won’t be building the cars as much as they will be assembling them. Teams will no longer be manufacturing their own chassis, body panels, spindles and other parts; they’ll be buying them from a specified vendor. For that reason, he said, the drivers become the greatest difference-maker.

Larry McReynolds, the former NASCAR crew chief and current racing analyst on Fox Sports, begs to differ.

“I think one of the things that people have said about this car is it’s going to be an equalizer,’’ McReynolds said. “To the contrary. I think even though basically everybody’s buying the same parts and pieces, the strong is still going to survive. The rich is still going to be rich, and the poor is still going to be poor.

“It’s still cars that are able to be worked on. Yeah, everybody’s bolting the same stuff together, but still the top teams are going to be the top teams. Anybody that thinks this car is going to take Team Penske or Hendricks Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing and have them struggling, and not to single other teams out, or take Spire Sports or JTG Daugherty or any of those teams that struggle to run in the top 15 or 20 and have them winning races, I think you’re going to be disappointed.”

But yes, McReynolds agreed, especially since this will be the first time the NextGen is being raced, a greater burden will be placed on the driver to deliver. For that reason, he said, he likes the chances of another native Californian — Larson (who’s from Elk Grove just outside Sacramento) — continuing what has become a redemption story.

Two years ago, Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and suspended by NASCAR for the 2020 season after he used a racial slur during an iRacing event on the game-streaming platform Twitch, leaving his future in the sport in doubt. Even as he publicly apologized, Larson acknowledged that the “damage is probably unrepairable.”

But NASCAR permitted his return to the Cup series in January 2021, and while he took steps off the track to show his contrition was genuine, Larson, driving the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZLI for Hendrick Motorsports, made a remarkable comeback on the track. He won 10 races, the NASCAR All-Star race, the Cup Series and praise from his idol, Tony Stewart, “as the best race car driver I’ve ever seen.”

“If I was a betting man, I don’t know how you bet against Kyle Larson,” McReynolds said. “Because it appears to me, whether it’s a 3500-pound stock car, or a 1,200-pound dirt midget, or racing on dirt or racing on asphalt or racing on concrete, like Nashville and Bristol, he seems to figure out how to win.”

A crowd in the neighborhood of between 50,000 to 60,000 is expected for the race, with NASCAR officials citing data that shows many first-time ticket buyers. The newbies get the added attraction of a race-break performance by Ice Cube and pre-race entertainment from Pitbull, a partner in the Trackhouse Racing team.

“If you’ve never been to a NASCAR race, I think this is the perfect one to go to,” Waltrip said. “You get to have a little bit of racing, a couple of concerts, and you might even see a fight.”

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