Gentlemen, Start Your Season

No matter how freaking cold it may be in a good deal of the country today, there are already signs that warmer and better days are ahead.  NASCAR’s back, and for the second straight year it will begin before the NFL season ends, somewhat appropriately within the confined and unique environment that housed the first-ever Super Bowl and several subsequent ones as well.

The Los Angeles Coliseum, entering its centennial season, will serve as the venue for the opening event of NASCAR’s diamond anniversary season, with a weekend of what amounts to the closest thing to a pre-season a sport built on nonstop competition can offer.  As Mike Hembree of NBC reported:

NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

When the Super Bowl was a week earlier, and the pre-President’s Day weekend not dominated by a slightly more popular sporting event, NASCAR typically kicked off with a Twin 125 exhibition in Daytona, in what amounted to an extended ten-day kickoff that culminated in the sport’s de facto Super Bowl, the Daytona 500. which will continue to be the first “points” event of the season and will be held two Sundays from now.  But when the NFL expanded last year, it threw a monkey wrench into that schedule.  Yet it also created an opportunity for something different somewhere else.  The Clash at the Coliseum was an inspired way for a network like FOX, as well as FS1, to fill a gap weekend between football games.

And, truth is, while this year’s drivers won’t be flooring it, getting used to this uniquely situated track may be a precursor to maintaining the sport’s visibility and viability in Southern California.   As The Los Angeles Times’ Steve Henson wrote yesterday, the timing for developing a viable venue and a newer generation of fans may not be more opportune:

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-year-old 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.”

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 potential change 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.”

As someone who frequently drives in the vicinity of the Coliseum these days, albeit often a lot slower than 63 mph, and who has experienced many a sig alert, the idea of a crash around the Coliseum isn’t all that unusual.  And if more people attend and get hammered, and since USC sponsors rideshares for its students that I can benefit from, I’m certainly rooting for this year’s event to grow in popularity and traction.

Oh, don’t worry about the Twin 125s.  They’re going off, too, relocated to a Thursday night for FS1 as the NBA season heads into its All-Star break, with the promise of a less competitive landscape and primetime to help that audience.  And we KNOW that crowd will be larger and already knows how to get hammered.

So the way at least I see it is that one sign that summer is coming is upon us, and it’s a win-win for everybody.

Let’s get ready to shift into first gear.





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