Column: Sloppy race clouds NASCAR’s return to LA Coliseum
Published 11:55 pm Monday, February 6, 2023
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
LOS ANGELES — Bubba Wallace said his back and neck hurt following the bumping and banging of NASCAR’s first event of the new year, an exhibition that Kyle Larson called “very violent for the majority of the race.”
Austin Dillon was shocked at the aggressiveness shown Sunday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, especially early in the race, when he found his head going “bang, bang, back and forth, every corner” in a sloppy, caution-filled game of bumper cars.
“There was nothing but just hammer each other and hope to come out the other side,” said Dillon, who added that he told new teammate Kyle Busch that the steering wheel was knocked out of his hands on a particularly hard hit to the back of his Chevrolet. “You’re taking some pretty good blows out there and trying to stay calm.”
NASCAR brought its preseason Busch Light Clash back to the Coliseum for a second consecutive year to race on a temporary quarter-mile track inside the iconic venue. The show was a smashing success a year ago — NASCAR used heat races, last-chance qualifiers, a prerace concert and a halftime show — to dazzle a new audience that included a packed USC student section.
It was going to be impossible to duplicate the success this year — even with a Wiz Khalifa halftime set — but it wasn’t supposed to be so messy. The inaugural event had just five cautions; Sunday night was marred by 25 cautions and a long stretch after the seven-minute Wiz Khalifa set in which the drivers struggled to complete two consecutive laps under green.
The racing was so amateur that it probably killed any chance of turning a third trip to the Coliseum into a points-awarding race, which seemed plausible just a day earlier. Auto Club Speedway in nearby Fontana is set to be renovated following its Cup race later this month, and its track president said the facility wouldn’t be ready to host racing in 2024.
The absence of Auto Club next year puts pressure on NASCAR to remain in the Southern California market, and “a race that counts” at the Coliseum could have filled the void. But the drivers blasted that idea.
Martin Truex Jr., who went winless last season and nearly retired, won Sunday night and gave a flat “No,” when asked if the race should count in the future. The Clash was run at Daytona International Speedway from its 1979 inception until last year, when NASCAR moved it to the Coliseum because, frankly, a special race wasn’t so special anymore at Daytona.
The Coliseum idea was fresh and new, and it energized the industry for the start of an important season in which NASCAR launched a new car. The Clash at the Coliseum is what it is, Truex said, and if it’s messy and sloppy, so be it.
“Why would you want to screw it up and make it a points race? It’s like a one-off deal,” he said, noting that at Daytona the ever-changing eligibility rules made a boring race “all weird.”
“Now this is really cool. It’s got its own identity, fun race, all the way out here in a cool venue that’s got a lot of history,” Truex said of the Coliseum. “I think it’s kind of got a good vibe to it now. Let’s not maybe screw that up.”
But a secondary theme emerged at the Coliseum, as most drivers believed that an offseason fix NASCAR made to the rear bumper of its Next Gen car was not such a fix after all. The rear of the new car was designed to withstand hard hits, but the durability and rigidness of the rear clip left the driver absorbing far more energy than normal in routine crashes.
It led to at least two concussions, and Kurt Busch was forced to retire because of a July crash in qualifying. He said last week that he was in nine crashes in 2022 in which the force of impact alarmed Busch and he’s still not 100% healthy.
NASCAR made some fixes to soften the rear, but Wallace sounded the alarm early Sunday night when he was hit from behind.
“Uh NASCAR, rear bumper hits are still (expletive) awful,” he said on his radio.
Kyle Busch said Wallace’s rear bumper was visibly damaged, “so he might have been one of the ones that got hit the hardest.” He also agreed with Larson and Dillon, who said the violence inside the car “still doesn’t feel good.”
“Truthfully, it didn’t really feel much different at that speed and just the bumper car action that you get through the middle of the corner,” Kyle Busch said. “Like Austin said, when you get hit a few times, your head is getting jacked into the back of the headrest and you’re getting the whiplash effect. But (the lack of) damage to the cars… like front and rear, underneath, you have no idea (it was a hard hit). But it’s still a brunt of a hit.”
Next up is the Daytona 500, where top speeds will be more than double the roughly 80-plus mph the drivers were doing at the Coliseum. And, the nature of the racing at Daytona typically requires one driver to slam into the back of the car in front of him to create the force needed to move through traffic.
But if the drivers are concerned, they didn’t go out of their way Sunday night to sound the alarm.
“I think the positive part is NASCAR has showed us things that they’re trying to do to help that area of the car,” Dillon said. “We’re making progress. That’s the biggest thing.”
The progress remains to be seen, both with how NASCAR ultimately views its return to the Coliseum and if it has done enough headed into a new season to protect its drivers.