● History was made on Feb. 6, 2022 when the NASCAR Cup Series competed for the first time at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum was a bold way to unofficially kick off the start of the NASCAR season. On a temporary paved oval at a quarter-mile in length on top of what is typically the running track around the football field the Trojans of the University of Southern California call home, NASCAR thundered into America’s second-largest media market. The location was strategic, as was the event’s timing – held on the off-weekend between the NFL division championship games and the almighty Super Bowl. For all the unknowns beforehand, the event proved to be an absolute success. The buzz was palpable throughout the weekend as more than 70 percent of ticket buyers were first-time NASCAR attendees. When NASCAR returned to the Coliseum for the 2023 Clash, the event continued to stand out, drawing 3.65 million viewers on FOX while going head to head with the GRAMMYs on CBS. The race earned a total of 540 million tuning minutes, an 8 percent uptick from the 2022 Clash, which scored 501 million tuning minutes. It’s why NASCAR is back at the Coliseum for a third go-round this weekend.
● While NASCAR certainly made history when it began racing at the L.A. Coliseum, it’s appropriate to say auto racing history was remade. As World War II wound down, racing open-wheel Midget cars around the Coliseum cranked up. Beginning in 1945, the United Racing Association (URA) ran on a quarter-mile track that was paved right over top of the athletic track. Racing continued through 1948, but under the auspices of the Automobile Association of America (AAA). But with more permanent racetracks populating Southern California, racing at the Coliseum fell by the wayside. That is until 1979, when Mickey Thompson packaged off-road racing into his innovative stadium series, with the Coliseum serving as his first event of many. Broadcast on ESPN and TNN, it was where an up-and-coming off-road racer with NASCAR ambitions first started making a name for himself. You might’ve heard of him – seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jimmie Johnson.
● NASCAR kicks of its 76th season in 2024 and, for many of its years, the sanctioning body began its annual campaign at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Starting the year in California isn’t a break from tradition, necessarily. In fact, you could argue it’s a return to a previous tradition. The 2022 Clash at The Coliseum marked the first time since 1981 that NASCAR didn’t start its season at Daytona. But starting the year off in California was not new. In 1965 and again from 1970 to 1981, the NASCAR Cup Series’ season-opening race took place at Riverside International Raceway, a road course approximately 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Riverside is long gone, the site now home to the Moreno Valley Mall, but the L.A. Coliseum was at 311 Figueroa Street 34 years before Riverside opened its doors in 1957 and it’s still there today. It’s a juxtaposition of old and new, a microcosm of NASCAR’s brave new world.
● In true L.A. fashion, almost any NASCAR Cup Series team can show up at the Coliseum, but not everyone is getting past the velvet ropes to participate in the 150-lap main event. Because the track at the L.A. Coliseum is only a quarter-mile in length – the shortest track the NASCAR Cup Series will compete on in 2023 – only 23 cars can compete in the feature. Getting to the main event is much more arduous than walking the red carpet and slipping the bouncer a $100 bill. Here’s how it works…
● On Saturday, NASCAR Cup Series competitors will take to the track for a dual practice/qualifying session that determines the starting order for four, 25-lap heat races consisting of 10 cars each. Below is a breakdown on how Saturday’s heat races will be filled out:
- The field will be split into three practice groups, with each group receiving three sessions. The fastest lap time from each competitor’s final practice session will determine the starting lineup for the four heat races. The top-four overall lap times in final practice will earn the pole for each heat race, while the fifth- through eighth-fastest lap times will make up the other half of the front row for each heat.
- The complete field for each heat race will be filled using this methodology: Heat one will be made up of cars listed in overall positions one, five, nine, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29, 33, 37 on the final practice timesheet.
- The top-five finishers (20 total cars) from each heat race automatically advance to the Clash, with the winner of heat one winning the pole and the winner of heat two earning the outside pole.
- The winners of heats three and four will fill out the second row, with the remaining order being determined in the same manner.
- The remaining finishing positions from each heat that did not advance will continue to Sunday’s 75-lap Last Chance Qualifying (LCQ) race. Below is a breakdown on how the LCQ will be filled out:
- The starting order will be determined based on finishing positions in the heat races.
