Surreal to real: A Clash like no other makes history in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – History seemingly happens only so rarely, but Los Angeles makes it a regular thing. The Super Bowl comes to town next week, a big deal the city has rallied around in the days-long run-up. Still, it has happened here seven times before.

NASCAR within the city limits, though, and in one of the crown-jewel settings – had never happened. Ten-years-ago NASCAR fan you would’ve told present-day you it never would. A mid-race break for an Ice Cube concert? Absolutely not. A quarter-mile track inside an Olympic-quality venue with a century of history? Saywhatnow.

Sunday, those things happened in the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, stirring up a buzzy Super Bowl atmosphere in a previously untapped part of town in front of a host of first-time attendees.

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Nearly every logistical challenge the event may have posed was met. The Clash entered the realm of the trending on social media, with new eyeballs seeing the sport for the first time. And Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon, who may have had reason to be disappointed in finishing 2-3 behind race winner Joey Logano, capped the day with high-fives for NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell outside the locker room-turned-press room.

“I think it goes back to what I said, people having fun, getting back to going out there and racing. Today was what we’re all about, really the whole weekend,” O’Donnell said. “If you look at what the drivers have done for the sport over the offseason, really getting out there and help promoting us, this is a big market for us. It was important for us to come out here and look like we’re having fun, even if we weren’t. That wasn’t the case. I think everybody was really enthusiastic, ready to go, they wanted to win this race. I think that showed.

“High-fiving us is more we’re doing the same because they delivered, put on a great race for us.”

That started in the preliminaries, and the use of heats and last-chance qualifiers seemed tailor-made for this year’s version of the Clash. Several big names came perilously close to missing the feature, and former champs Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski were among those going home early. The tempers, fender-fraying and roughhousing that was semi-expected came to be, and the new Cup Series car that made its competition debut along with the track took its share of lumps.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

A host of California legends from all walks of sports made for an impressive list of grand marshals, and Vallejo’s own Jeff Gordon was front and center among them, lighting the Olympic flame, giving the command.

“To see the excitement and energy of the crowd, I mean that’s what NASCAR racing and great events are all about,” Gordon, now Hendrick Motorsports’ vice chairman, told NASCAR.com. “I thought top to bottom, NASCAR, everybody at the stadium, FOX just did a fantastic job. We were entertained – it wasn’t just about a race, it was about the whole experience. So I’m very pleased. I know we didn’t have the best result, but the racing was good.

“I was concerned coming here of what were we going to see on track. I felt like if we had a bunch of fans, we could entertain them with Ice Cube and Pitbull and all that, the DJ, but what were we going to see on track. I thought we saw a great race, all through the day – bumping and banging and passing.”

The main event’s finish may not have had the same slam-bang result as the qualifiers, but it had all the anticipation as Logano’s No. 22 Ford ran for its life with rival Kyle Busch in hot pursuit. A Turn 4 villainy not seen here since Zola Budd tripped Mary Decker at the 1984 Games was avoided, and the potential powder keg was defused. After the victory burnouts while Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” blared, Logano’s car rolled harmlessly back to the garage, where even those who placed among the also-rans were soaking in the back end of the day’s vibe.

“I feel like I came in with pretty high expectations, and I think everything was just a little bit better,” said defending Cup Series champ Kyle Larson, who finished fifth. “I think the atmosphere was amazing, just everything about it was really cool. … I hope we can do more of this in the future. I don’t know what the fans think of it, the new fans that are here, but I hope they enjoyed it. That’s the most important part. Just really proud of NASCAR for the effort they put in and what they were able to execute. I felt like this was a really smoothly run event, no real hiccups at all and that’s all you can ask for.”

Ah, the future. The pavement had barely cooled before crews began to deconstruct the track, and the temporary barriers that formed the inner retaining wall were all neatly stacked by the time most Angelenos were done with dinner. Just as quickly as the dream was built, it was being taken apart.

By no means was this easy, but before the weekend was even in full swing, talk centered around potentially doing it again. Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of strategy and innovation, had made this event his team’s touchstone. Taking it on the road to new venues — Soldier Field, Wembley Stadium, other international locales — that avenue is now wide open.

“It’s something that I think we’ll certainly look at,” Kennedy said. “Los Angeles, as we’ve mentioned from the start, is really an important market for us. … The Coliseum, USC, have been tremendous partners. That will be certainly an important part as we think about this. But to your point, too, if we can prove this out, a proof of concept, it does open the door to other locations in the future.”

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Kennedy said those decisions would likely come sooner than later regarding a potential renewal, but for the time being, the 29-year-old executive was content to share some of the accolades from making the surreal become real, at somehow managing to pull all this off.

The year’s more traditional start comes in two weeks with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). That event has traditionally drawn comparisons as NASCAR’s Super Bowl. That type of atmosphere has already happened once this month, complete with a halftime show.

“This is LA, this is a tough market to really make a splash, but it is a great location and venue,” Gordon said, hinting at the possibilities that could emerge. “The weather is right for the winter, you’ve got an iconic, historic venue and location, so what else is out there? I do think there’s some places that if you could put a track in, I think they would draw a great crowd. I think what we can recreate now is you realize, when the cautions come out, you can pump music in, get the crowd involved, you can have a halftime and have somebody come out and put on a concert or whatever.

“I think there’s a lot that was learned from it — all positive. Great way to kick off the season.”

Making history repeat is an LA-centric phenomenon. Sunday may mark the start of it being NASCAR’s calling card, too.