“Unprecedented” is THE word for the kickoff to the 2024 Season.
With El Nino bearing down on the L. A. Coliseum, NASCAR made a never before decision to move its season-opening Busch Light Clash up a day to Saturday night from its originally scheduled Sunday. The decision proved to be the correct one as they were able to get that race and NASCAR Mexico race in before the rains began. With the area facing in impending natural disaster with flooding and landslides and all that goes with it, the last thing the good people of LA needed was more folks there or coming there for an event. Likewise for NASCAR, the last thing they needed was their entire Charter race fleet stuck in the middle of and at risk from such a potential devastating event.
Tagged as ‘Unprecedented” this move proved to be just another in a series of unprecedented decisions that helped define the weekend.
Here’s a recap –
Fans Locked Out of Practice/Qualifying, Heats and Last Chance Qualifying Race
This third iteration of the Clash saw several changes from previous versions. Lost somewhere in all the discussions that included reduction in the field size from 27 cars to 23, basing qualifying speed on fastest practice times instead of single car runs against the clock, heat formats and all the other stuff that was going into setting the field for the Clash scheduled for Saturday, was the fact that none of this would be available for fans to see live at the stadium. This little tidbit bubbled to the surface around January 16th, barely two weeks before race weekend.
No Saturday Tickets to be sold. Sunday’s tickets can’t get you in.
No way for fans to get in to see racing.
More disturbing, no explanation as to why fans were locked out.
More disturbing still was no one asked why or if they asked and got an answer, no one was sharing.
Most disturbing is nothing was said about it until fans started buying tickets and asking.
Except for the COVID Lockouts, I can’t recall a race or events leading up to a race (qualifying, etc) where fans were ever prohibited from seeing an event live.
There may have been times when practices were closed to the public, but races… unprecedented.
Fan Outcry Leads to NASCAR Reversal
When the realization hit that fans would not be allowed in to watch Saturday’s events it triggered a social media backlash that ultimately resulted in NASCAR lifting the lockout 48 hours later. NASCAR had heard the fans “loud and clear” and openedSaturday’s events up to the fans.
Great news for the fans wanting to go and see cars on the track. With eliminations, it was the only day all fans could be assured of seeing their driver on the track.
NASCAR reversing a decision is a rarity. To do so because of fans outcry, unprecedented.
Saturday is Free
Kennedy doubled down on Saturday, not only opening Saturday’s events up to the public, but offering it to fans free-no charge. No ticket needed to get in. You don’t have to have a Sunday ticket to get in on Saturday. Show up Saturday. Get in free. No strings attached.
In a business where every possible revenue stream in exploited and maximized to its fullest – Free is never part of the discussions-which made this unprecedented.
Note – For the record, “Free” was never a part of the fans’ “demands”. All they ever asked for was “access” to Saturday’s events. “Free” was just an appreciated and unprecedented bonus for those who made plans to attend.
The Clash Moved Up
Everyone knows this one and why this was unprecedented. Races have been delayed for weather or other situations in the past. Races have been moved up an hour or so ahead of schedule to maximize a window in hopes of getting a race in. Initial plans had been made to move the Sunday race up 2 hours ahead of schedule to get it in that night. When it became obvious that this weather window was never going to develop, NASCAR had to decide between putting the race off until the storm passed (projected Wednesday at the earliest) or moving the race up to later that day.
Never had the Sanctioning Body moved a race up 24 hours in advance of its original start time. That made Saturday’s Clash race unprecedented. And all the effort made by all the parties to make this happen from first responders to Coliseum personnel to broadcast partners to the teams to the Sanctioning Body and any others should be applauded. Similar efforts take place when a race is delayed, but it’s a new experience when moving a race up. And with attention and resources divided on the incoming storm made it an even more impressive accomplishment.
Short Notice for the New Race Date and Time
The last things fans and teams heard Friday night when they called it a night was Saturday was going to be practice/qualifying, heats and Last Chance race. Then about four and a half hours before Saturday kickoff, along came the announcement and everything changed for everyone. Fans especially, got little notice and most didn’t get enough time to change their plans to make the new race date. Unfortunately, it showed. But those who were able to make it Saturday became a part of NASCAR history.
Half-time Concert On, Then Off
Machine Gun Kelly was set to perform at the Clash Half-time Concert. When the race rescheduled, most fans assumed that was off. Then a couple of hours before start time SIRIUS XM announced that arrangements had been made and MGK was available and back on. Somewhere along the way, the concert got cancelled. So, any fans who showed up for a free MGK concert got a race instead. To scramble to make a concert happen a day early only to then cancel it must also fall into the unprecedented category.
We don’t want Livid Fans…
To avoid that, Steve O’Donnell said “We’re going to be reaching out to see what we can do to make it good on their end.”