- The sixth-place finisher from heat one will be on the pole for the LCQ race. The sixth-place finisher from heat two will be on the outside pole. This pattern will continue to fill out the remaining LCQ field.
- The top-two finishers from the LCQ race will advance to the Clash, filling out positions 21 and 22.
- The 23rd and final spot in the Clash will be reserved for the driver who finished the highest in the 2023 championship standings who does not transfer on finishing position in their heat race or in their LCQ race.
- All other drivers will be eliminated from competition for the remainder of the event weekend.
● Noah Gragson, driver of the No. 10 Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing, was a NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 2023, so he only has one start in the Clash. Gragson was 21st-quickest in qualifying for last year’s Clash, which lined him up sixth in his heat. He finished fourth in his heat to secure the 13th-place starting spot in the Clash. Gragson then completed all 150 laps in the Clash, finishing 14th.
● The 2024 season marks the 15th year of partnership between Rush Truck Centers and Stewart-Haas Racing, and it’s a partnership that goes well beyond a design on a racecar. All Stewart-Haas racecars are transported via tractor-trailers from Rush Truck Centers, the premier service solutions provider to the commercial vehicle industry. And those tractor-trailers are supported by the RushCare Customer Support team of parts and service experts, who also provide concierge-level service for scheduling maintenance, technical support, mobile service dispatch and roadside assistance, along with help locating the nearest Rush Truck Centers dealer, and more. Rush Truck Centers is the largest network of commercial vehicle dealerships in North America with 150 locations in the United States and Ontario, Canada, and takes pride in its integrated approach to customer needs – from vehicle sales to aftermarket parts, service and body shop operations, plus financing, insurance, leasing and rental, as well as alternate fuel systems and other vehicle technologies.
Prior to last year’s Clash, what’s the shortest track you had ever raced on and what was that experience like?
“The smallest track I had ever raced on was a quarter-mile in Meridian, Idaho, and it was a K&N race up there. I had also raced a Late Model there. It was a flat quarter-mile. I’d say the corners were probably more like Martinsville, where they’re a little wider, and the straightaways were shorter. The Clash has like super-long straightaways in comparison, and very, very tight corners. I remember getting ready for the Clash last year, doing some sim and thinking, ‘Man, I feel comfortable.’ But you never really know till you get there and you feel it in person. I went into (turns) three and four my first time going through there and the corner was to my left and I was headed straight for the wall. I turned the wheel to about 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock and had to start turning it to 6 o’clock. It’s really tight corners. It’s a crazy racetrack. It’s tough to learn.”
When it came to the actual racing at the Coliseum, how did reality line up with your expectations?
“After that first lap of going into the corner, I figured, OK, I needed to turn the wheel more. You never really stop learning. The track is rubbering up because it’s new asphalt, they just paved it. The track gets rubber as the days go on, practice sessions, qualifying, heat races. And then everything was really tame in practice around other cars, you’re waving each other by. The heat races were pretty tame. I was able to transfer into the main – I finished fourth in my heat race and I started 13th for the main, so I thought we were in a good position. Everything was going smoothly, nobody was really too dirty, and then we got in the race it was like we all forgot how to drive and everyone’s just trying to get to the front as fast as they can and you’re just getting down as soon as you can if you start in the outside line on the restart, and you’re just hammering the guy in front of you. Usually, if you’re getting spun out, it’s not the guy behind you, and it might not be the guy behind him, it’s like the third or fourth guy in line. It’s that train effect where everybody’s just stacking up. It’s really hard. You either get hit out of the way, or you’re hitting someone out of the way.”
When it comes to the Clash, and short-track racing in general, what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to on-track contact?
“I think it would be a little bit different if it was a points-paying race, but because it’s just a one-off exhibition race before the season starts, everyone’s out there just getting comfortable, shifting the cars again, driving the cars, getting on the brakes, on the gas, using the clutch – everyone’s kind of a little tame. But at the same time, it’s an exhibition race, so then we all get out there in the race and there’s nothing to lose, you’re not going after points, so the aggression meter is pegged when we get out to the Clash because it is an exhibition race. It’s fun, it’s challenging, but it’s a lot different than what we might do at Martinsville and Bristol and Richmond, the regular short-track races. They’re much longer, too, so you’re not in as much of a hurry to get to the front, so you’ll give a guy a couple of laps. But at the Clash, whenever somebody can get to you, you’re getting blasted or you’re blasting the guy in front of you.”
