Sports

NASCAR’s Clash at the Coliseum is a fun promo, and that’s OK

NASCAR's Clash at the Coliseum is a fun promo, and that's OK

The Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, which will see the green flag for its third edition this weekend in Los Angeles, is a lot of things.

It’s fun. It’s loose. It’s cool. It will be fast, and it will be loud. Judging by the one-page, four-box flowchart graphic that NASCAR sent out to explain the two-day, three-group/three-session practice/qualifying, four-heat-race, plus last-chance qualifier, plus final 23-car, 150-lap format, it will also be a bit complicated.

Above all else, though, what the Clash really is, is a commercial.

The stars and cars of stock car racing dueling on a quarter-mile asphalt oval crammed into the stadium where the USC Trojans play football, a front stretch’s distance from downtown L.A. and a hot lap away from Hollywood. There are no points on the line and no immortality to be earned. All of that will be on the docket when the Cup Series reconvenes for the Daytona 500 two weekends later.

All of this in Los Angeles — the race, the trophy, the red carpet event leading up to the green flag, NASCAR’s super-secret electric race car that’s expected to run some hot laps, even the mariachi bands and the mid-race performance by Machine Gun Kelly — are gearing us up for the actual start of NASCAR’s 76th season at the Great American Race.

Let’s call this the Great American Showcase.

“It’s fun more than anything else, but it is also a way to get your head right and your team right before we go to Daytona,” says Martin Truex Jr., who won the Clash one year ago. “There is a lot of rust being shaken off. First real laps of the year, first time with new stuff on cars and in new cars, and for a lot of teams, it’s drivers and guys on crews working together for the first time. So, yes, it is fun but it is also important. Best to start working out that stuff now, identifying potential issues now than having to do it in the middle of the Daytona 500.”

This exhibition race held during the open weekend before the Super Bowl, on the floor of the stadium that also hosted Super Bowl I (lost by the Kansas City Chiefs, just saying), is all about energy and eyeballs. It’s about pumping up the excitement for Daytona and beyond, which it did to the nth degree after its 2022 debut, as NASCAR president Steve Phelps still gleefully points to the attendance and TV ratings jumps created in the wake of the Clash and continued through that spring and summer. How? By creating something sportsy to watch during the first football-less weekend since August, and also using some NFL-ish celebrity sightings and mainstream entertainment halftime shows to catch couch-riding channel surfers.

“I cannot tell you how many of my friends hit me up after 2022 asking, ‘Yo, man. What was that?'” recalled Pitbull, aka Armando Christian Pérez, who has a Grammy on his shelf and has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide. He performed at that ’22 event, one year after purchasing a stake in Trackhouse Racing. “Two weeks later a bunch of them were at Daytona to see it for themselves. Now they come out to see what’s up at the Coliseum every February.

“I know for a fact that the Clash is why they watch now. They know fun and this is fun.”

Also fun is watching the social media timelines of those who are not having fun watching Pitbull and his friends have all the fun. On Sunday, when Machine Gun Kelly takes to the stage overlooking the racetrack and starts belting out “Bad Things” and “Rap Devil,” pour yourself a cold Busch Light and start scrolling. That’ll be fun, seeing the comments of the same determined old-school NASCAR gate defenders who have also been so quick to haughtily remind us that this is not really the third edition of the Clash. It’s the 45th. Sort of.

The first Busch Clash was held in 1979, a simple 20-lap shootout between the previous season’s pole winners (because they were presumably the fastest) that was won by Buddy Baker. Lost now to the hazy fog of time and the lack of an internet, that event, too, was met with pushback from stock car purists who didn’t understand the point and worried that it would take some of the luster away from Daytona 500 qualifying and the race itself one week later. Teams also worried about wasting a racecar if the exhibition ended with a big crash.

So, why was the Clash invented in the face of such resistance?

“The goal of that first Clash was pretty simple,” Bill France Jr. recalled to me in 1999, the event’s 20th anniversary, then known as the Bud Shootout and having changed its format to include a qualifying race. “We were trying to build some excitement for the Daytona 500 and that year was the first time that CBS was covering the 500 flag to flag. They wanted something to help promote that, and also their TV crew needed a dress rehearsal. They had to knock off some rust. Not everyone liked it at first, but it served its purpose.”

It did. Until it didn’t. The Busch Clash heyday was when it was the playground of Dale Earnhardt, who won it six times between 1980 and 1995, but the Busch Clash-turned-Bud Shootout-turned-Sprint Unlimited-turned-Advance Auto Parts Clash was shelved after 2020 because of plummeting interest among fans, who failed to tune in or attend even as the format was pushed through a series of extreme makeovers.

Its revival in 2022 was the brainchild of Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s wunderkind VP of racing development and strategy. The 32-year-old loves to show off photos he keeps on his phone of a childhood spent working all over Daytona International Speedway, especially one image where his preteen self is cooking up hot dogs under the watchful eye of the man who cooked up the OG Busch Clash. It’s Bill France Jr. — Kennedy’s grandfather.

Building some excitement for Daytona. Shaking off the rust. Giving your broadcast partner a showcase event to get warmed up for the Great American Race. Serving those greater purposes, even when you have to catch an earful from old-school fans.

Why? Because it’s NASCAR’s job, and in Kennedy’s DNA, to ABP — Always Be Promoting.

But also, because, yeah, it’s fun. And that’s okay.

“I think that there always has to be a willingness to try new things, but make sure you still stay true to the spirit of what got you to where you are,” Kennedy explained last year after NASCAR announced that the Clash would be returning to the L.A. Coliseum. “The end result isn’t always perfect and it isn’t always for everyone all at once, but I can tell you this: If you’ve ever been to the Clash, really soaked it in, anyone who has will tell you, it’s pretty dang fun.”