What to expect at the unprecedented Clash at the Coliseum NASCAR race

The Coliseum
The Coliseum is being converted to a race track for the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum NASCAR race on Sunday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Cole Custer just wants his In-N-Out.

Sunday brings a momentous occasion — the first NASCAR race to be held in Los Angeles since Ascot Park closed in 1990. Not only that, NASCAR’s season-opening Busch Light Clash will be held at the Coliseum, one of the most storied venues in sports history.

That’s all great. But Custer, an Orange County native driving for Stewart-Haas racing, is just looking forward to coming back to Southern California so he can grab his go-to In-N-Out order: a No. 1 combo. With, importantly, grilled onions.

“I gotta spice it up sometimes,” Custer said.

He’ll be looking forward to snagging a burger after the race, but first, Custer will be one of many drivers experiencing a completely new event Sunday. Not only has this track at the Coliseum never been raced before, it’s also easily the shortest course drivers will face in the 2022 Cup Series.

Here are answers to a few questions heading into this year’s Busch Light, for die-hard racing fans and those just looking for a fun time.

What time does the race start, and how exactly does it work?

Before the main event Sunday, which starts at 3 p.m., a series of four heats will be held to determine qualifiers for the final race.


There are 36 drivers currently entered into the Clash, but only 23 cars will rev up during the penultimate race. That’s an uncommonly low number for a Cup Series event, largely capped because the quarter-mile track is simply too cramped to host a 40-car armada.

NASCAR teams have done what once seemed impossible, building a track inside L.A.’s Coliseum. This is how they did it and how drivers feel about it.

“Having it as an exhibition race, with a maximum of 22 to 23 cars on the track at a single time, just made so much more sense,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of strategy and innovation.

The heats will consist of 25 laps with up to 10 cars each. The top four drivers from each heat will automatically be entered into the main event. Drivers who didn’t advance from the heat races will participate in two 50-lap Last Chance Qualifier contests, the top three finishers of which will also race in the last competition.

If your favorite driver happens to wake up on the wrong side of the bed, fear not. A final spot in the main race will be reserved for the highest-place finisher in last year’s point standings that doesn’t advance in either the heats or the qualifiers.

Heat races start at noon, and the Last Chance Qualifiers will be held at about 1:10 p.m.

What are drivers expecting from the course?

VIDEO | 06:13
LA Times Today: How NASCAR transformed the Coliseum

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

The maximum experience a driver could have on the track before Sunday: a few runs on simulation service iRacing and a practice and single-car qualifier Saturday.

That’s it.

“It’s definitely going to be some nervous times for all the racers, trying to learn what the track’s going to be like,” said William Byron, driving for Hendrick Motorsports.

While the short track may remind many of the street races they grew up on, last year’s Cup Series winner Kyle Larson anticipates difficulty in decelerating to maneuver around the cramped track’s curves.

“With this track, it’s hardly ever on-throttle time,” Larson said. “You’re off the throttle more than you’re on the throttle.”

As such, fans will be treated to a show of finesse and maneuvering rather than brute-force speed. Drivers might have to get a little pushy, and the key to the race will likely be staying out of a clump of “chaos” — as Custer put it — with so many cars trying to gain position around the corners.

“You’re always going to be around somebody,” Larson said, “and it’s going to be hard to pass, so you’re going to want to protect your position a lot.”

Photos of the transformation of the historical Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum from football stadium to a quarter-mile short track NASCAR racetrack.

Who’s favored to win?

Anyone’s guess might be as good as the drivers’, frankly. Because of the novelty of Sunday’s event, the playing field is even, Custer said.

“Nobody really has a leg up on anybody,” he said. “Nobody’s seen this track before, nobody’s raced with this car before, so there’s going to be a lot of surprises.”

Larson, the reigning champ, was ranked first in NASCAR’s power rankings entering the Cup Series season. But he isn’t confident heading into this race. Larson likened the Clash at the Coliseum to the Martinsville Speedway, the second-smallest race in the Cup Series, and has been disappointed with his performances there in the past.

“I’m not very good at Martinsville, so I hope this doesn’t go bad for me this weekend,” Larson said. “It probably will be difficult for me.”

With Martinsville as a frame of reference, last year’s top-three finishers at the Speedway are worth watching Sunday: Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.

Elliott was ranked second, Hamlin third and Truex Jr. fourth in the preseason power rankings, and if their success navigating Martinsville’s tight corners carry over, expect one of them to cross the finish line first at the Coliseum.

What else does the event offer?

The firsts don’t stop at the race itself — there’ll be quite the assortment of people present at the Coliseum on Sunday.

Ever expect to see Pitbull and Ice Cube perform in the same place? Well, they’re both holding concerts during the festivities — Pitbull before the race around 2 p.m., Ice Cube during the race break.

“I think [that’s] the first time we’ve ever done something like that,” Kennedy said.

A live DJ, DJ Skee, will perform during caution breaks of the race, which NASCAR has never done before. Former MTV host Riki Rachtman will host a NASCAR Fan Fest at 2:30 p.m., at which a Lightning McQueen car will be present for photo opportunities.

In short, it could be quite the spectacle.

“It was hard to really grasp what it could be like or what it could look like,” Kennedy said, “and I don’t think we’ll truly have an idea until Feb. 6.”

Tickets are available, starting at $65 for adults and $10 for children.