Inside NASCAR’s ‘Clash At the Coliseum’ With LA Mag

The racing league looks to Los Angeles for new fans—and finds them

“If you’re from California, you’re not a Yankee. You’re not really anything.”
“You said it.” — Randy Quaid and Robert Duvall in 1990’s Days of Thunder

As dusk turned to darkness over the Los Angeles Coliseum Sunday night, NASCAR officials and drivers were high-fiving and grinning outside the USC football locker room.

They’d pulled it off.

At a cost of more than $1 million, they performed the miracle of building a racetrack where USC plays home games. Four feet above where the field normally is, four inches of asphalt provided a canvas for NASCAR’s biggest names to drive fast and try to win some money.

But they were celebrating something bigger.

They had produced an impressive list of celebrities along with concerts by Pitbull and Ice Cube.  They had turned out a good crowd in an unlikely market and done so just one week before the same city hosts the Super Bowl. They were trending on Twitter.

But they were celebrating something bigger.

They had pulled off an honest-to-goodness NASCAR race on the shortest track they’d run on since 1971, complete with ear-splitting engine roars, wrecks, pissed-off drivers, the smell of burnt rubber, and a whole lot of beer. While just about everyone involved wondered beforehand if a crowded track might start to resemble the 405 at rush hour around the holidays, the race saw few yellow caution flags and it was over well before the sunset.

But after a successful weekend of the first-ever “Clash at the Coliseum,” NASCAR was celebrating its latest audacious if not surprising effort to grow its audience far beyond the stereotype of the white southerner to new markets and new faces.

If you were within earshot of the Coliseum at any point during the weekend of the race, you probably heard either a NASCAR official or a driver or maybe even one of the damn cars say that 70 percent of ticket sales for this event were for first-time NASCAR event attendees.

NASCAR came to L.A. to grow its sport. And they appear to have succeeded.

Javier Gonzalez was wearing a Lakers 2020 championship hat and a smile. He had noticed the 1964 Chevy Impala outside the Coliseum as he came in. It was Gonzalez’s first time seeing a race in person, and he said he was “definitely” feeling the sport trying to reach him. There were subtle touches like the Impala. And there were larger, unmistakable points of pride like driver Daniel Suarez.

Fans cheer as NASCAR racer Daniel Suarez walks down the staircase to the track during introduction at the Busch Light Clash At The Coliseum, a NASCAR exhibition race at the historic LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Suarez was the only driver to answer a question in Spanish at Saturday’s media availability. A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Suarez later noted that he won’t get to race in his home country “so this is as close as it gets.”

“Honestly, it feels like home,” he said. “Everywhere I go, people are speaking Spanish to me. The tacos here are amazing. So it’s very cool to be here. I’m loving it.”

Suarez repeated the stat about 70 percent of ticket-buyers, but he added something to the talking point — “I’m pretty sure a lot of those are Hispanics so that… puts a huge smile on my face.”

One of them was Gonzalez, who said of NASCAR’s attempts to connect with the Latino community: “I think it’s working.”

It was a belief underscored by the Mexican flags flying in the grandstands. But it was another flag that signaled NASCAR’s genuine devotion to growth. A flag with an ugly history. A flag that was once prominent at NASCAR events if not synonymous with them.

“I mean when I went to Fontana, my first race, and I walked through all the confederate flags and stuff like that, but to be honest with you [I] never had an issue,” Preston Miles recalled.

Miles went to his first NASCAR race 17 years ago at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, about 45 miles East of downtown or about an hour and 15 minutes from South L.A. where Miles lives.

He’s a real fan. As he reminisced, he stopped to yell “NASCAR champ!” at Kyle Larson as last year’s NASCAR Cup Series champion walked by. Like a lot of fans, officials and drivers, Miles was damn curious to see how the cars are going to do on such a short track. He’s excited to be going to Daytona for the big race in two weeks. He says a few times that “it really is a good sport.”

Miles remembers that first race as the one where Kyle Busch got his first career win. He remembers that he was “hooked” after it was over. And he remembers seeing the confederate flag.

In California.

“Well that would turn away people of color,” Miles said. “I didn’t care. I just went. But when I got there that first time and I saw that, I’m like, well, here’s the reality of where you are. But it turned out to be a great day. A great event. Enjoyed every moment of it. Other than that.”

NASCAR banned that flag from its events in June 2020 because Bubba Wallace asked them to. At Talladega in October of last year, Wallace became the second Black man to win a NASCAR Cup Series race and the first since Wendell Scott did it in 1963.

The year before, Wallace found unfortunate and unfair fame off the track when a crew member for a different team discovered a noose hanging from the garage assigned to Wallace at that same Talladega track not long after he had called for a real ban on the confederate flag from races and events.

The FBI investigated and determined that the noose was tied as a door pull and had been there well before the garage was assigned to Wallace and his team. Still, the episode raised ugly and familiar questions about NASCAR’s stated desire to attract new audiences and the behavior and hearts of its traditional audience. The league responded forcefully in real and tangible ways, culminating most visibly and perhaps emotionally on the day of the race when the field of drivers walked with Wallace as they pushed his car to the front before the start.

Miles said he never had an incident or heard so much as an unkind word at a NASCAR event. But his friend Ron Henderson, from Crenshaw, agreed that the flag had to go if NASCAR hoped to have more Black fans.

“They had to get rid of it,” Henderson said. “They had to.”

To be sure, the politics of NASCAR’s base are still on display even in downtown Los Angeles. It was at a NASCAR event in Alabama where the right-wing code “Let’s Go, Brandon” was born as the Talladega crowd chanted “fuck Joe Biden.” And there was no shortage of “Let’s Go Brandon” t-shirts at the Coliseum Sunday.

But despite the presence of the politics of old NASCAR, the new NASCAR and its innovative efforts to grow were impossible to deny. NASCAR is focused on growing, and it sees L.A. — and Angelenos of all races and nationalities — as key to doing that.

It can’t hurt that one of the sport’s rising stars is about to step on the streaming stage as Wallace is about to take another star turn as the hero of Netflix’s latest motorsports documentary, a six-part series that debuts two days after Daytona on Feb. 22.

On Saturday afternoon, sitting high above the Coliseum with the Hollywood sign far in the distance behind him, Wallace took a question from Vibe Magazine about seeing Pitbull and Ice Cube, answering that he caught up with Cube at the famous rapper’s soundcheck Friday night.

Wallace was clearly excited to talk about his new show on Netflix, telling reporters that he’s a “raw and real” person and that will come through as viewers follow him through last season.

“Hopefully it’s good enough to have a second season, but it was fun,” he said.

Given Wallace and NASCAR’s efforts to plant a flag with L.A. and a new audience, Los Angeles caught up with Wallace to ask if he was thinking about trading in Talladega for Tinseltown.

Wallace scoffed and shook his head before smiling.

“Definitely not,” he said. “I’m damn sure not going Hollywood.”

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