NASCAR returns to the Coliseum with the future of Clash event uncertain in Southern California

NASCAR's debut on a temporary track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum two years ago was a bold experiment that featured a pre-race show by Pitbull, a halftime performance by Ice Cube, a rowdy USC student section and some pretty decent racing.

The made-for-TV event was a clear success in 2022, the first time a season-opening exhibition had not been held at Daytona International Speedway since its 1979 inception. NASCAR tried for another hit last year with a second Clash at the Coliseum and it wasn't the same.

The racing was unwatchable, enthusiasm for the event had slipped after only one year and the Clash came off as simply an excuse for NASCAR to maintain a presence in Southern California.

The third Clash is set for this weekend with NASCAR's immediate future in the coveted Los Angeles market in jeopardy. If the novelty has truly worn off, the Clash could very well be on the move in 2025.

The race isn't until Sunday and the road has already been bumpy. NASCAR said it wouldn't open the grandstands to spectators for Saturday's heat races but reversed its decision after fan outrage. Drivers for weeks have been promoting discount codes for tickets on their social media accounts, and a marketing team has been handing out leaflets about the Clash across LA.

Ben Kennedy, the great-grandson of NASCAR's founder and architect of the Clash at the Coliseum, said the driver discount codes and street-level marketing are not reason for alarm but simply new sales tactics in an aggressive market. NASCAR's senior vice president of racing development and strategy said he believes the appetite for racing at the Coliseum is there.

“The interest is still strong. The first year, it was new and novel and we'd never done anything like that before, and frankly I don't think anyone has ever built a temporary racetrack inside a stadium that is a century old,” Kennedy said. “The second year, obviously a lot of return customers and some new customers as well. In this third year, we are seeing similar trends to what we saw last year.”

He said the new marketing and promotion efforts is "an opportunity to test out new methods and exercises that we might want to apply to some other tracks.”

The stakes are high for NASCAR in the Southern California market because the Coliseum race is the only stop in Los Angeles this year. California Speedway, which hosted the top Cup Series from 1997 until last year, is dormant. Plans had been to convert the speedway into a short track, but Kennedy acknowledged there is no current construction.

NASCAR has looked at “a dozen different concepts” in the market but hasn't found anything enticing. Kennedy said the future of the Clash at the Coliseum is not tied to the progress of California Speedway and that the market can sustain two races each year.

He did not rule out the possibility NASCAR could find itself locked out of Los Angeles.

“If we had our druthers, we would have a race in Southern California every year,” Kennedy said. “But a lot of that will depend on what the future of both of those tracks and both of those concepts look like.”

As Kennedy explores taking NASCAR international, the Clash could be a candidate for racing in another country. This year's event has added NASCAR's Mexico Series as a companion race and Cup star Daniel Suarez is in the field, along with reigning series champion Salvador de Alba, who this season will juggle a schedule that includes stock cars and IndyCar's ladder system.

The Mexico Series will be on the track before the Cup cars both Saturday and Sunday.

“It is a huge opportunity to get into the Southern California market and be paired with the Cup Series, not just the same weekend, but literally minutes before (a Cup heat race),” Kennedy said. “It's a huge opportunity for them to get their name in front of a lot of new fans, a lot of core fans, and these are drivers who are eventually going to be competing in the Clash at some point.”

The entertainment lineup for the event Sunday has DJ Dillon Francis performing before the race, boxer Canelo Alvarez scheduled to give the command to start engines and Machine Gun Kelly is the mid-race break performance.

FILE - Cars race around the track as downtown Los Angeles is seen in the background during the Busch Light Clash NASCAR exhibition auto race at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Los Angeles. NASCAR returns to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a third consecutive year for the exhibition Clash and the immediate future of racing in Southern California is at stake. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File) (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
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