A long time ago, in days of yore, Kyle Petty once compared racing NASCAR Cup Series cars at Bristol Motor Speedway to flying jet fighters in a gymnasium.
The inestimable Mr. Petty also recommended Bristol be flooded, stocked with trout and used to host a fishing tournament.
The phrase occurred to me again this week as NASCAR announced its plans to kick off the 2022 Cup season with an exhibition race on a quarter-mile track located inside the Los Angeles Coliseum. If NASCAR sticks to the current rules (and, like Sheryl Crow, lately they seem to make up the rules as they go), with a track diameter under 1.33 miles, the cars competing would be using the full party 750-horsepower package if the sport goes that route with the new car.
The L.A. Coliseum has been used to host both the Olympics (twice) and the Super Bowl. Over the years, it has seen a widely disparate range of events, including football games (collegiate and pro) as well as a couple Evel Knievel motorcycle jumps and what was billed as the most expensive demolition derby ever, featuring at least one Rolls Royce and a replica of Reed and Malloy’s Plymouth Satellite Adam 12 squad car.
The timing of this year’s Clash will strike some as a bit odd. It is two weeks ahead of the Daytona 500 and a single week ahead of this year’s Super Bowl. What’s more, it is scheduled for Feb. 6, the same date as this year’s NFL Pro Bowl. OK, being in the Pro Bowl isn’t the huge honor it was once considered, but in a head-to-head TV ratings matchup, I’ll still predict a bloodbath for NASCAR.
To date, NASCAR hasn’t even released a length for the event. It doesn’t have to be a long race to be successful. For example, the first Busch Clash back in 1979 was only 50 miles, or just 20 laps in length. A total of nine drivers competed in the 1979 Busch Clash, with Buddy Baker taking the win.
As far as how many cars will race in the event, NASCAR doesn’t seem quite sure. It’s said it is an invitational race and all are invited. Presumably, that means all the teams with a charter and possibly some other outfits that have run at least a few Cup races. It seems NASCAR would like to have about 25 cars on hand for the main event. They have hinted at having heat races to decide starting lineups prior to the big show.
Even 25 cars is a lot on a quarter-mile oval track. NASCAR will likely add some banking to it to spread things out, but no one has said how much or where.
Getting 25 cars to participate could be a challenge. Recall that Speedweeks are held at Daytona International Speedway. The drivers, the teams and their race cars will need to be on their way there. Between practice, qualifying, the twin 150s and the 500 itself, there’s a lot going on. It’s just over 2,500 miles from Daytona Beach to L.A., creating an additional expense and travel burden for teams.
So will this new race become a permanent part of the new schedule, or is the L.A. Coliseum a one-off experiment? It’s interesting that plans are to put down layers of dirt to protect the Coliseum’s playing surface, then pave the dirt surface. That indicates if the experiment is not well received, it could easily be reversed with minimal drama.
Fans in SoCal did not support Riverside, the road course in the area, enough to spare the track from the developer’s ravages. Nor did they support Ontario (a track in the L.A. area, not Canada) that hosted Cup races from 1971 to 1980. Only 15,000 fans showed up for the 1980 event at the track. More recently, Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) has not turned out to be the cash cow NASCAR envisioned. For anyone curious, work to convert Fontana to a half-mile track is still underway and is slated to debut next year. Why NASCAR chose to build a quarter-mile track in the same market is beyond me.
Over the years, I have communicated with many SoCal fans. Far from being annoyed by races in their area ending in the early afternoon, they celebrate it. Having a race end in that time period leaves them with a lot of daylight hours to do something else.
Some reveled in a chance to break out their big two-wheelers and ride the coastal highways. Others hit the beach. Still others chose to go hiking in the canyons or bicycling wherever their moods dictated. There’s a lot to do in SoCal so long as your particular area isn’t battling wildfires or enduring a campaign to recall the governor. If it weren’t for the taxes, I’d have likely relocated to the area a decade ago.
As things stand, the quarter-mile track will also mark the competition debut of the Next Gen car. The problem is those cars and repair pieces for them are said to be hard to come by, with the designated vendors struggling to keep up with demand. Keep in mind the last time the Busch Clash was held on an oval (2020), fully 12 of 18 entrants were listed as DNFs at the finish due to crash damage. A similar attrition rate this time around could have dire implications for the Daytona 500, which remains, after all, the biggest event of Speedweeks.
So why is NASCAR risking tossing an Ozark in the cesspool with such an outlandish concept? Simply stated, “Because they can.” Other ideas NASCAR has experimented with include moving the second edition of their All-Star Race from Charlotte to Atlanta Motor Speedway. What’s more, it decided Mother’s Day would be a grand date to host the event. The idea was not popular with the fan base. Attendance dropped from 122,000 ticket-buying fans at the first Winston All-Star Race at Charlotte in 1985 to just 18,500 tickets sold in 1986.
Apparently, the lesson was lost on NASCAR over the years. It’s decided to host next year’s Bristol spring race on the dirt track (already an idea of questionable validity) on Easter Sunday — not the Saturday night before Easter, on Easter Sunday itself. Fans I’ve spoken to about the scheduling have reactions that range from mild irritation to absolute outrage. Personally, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I have no plans to watch the race on the solemn holiday.
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