NASCAR Clash at Coliseum revs up entertaining spectacle for fans and drivers

Amaya DiBella waves the checkered flag as NASCAR driver Joey Logano does a celebratory burnout.
Amaya DiBella, center, waves a checkered flag as her grandparents, Vice DiBella and John DiBella cheer following NASCAR driver Joey Logano’s victory at the Coliseum on Sunday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It was time to give the parents a break for the weekend.

Three weeks after Los Angeles native Eugene Hasson found an online ad for a NASCAR race at the Coliseum, here he was with his wife, Angela Smith, taking grandkids Aenus, Aziel and Ace out for an afternoon to experience a sport they’d never seen before.

The kids dangled their feet from crimson seats, lollipop stems protruding from their mouths, each sporting a pair of headphones nearly as large as their heads. Aenus is 6 years old, Ace 4 and Aziel 2; sitting in direct earshot of the hundreds of horsepower revving up nearby naturally would be an issue.

The noise could be managed, however. Many of the kids’ favorite toys at home were racecars. It was time to see them come to life.

Eugene Hasson, far left, and his wife, Angela Smith, far right, spend time with their grandsons Aenus, Aziel and Ace.
Eugene Hasson, far left, and his wife, Angela Smith, far right, spend time with their grandsons Aenus, Aziel and Ace at Sunday’s NASCAR race at the Coliseum.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

“We want to soak it all in,” Hasson said. “They’re really excited … we may become fans.”

There was plenty to soak in Sunday at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum — everything from gasp-inducing spinouts to permanently damaged racecars to Pitbull telling the crowd, “we making history!”

After the asphalt settled, Joey Logano emerged as the winner of the 150-lap main event, duking it out with Kyle Busch down the stretch to pull ahead convincingly. Ultimately, though, NASCAR as a whole won on Sunday — hosting a spectacle in front of close to 60,000 that captivated a major market in Los Angeles.

“This could’ve gone awful,” Logano said after the race. “It went great.”

The Busch Light Clash on Sunday will be the first NASCAR race in Los Angeles since 1990. The Coliseum track will be tight, so expect the unexpected.

Four feet above a football field with long-wilting grass, cars left skid marks around a track that had finished construction just weeks earlier, an acrid scent of burnt rubber wafting across the Coliseum. The storied stadium has hosted the Olympics and numerous college football games, but perhaps had never felt the level of noise it did Sunday — the roar of 23 carbon-fiber racers accelerating and braking at the blink of an eye.

In an exhibition race, it gave a look at Cup Series competition to a largely new demographic. NASCAR estimated 70% of ticket-buyers had never seen a NASCAR race before.

“I mean, that’s incredible. That’s nuts,” Logano said. “And to know that that only happened because we came to them — because we’re racing in the city.”

Shane Clark’s daughter, Brystol, however, slept through much of the race. Tucked into Clark’s arms while sporting a pair of bright pink headphones she’d inherited from her eldest sister, the three-week old Brystol couldn’t be bothered amid the chaos.

NASCAR driver Austin Cindric collects Bubba Wallace in a crash after spinning out during Sunday's race.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“She’s content,” Clark said, laughing as Brystol continued to doze.

Brystol is the latest in a line of Clarks to be introduced from a young age to NASCAR. Clark, who lives in Yucaipa, has four daughters, and said all have become racing fans. When they found out there’d be a short-track race at the Coliseum, he had no problem convincing them to go.

His daughters’ interest in attending: “knowing there’s going to be a lot of wrecks,” Clark said.

They were correct.

In the week leading up to the event, drivers such as Cole Custer spoke repeatedly of the “beating and banging” that could ensue on such a cramped course. After competitive but relatively quiet heat races, the second Last Chance Qualifying race for the main event brought the pain.

Ryan Preece got sandwiched between two cars and flipped sideways. Austin Cindric’s Ford was spun around. Kurt Busch got ran into the wall. Just a couple laps later, Cindric got bumped again and slammed head-on into the infield wall.

The style of racing certainly wasn’t for everyone — some purists, like one fan who preferred just to be referenced by her first name, Sandy, didn’t like seeing the wreckage — but sent gasps and hands flying among the crowd. Clark grinned and called it “fun.”

Joey Logano does a celebratory burnout at the start/finish line after winning the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s like a fight at a hockey game,” Sandy said. “You can’t help but watch.”

The main event, however, was clean, outside of a few mechanical failures and one particularly nasty crash into the infield barrier that left Justin Haley’s No. 31 car with a massive dent in the front. Fans were treated to a duel between Logano and Busch, who largely paced the field for much of the contest.

After falling behind after a restart, Busch was nipping at Logano’s bumper with 10 laps to go until the two hit traffic. Busch, however, said he “smoked the tires,” and Logano pulled away to cross the finish line uncontested.

Set under the flickering torch of the Coliseum on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon, the race was the payoff to what NASCAR VP of strategy and innovation Ben Kennedy envisioned from the first days of planning. He had naysayers, said NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell — even ones within NASCAR. But the track didn’t fail, the racing awed, and dreams prevailed.

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.

“If this didn’t work, it was going to be ugly,” Busch said. “I’m sure they’re taking a huge sigh of relief and big high five.”

During his concert before the main event, Pitbull proclaimed, “That’s what life’s about. Taking challenges. Taking risks.”

Kennedy considered what the entertainer had said before adding, “Yeah, I think it was a risk. We knew that from the start. . . . We are really proud of the outcome today.”