A temporary oval course laid out inside the LA Memorial Coliseum stadium is now host to the annual season-opening NASCAR Busch Light Clash races. A bold play to open up the southern Californian market to new fans has seemingly paid off, with the race set to become an annual fixture.
Creation of the track begins in December, with a flat out schedule until February to lay a removable surface over the grass and then build all the necessary racing infrastructure.
Debuting in 2022, the race proved NASCAR’s ability to take its show to alternative new venues and pull in a crowd - a trick that it may wish to repeat elsewhere in future.
The idea for the event at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles first came in 2019, as NASCAR began evaluating new ways to spice up its show. It had already expanded the programme of road races and re-introduced a dirt race; now it wanted something different which would generate publicity and bring the sport to new audiences.
It was clear from the outset that a significant budget would be required to pull off the feat, since everything that would be required to create a functioning race circuit would need to be brought in, installed and then removed again in a relatively short space of time, all the while ensuring that the facility would be put back to its former state ready to host concerts and sporting fixtures. In total, NASCAR earmarked $1 million for the construction costs alone, though it ended up spending significantly more on the two-day event.
The concept of motorsport at the Coliseum is not entirely new, however. As recently as 2013, a Stadium Super Trucks event was held on a temporary asphalt surface. In the 1980s, off-road races were held inside the Coliseum, while in the 1940s midget car racing was a regular draw for crowds of up to 50,000 people.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, we did the Mickey Thompson off-road show, we’ve done rock ‘n’ roll shows, so flipping the field from one event to another isn’t foreign for us at all,” said Joe Furin, the Coliseum’s general manager.
“We outlined some parameters and then NASCAR did their thing,” Furin added. “Our concerns were protecting irrigation and drain lines and the infrastructure. The grass is dead; that’s not a concern at all, but it’s protecting all that other stuff so then when it’s all removed, we can put the grass back in and, and everything’s intact.”
Talks between NASCAR and the Coliseum stalled during the pandemic but picked up again in summer 2021. The first step was determining whether the dimensions of the stadium could yield a legitimate race.
“I think there were rumours, ‘Oh, they’re going to build a street course outside of it — there’s no way they can actually build a track inside of it,’” explained NASCAR vice president for strategy and innovation, Ben Kennedy. The truth was very different: the circuit would be built inside the stadium, presenting an even bigger challenge for NASCAR’s Martin Flugger, who was charged with making this a reality.
“You want to put a track where?” was his first reaction on being told of the project. Fortunately, when concept sketches were drawn up and a virtual version was created and tested in conjunction with iRacing, they began to appreciate that the Coliseum wasn’t like a normal football stadium. It had an ace card in plain sight: a dirt track borders the field, allowing just enough extra room to squeeze in the course without the turns being too tight.
Construction is a mammoth feat of logistics
With a design in place, the only thing left to do was actually build the course. A tight time window meant crews could only be on site from December 21 with the track needing to be complete by the end of January.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Flugger said. “Because in most cases, we would get rid of every bit of topsoil, every bit of grass, everything that could be compressible. Things that you wouldn’t want underneath the track all had to stay. So, you start having to think about how do you protect what they have here and build up a track within the middle of a football field.”
The solution was to lay a thick plastic barrier of Visqueen sheeting, covering the turf and dirt area, with plywood laid on top. This created a 130,000 square feet area on which the track could be built. On top of this a layer of geotextile woven fabric was added, giving a further protective layer and preventing the track base from moving.
Trailers full of crushed rock were then brought in, with a foot added to the flat infield, rising to four feet on the outside of the 2.5-degree banking. A layer of of asphalt (6,900 square yards in total on track and a further 6,800 for the infield) then completes the track surface.
The remainder of the track infrastructure - walls, catch fences and SAFER barriers - were loaned for the Busch Clash from Auto Club Speedway and the Long Beach Grand Prix. These were installed by January 15, 2021, with the track lines added by January 24.
The only adjustment required to the Coliseum itself was to the tunnel which allows access to the playing field; the greater height of the track surface meant it had also to be paved to prevent the cars bottoming out as they enter and exit the course.
One downside of the compact nature of the circuit is the lack of room for a pit lane. Instead, cars can park on the infield area and receive service during breaks between racing, but there are no live pit stops. Any major repairs and setup changes are completed in the paddock, which is in a designated parking lot outside the stadium.
Racing debuts and proves a success
When drivers arrived on the Friday they were greeted by what was likely to be the shortest paved oval they’d ever experienced in a full-sized stock car. NASCAR itself hadn’t raced on a quarter-mile oval since 1971, with Bristol and Martinsville being double this length. Any fears that the slow speeds (topping out at around 85 mph) would dent the spectacle were swiftly dispelled when the cars began running, with the engine noise reverberating around the stadium alone being enough to compensate.
The track is narrower than most but thankfully the paved apron created a second groove and allowed for passing without contact. On throttle time was also longer than expected; drivers roll on the throttle out of Turns 2 and 4 before a lift and light brake on the start finish straight to optimise rolling speeds through Turns 1 and 3.
Chase Elliott wound up fastest in the practice session with a time of 13.455s, at an average speed of 66.890 mph (107.649 km/h). Qualifying was actually slightly slower, Kyle Busch clocking a time of 13.745 and a speed of 65.478 mph (105.377 km/h). This was due to the drivers only having two warm up laps to heat their tyres before setting a time.
After a series of heat races, the main event provided decent enough entertainment, particularly given that NASCAR was also debuting its Next Gen car at the event. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano battled hard for the win, even before the half-time caution which saw Ice Cube perform a set, in similar fashion to the Super Bowl half-time show. Logano took the lead on a late restart and held it, taking a historic win.
The process of tearing up the track began just hours after the race in order to hand the venue back in time for the Los Angeles Giltinis to have a field again by mid-February.
The event proved enough of a success for NASCAR to repeat in 2023, with an expanded field of 27 cars. Research from the 2022 event showed that around 70% of the spectators were first-time race attendees, helping to justify NASCAR’s considerable expenditure.