NASCAR gambles with L.A. Coliseum exhibition race

NASCAR is hoping that an exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum will provide a boost. 

The sanctioning body announced Tuesday that the season-opening Busch Clash would be run on a temporary short track in the middle of the Coliseum. The Feb. 6 race moves up a week and across the country from Daytona International Speedway.

The Clash has long been seen as the unofficial kickoff to the Cup Series season. The event started in the 1980s as an exhibition race for pole winners from the previous season and morphed into a way for NASCAR to put on a prime-time show featuring most of the series’ stars. 

But the Clash has lost its luster over the past decade, much like NASCAR itself. The move west is an attempt to regain viewers and attach NASCAR to the Super Bowl a week later at SoFi Stadium in L.A. 

NASCAR deserves credit for the idea. It knows that it needs to try something new to regain the traction that it once had. But it’s also fair to wonder if this is the idea that is actually worth trying. What’s the realistic upside for NASCAR?

You can see how the idea of a race at a historic stadium like the Coliseum is tantalizing. NASCAR can latch onto the hype for the Super Bowl and provide a sporting event during the NFL’s traditional off-weekend before the biggest sporting event of the year. NASCAR will try to get as many Hollywood stars as it can to attend and there will assuredly be as much glitz and glamour as possible in an attempt for NASCAR to position itself as a mainstream sports league. 

But NASCAR’s reality is a somewhat unfortunate one. The Coliseum Clash is only a success if the stands are full — or very close to it — and the TV audience for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 is bigger than the audience was in 2019, the last year the 500 was run as scheduled. 

A move to a market like Los Angeles for a temporary track like what will be built at the Coliseum is one that’s mainly done for attention. Attention matters to NASCAR more than any other sports league in the United States. Teams need eyeballs on the cars to justify what they can charge sponsors. Those sponsors need the eyeballs on the cars to justify their investment in stock car racing. 

Forcing teams to travel across the country for a race that doesn’t matter is a big bet that the exposure from that race will pay off. And it very well may. We’re not going to sit here and say that it’s automatically a bust five months before the race takes place. 

But we’re also wary. NASCAR is also a sports series of unintended consequences. The track has to be perfect — there can’t be any malfunctions. Everything needs to go off without a hitch. There were a few hitches at Bristol earlier this year as NASCAR tried a similar experiment with a dirt race on top of a concrete track.

There’s also a novelty aspect that can’t be ignored. A flat quarter-mile track is a setup ripe for crashing if drivers are aggressive. And there’s a fuzzy sweet spot of aggressiveness between temerity and chaos. 

Drivers could simply race cautiously knowing that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. They’ll also be in brand new cars for the first time in race conditions. And with teams just now building cars ahead of the 2022 season, a driver may not want to risk a lot of work for his team by crashing a car from a limited quantity. 

That type of racing won’t attract many new viewers. Non-NASCAR fans already inherently think stock car racing is a boring series of drivers making left turns. But chaos risks the same result too. 

A race filled with crashes isn’t appealing either. At least as an actual sports event. NASCAR is above and beyond being a novelty sports series that can draw in only casual viewers through crashes. Just look at Formula 1. Its growth in the United States isn’t because of a bunch of crashes. 

The perfect race for NASCAR is a dramatic race from start to finish with a sellout crowd and a new viewer audience that remembers to tune in two weeks later for the Daytona 500 when they otherwise would have been watching something else. That’s not a simple request. But NASCAR is beyond simple requests these days if it wants to recapture the glory it had nearly 20 years ago.