Lodi News-Sentinel

Hot tempers? Rookie stars? NASCAR returns to L.A. Coliseum

- Steve Henson

LOS ANGELES — The USC students tailgated and partied. They burst into the Coliseum and watched the action from their section. They were blown away by the power, speed, aggression and competitiv­eness of the combatants.

Nary a football was in sight.

They were drawn a year ago to the initial Clash at the Coliseum, a NASCAR brainstorm that proved immensely popular. The football field somehow was transforme­d into a quarter-mile racetrack. Behind the wheels of revolution­ary New Gen race cars making their debut, the nation’s best drivers put on a daylong spectacle of bumping, crashing and speeding through four qualifying races and the finale.

Excitement was palpable. The USC students had never seen anything like it.

“I’ve got friends that go to USC and they were texting me all day,” said Noah Gragson, a 22-yearold NASCAR wunderkind who won eight Xfinity Series races in 2022 and will begin his rookie year in the Cup Series on Sunday in the second Clash at the Coliseum.

“A bunch of them went to last year’s race, got super hammered and had a great time. They said it was as exciting if not better than the football games. It was cool hearing it from friends who know nothing about racing but got introduced in such a cool way.”

The students’ experience mirrored most of the crowd that exceeded 50,000. It was the first NASCAR race for more than 70% of attendees. Afterward, drivers highfived NASCAR officials and pretty much everyone concluded the experiment was an unabashed success.

Now there is talk of the Clash becoming a points race instead of an exhibition in 2024. The only points race in SoCal in 2023 is the Pala Casino 400 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Feb. 26. The two-mile oval is scheduled to undergo a reconstruc­tion, however, that will reduce it to a half-mile track and could take as long as two years to complete. The Clash could fill the void.

NASCAR currently holds 36 Cup Series points races that count toward the championsh­ip. The Pala Casino 400 (previously called the Auto Club 400) has long been one of them. But NASCAR is facing the prospect of having no SoCal points race in 2024 and perhaps 2025 while the track’s reconstruc­tion takes place.

One potential solution prompting discussion among NASCAR officials is to turn the Clash at the Coliseum into a points race and move it to the end of February after the Daytona 500, which is traditiona­lly the first points race of the year.

The plan makes sense financiall­y for NASCAR and for SoCal fans who otherwise would be deprived of a race that counts. Drivers, however, are hesitant to endorse the plan because it would change their mindset. Crashing and not finishing the race would put them at the bottom of the standings.

“I think making it a points race would take aggressive­ness out of it,” driver Erik Jones said. “I wouldn’t necessaril­y like to see that. As an exhibition it’s a good fit.”

Because the track is so small that straightaw­ays are basically eliminated, the average speed at last year’s Clash was only 63 mph. Driver Ty Dillon said that in an exhibition on such a short track, the only risk is “tearing up your race car, damaging door panels, that sort of thing.”

Converting the race into a points event changes the calculus.

“Now, you just go for it,” Jones said. “There’s no reason to hold anything back because even if you crash you aren’t losing anything.”

Getting bumped on a crowded subway can trigger anger. Imagine what it can do to a NASCAR driver trying to win a race on a minuscule quarter-mile track.

Late in last year’s Clash, a caution flag went up after Jones’ car hit Ross Blaney’s from behind, breaking Blaney’s right rear suspension. Blaney took his car off the track, climbed out and threw his HANS headgear at Jones.

 ?? ALLEN J. SCHABEN/LOS ANGELES TIMES ?? NASCAR fans watch and cheer at The Coliseum, a NASCAR exhibition race at the historic LA Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 6, 2022.
ALLEN J. SCHABEN/LOS ANGELES TIMES NASCAR fans watch and cheer at The Coliseum, a NASCAR exhibition race at the historic LA Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 6, 2022.

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