I’m confident NASCAR will do what it takes to make things right with those fans who bought tickets to Sunday’s race. What that will take, who knows. Untold numbers of fans were flying in for the Sunday race and because of the late notice couldn’t change plans or cancel. “To make it good on their end” is the right thing to do but may require more than just ticket reimbursements. To do that would be unprecedented.
With Saturday being a free event and Sunday’s tickets being reimbursed this may the first race in the now seventy-six-yearhistory of NASCAR that had zero gate. Should this be a concern of the fans – No. This is a NASCAR concern and is only mentioned because it just another of numerous unprecedented aspects of Clash weekend. Plus, had the initial plans included opening Saturday up to the fans as part of the Sunday ticket (two day pass) or through a reduced price Saturday pass the first three unprecedented decisions would have never had to been made and NASCAR would have come away with some gate to help offset some of the expenses. Unfortunately for them that wasn’t the case.
This summary helps show that moving the race up was just one of many unprecedented decisions that helped make up an unprecedented 2024 Busch Lite Clash.
Beyond the Clash – an Unprecedented Future?
Now that we have the 2024 Busch Lite Clash behind us, what is its future?
2024 was the third year in a three-year contract with the LA Coliseum. Do we call the “let’s build a track inside a stadium and race” experiment a success and take that model somewhere else? If so, where? Daytona? Mexico? Another stadium or track to be named later?
Or do we stay to continue to provide Cup racing in LA, NASCAR’s second largest market?
There is a lot to consider.
The declining trends in attendance and viewership even before the preemptive race this year, points to racing at the LA Coliseum having run its course and is ripe to go elsewhere. However, NASCAR views that market as so vital and with no chance of a 2025 return of Fontana, exiting would leave that market without a Cup race is almost unthinkable. Could a suitable substitute track be found before then or do we look to do something like a street race in the area which would keep a race in the market, check off another box and further demonstrate the Sanctioning Bodies commitment to street racing?
Or does NASCAR forego the LA market and use this race to explore new markets and expose new folks to the sport? Does a Clash in Mexico become the much sought after and much anticipated international race on the schedule? Intriguing for sure, but does the unprecedented on-going border issues keep the race north of the border and place it in another US city that has a suitable unused stadium at that time of year or is willing to shut down its streets for a Cup race through them?
Is it time to rotate it to another warm weather track on the schedule? Texas? Homestead?
Or is it time to move the race back to its roots in Daytona and restore it as the kickoff to Speedweeks and the teaser to the Daytona 500? Has the three-year absence been long enough to make its return have a big enough appeal? Will the event have to change from its last format used there to make more appealing to fans and broadcast partners? Would a return to a pole-winner-only race like it was originally run back in 1979 be enough to create the necessary buzz and draw attention to racing worthy of a season kick-off race? Or does it return to the Road Course, which was the configuration it ran on before leaving for LA be an acceptable opener?
And there is probably a dozen more possibilities still to be explored.
To me, it all comes down to what does NASCAR want to accomplish with it. If it’s to provide racing in their #2 marketand continue to try to mine that market for more fans, then they must stay. If it’s to expose new markets and fans to racing, it has to leave. If it’s to provide a teaser to the 500 that can only be done in Daytona. Depending on the move though it could be unprecedented.
One option that I haven’t heard discussed would be to move the Clash to Phoenix and use it as not only a kickoff to the season but a teaser or preview for the Championship Finale. Bookending the season with a track that has such ramifications would make it more meaningful than running a one-off in a football stadium. It returns the focus back on the season and ultimately the Championship. And since it’s the only time the teams would be on the track before the Finale, you can be sure they are going to take it seriously which should make for a better on-track product. By taking that race out of the regular season schedule it frees up another race date to add a new track on the schedule, like an international points race in Mexico City or Montreal, giving the Series essentially two bangs for the buck. Using this new date, which can be shuffled around on the schedule instead of the Clash as its new market exploration race gives the Series more options to expand into as weather would no longer be a restriction.
Opening and closing the season at the same track is not unprecedented. In 1981 the season opened at Riverside, closed at Riverside, and even had another race there in between. They were originally scheduled to race there for races 1 and 15 but had to go back for the third race because the Ontario Motor Speedway closed before the finale could be held there. Those were all points races, where the proposed Phoenix option would be an exhibition-championship combo.
What would make such a schedule unprecedented is it would be the first time the Clash is held on the same track as the Championship race. That could be the buzz the race needs to build a sustainable attendance and viewership numbers and keep it relevant for the fans, teams and sponsors for several years to come.
Something to think about though. NASCAR has a lot to consider in a short period of time as 2025 schedule will be here before we know it. I don’t envy them in the least. So, I’ll leave Ben Kennedy and company alone to sort it all out for us.
With that said, me hushing about the subject may be the most unprecedented aspect of the event.
Thunder On… And Stay Safe
Photo Credit (cover): Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images