If you make a mistake and hit someone, do you think, ‘Alright, I probably have one coming now,’ or do you sort of erase it from your memory and just keep pressing forward?
“Well, it’s such a hard track to drive by yourself. You’re on edge the whole time just trying to make lap times. It’s a rhythm track, so it’s really hard to get into a rhythm. You’re hitting the outside wall on exit just trying to get all you can get. You’re just stabbing and steering. To me, personally, if someone gets into me there, I don’t take it too tough because I know three laps ago I got in there a foot too deep and I was missing the corner and all out of shape and sideways getting into the corner, and hard to stop, so I give guys more of the benefit of the doubt there than places we go to all the time and places where it’s a lot easier to get around. But if they did that to me at Bristol the first time they got to me, it’s like, ‘Hey, what the heck?’ At the Clash, it’s definitely one of those things where you give guys a break, at least for myself. A lot of it is not on purpose.”
How much are you looking forward to simply getting back in a NASCAR Cup Series stock car and going racing with Stewart-Haas Racing?
“I’m excited. We’ve got young guys, older guys, everyone in-between. Age-wise, there’s a lot of experience and there’s a lot of youth. I think the young guys kind of bring the youth out of the older guys, and the older guys, the more experienced guys, are bringing more of that veteran presence in helping us be better and be more mature. It’s definitely a good, happy medium, and everybody really complements each other on the 10 team. Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) is an unbelievable leader. His dad was a high school basketball coach, so Drew is the ultimate leader for our team and a guy I really look up to. I know as drivers, we’re leaders, as well, but Drew, to be able to work hand-in-hand with him, he’s really focused but he also enjoys his time. We want to work hard, we want to be successful, but it starts with building that comradery and team chemistry and just building the culture, and I think we’ve got that right now. The culture is really good and that’s what I’m really excited about. The first step, you’ve got to get everyone on the same page, tugging the same rope, and then you can start focusing on the little details. Unless everybody has each other’s back, you can’t move forward from that point.”
With the Clash being a non-points race, do you view it as the perfect place to learn the best way to communicate with your crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, and interact with your crew?
“It is beneficial because it’s not a points race, it’s an exhibition race, but at the same time we go into it with the same mentality. It’s almost harder than a points race because you’re not locked in. They only take the top-23 guys and you have to race your way in, and it reminds me a lot of going to the Snowball Derby and having that pressure to qualify well, having heat races so you can transfer to the main, having a good starting spot. The pressure of that, it’s like, we’ve got to have all of our ducks in a row before we get there. We can’t be trying to learn and fine-tune stuff. We’ve got to be ready to go.”
Even though the Clash is a very different race than the Daytona 500 in two weeks, is it good to get some reps with your crew chief and your team before the regular season officially starts?
“It’s good to get an extra rep before the real season starts with the Daytona 500. Any chance you get to build your communication – it takes a long time to be like peanut butter and jelly with the crew chief, it takes a while to get that communication where you’re finishing sentences for each other. So any chance you get to spend with each other is valuable, whether it’s going to dinner or it’s in the racecar, and the Clash is definitely a good opportunity to learn each other.”
The Clash tees up our version of the Super Bowl – the Daytona 500. How big of a deal is that for the sport?
“I think there’s no better place for NASCAR to give a little preview and a little hint of our season than the Clash. L.A. is a different market, it’s a cool city, it’s young, pop culture, energetic, bright, flashy. The crowd there, I’m 25, I’ve never seen so many college kids at a race and young kids at a race my age. They’ve got DJs going on, Machine Gun Kelly is performing at halftime this year, it’s a different atmosphere than probably I’ve ever felt at any other race. We have the halftime break. I’ve never been vibing out to music and kind of moving my arms inside the car during a pit stop, but at the Clash we did. It brings a little bit more energy to our sport. It brings something different, some flair to it that we normally don’t get. So I like the change of pace, for sure.”