NASCAR’s Clash set the stage for a racing resurrection

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By any measure, last Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum was smashing success. Although the quarter-mile track didn’t make for a lot of side-by-side racing or a lot of passing, it still wound up being a glitzy production that can successfully take stock-car racing back on the road to being relevant again.

The sport stripped away its crusty routine to take its preseason exhibition race to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Moreover, it started with a concert by Pitbull and a mid-race performance by Ice Cube, along with music from DJ Skee during caution periods. Riki Rachtman, formerly of the Headbangers Ball, was the host of the NASCAR Fan Fest. And WWE wrestler Shamus waved the green flag to start the race.

NASCAR took an enormous, yet educated, gamble. It didn’t just think outside the box; it took its future to a new area code.

“I think it was a risk. We knew that from the start,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of strategic innovation. “As we’ve talked about the schedule over the past couple of years, we talked about being bold, we talked about being innovative. That’s part of it.

“We’re really proud of the outcome today. I think it was successful.”

And in the process, it brought young Kennedy out of the shadows and into the white-hot spotlight. He’s the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France, and he brings a game plan that’s meant to appease older fans, but attract a new legion of followers.

“I think it says we’ve got a bright future. I never doubted with Ben,” said NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development office Steve O’Donnell. “I think always on top of things, great communicator, well-liked, which is cool. He won’t say it, but deserves a ton of credit for seeing this through from the beginning, then staying on top of it even when there were challenges to say, ‘This is where we’re going.’”

Los Angeles traditionally has been a dead spot in the NASCAR schedule. Auto Club Speedway in nearby Fontana doesn’t attract big crowds. The two-mile speedway is being transformed into a short track with hopes of putting people in the seats.

With 60,000 at the Coliseum – and as many as 45,000 first-time fans – the sport may have opened its arms to a new, more diverse, audience.

“That’s incredible. That’s nuts. To know that only happened because we came to them, right?,” Clash winner Joey Logano said. “We were racing in the city. We’ve never been able to do that. Typically, you got to go 30 minutes, an hour or so out of downtown to put a race on because we need such a huge area.

“(Sunday) proved that, hey, we can race anywhere. That says a lot about our sport. That’s the biggest win today for the future of our sport. It’s so big.”

The sport also has gone to its Next Generation cars which brought back the true shapes and characteristics of a showroom sedan. For the first time in more than 30 years, a Ford will look like a Mustang; a Chevrolet will look like a Camaro; and, a Toyota will look like a Camry.

Drivers were skeptical about a made-for-television race in Los Angeles. But most were happy with the experience – and the future of the sport.

“Coming into L.A., if that’s how you want to term it, I felt like it was a huge success,” said Kyle Busch. “I thought it was a huge chance, Ben Kennedy and the guys at NASCAR, if this didn’t work, it was going to be ugly.

“I’m sure they’re taking a huge sigh of relief and a big high five because it was a big success.”

The real racing season gets underway with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20. All 101,500 permanent seats were sold out a month ago and dedicated spots in the infield are going fast.

“I think as you go into the Daytona 500, this is a great event, but there is nothing like coming to the green flag of the Daytona 500 with all the anticipation and excitement from the off-season and everything that has happened over this last year with the new car,” said Kevin Harvick. “You have a lot of enthusiasm and this event and hearing about this event, it is a lot like it had been 20 years ago when every race was an event. You have that feeling and that excitement and enthusiasm that goes with that event.”

Now it’s up to the Daytona 500 to keep the momentum going.

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