Clash at the Coliseum shows that racing in NASCAR 2.0 is just part of the show

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Justin Haley was fastest at 67.099 mph in Saturday's single car qualifying before Sunday's Clash at the Coliseum.

Justin Haley was fastest at 67.099 mph in Saturday’s single car qualifying before Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum. The show’s opening for NASCAR’s 75th season will feature a fan festival, VIP packages, two hip hop concerts and Sunday’s race. (Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASCAR is in the midst of its worst transformation since its top drivers went from lawless moonshiners to prize-winning athletes. Gone are the days when it was enough to entice fans to run bumper to bumper over a massive 2½ miles.

In NASCAR 2.0, the race is just part of the show. This weekend’s Busch Clash at the Coliseum, the show that will open NASCAR’s 75th season, will feature a fan festival, VIP packages, two hip hop concerts and Sunday’s 150-lap quarter-mile race.

Justin Haley was fastest at 67.099 mph in Saturday afternoon’s single-car qualifying, which set the stage for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. Those races will determine the lineup for the 27-car race, which will be run under the lights around concerts by Cypress Hill and Wiz Khalifa.

“We live in a day and age now where we get bored very easily. You come to events like this, you have to be entertained,” said driver AJ Allmendinger, the two-time defending Xfinity Series regular season champion. “At the end of the day, yeah, the race is probably still the most important thing. That’s why we’re all here.

“But I grew up in open wheel and when we were in Champ Car we always said that the race was almost, in a way, secondary to the party. You have to make an atmosphere of it. That’s how these Cup races should be. We have to make it fun for people to show up and want to be there and be entertained all weekend.”

NASCAR seems to have taken that message to heart. For nearly two decades the series included a 400-mile race on a 1½-mile oval outside of Chicago. When it returns to that city in July, the race will be run on a street course, between four full-time performances.

“This is a two-day festival of racing and music. That’s how we promote it,” said Julie Giese, the former president of Phoenix Raceway and the person NASCAR tapped to organize the Chicago event. “The show was the starting point. – that music. So it’s racing. But it’s much more.

“For me, it’s just that continuous evolution of where we want to take that race experience. Ultimately, it’s a race weekend, but layering on a lot of other things to let people experience whatever they want.”

Cypress Hill's B-Real will perform at Daytona International Speedway's Welcome to Rockville music festival in 2021.

Cypress Hill’s B-Real will perform at Daytona International Speedway’s Welcome to Rockville music festival in 2021. Cypress Hill is set to perform Sunday at the Clash at the Coliseum. (Amy Harris/Invision/Associated Press)

It’s not like NASCAR is broke. Cup Series TV broadcasts averaged 3.7 million viewers per race in 2022, a 24% increase in household share from 2018, and eight of the 36 races were sold out. But the series is changing just as it is. The introduction of the Next Gen car last year had a positive effect on parity, with 19 drivers recording wins and the margin of victory just 1.011 seconds.

In addition, the evolution of the NASCAR schedule continues. In addition to NASCAR’s first street race in Chicago and the All-Star Race at the historic North Wilkesboro (NC) Speedway, there will be road course events in Austin, Texas, in March, in Sonoma, California, in June and in Indianapolis and Watkins Glen, NY, in August. And there have been discussions about making the Cup Series international with England, Mexico and Brazil among the possible venues.

At the same time some of the traditional events on the domestic calendar are also changing. A two-mile banked track at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana has been part of the NASCAR schedule since 1997, but after the race there on Feb. 26, the track will be changed to a half-mile oval. And the race will be just one of the things considered during the redesign.

“There’s a lot of things from a fan element that we’re working on, whether it’s the clubs, the fan interaction type areas, the garage areas, the track itself, trying to get a – figure out what makes sense,” said Dave Allen, the speedway’s president. “There are a lot of pieces that affect the overall experience. But the fan experience outside of the race track itself is just as important, if not more important, to make sure they’re comfortable.”

That fan experience is also why NASCAR, for the second year in a row, is kicking off its season with a 37.5-mile sprint around the Coliseum floor rather than the more established Daytona 500.

“This is where more tracks need to go,” said driver Ty Dillon, grandson of legendary team owner Richard Childress and brother of 2018 Daytona champion Austin Dillon. “In this day and age we are caught up in being satisfied all the time, in many ways. We must step up with the times.

“Not only are we bringing a new and different crowd here for the concert, but NASCAR fans will probably enjoy the concert. Reaching new fans in a large market, there’s nothing wrong with that. We can show people who we are in the next generation of NASCAR.”

Drivers take part in a practice session Saturday at the Coliseum ahead of NASCAR's exhibition race there on Sunday.

Drivers take part in a practice session Saturday at the Coliseum ahead of NASCAR’s exhibition race there on Sunday. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

Justin Haley, Kyle Busch’s top qualifiers

The 36 race cars entered the Coliseum for Saturday’s practice sessions and qualifying through the tunnel in the southwest corner of the stadium, the same Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett, Reggie Bush, Marcus Allen and Gary Beban used it once, and the same one used by Joan Benoit on her way to winning the women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Only this time the athletes were behind the wheel and Haley, with a 13.413-second lap, was fastest in the two-lap single car qualifier in front of a packed crowd at the 100-year-old stadium. He will be on the pole for the first of four heat races on Sunday with Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron – the next three fastest on Saturday – starting first in the other three races.

“Our offense was just dominant,” Haley said.. “I feel very confident where we are. It’s obviously a good place to start the season. I’m not sure why we’re so good here. I wish I had that much talent in every race.”

The top five finishers in each of Sunday’s four finals will clinch spots in the final. The remainder of the 27-car field for the exhibition race will be filled in two final opportunities.

“The cool part about this race is nothing to lose, right? ” Haley said. “We’re not a points race or anything; just kind of putting everything on the line. So it’s definitely a different mindset. And I think the heat race format is cool. I still haven’t lost the heat race, so I’ll try to keep that streak going.

“It’s going to be a long day tomorrow and I’m excited for it.”

This story first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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