Gladiators in the LA Coliseum: How NASCAR’s Next-Gen Car Is Racing on a Football Field
This weekend marks the debut of NASCAR’s much-hyped Next-Gen Car, but the track is just as attention-worthy.
For a race series as steeped in tradition as NASCAR, this weekend's annual pre-season race is a huge departure from the norm. For the most part NASCAR takes the same cars, visits the same tracks and runs the same race formats every year. But not this year. 2022 brings the debut of the Next-Gen Car (which I suppose we have to start calling Gen7 now that it's actually here), a wholly-new stock car chassis with a number of important mechanical and technological changes. It's a big deal for NASCAR. So naturally, they decided to send it to car-crazy Los Angeles and go racing in the only place they could find: the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Built from 1921-1923, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has hosted everything from football games to Supercross races to rock concerts to Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. What it has never hosted is a short track stock car race on a temporary quarter-mile asphalt oval, as it will tomorrow at 3:00 pm ET when the multi-stage Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum gets underway on FOX.
The close quarters and tight confines of a short track may seem like an odd stage for showcasing the capabilities of the Gen7 car, but it's sure to be an incredible spectacle. Practice is happening right now, with qualifying scheduled for this afternoon. Let's take a look at how we got here.
A Whole New Track
The announcement of NASCAR racing in the Coliseum was greeted with a collective Whaaa…?
I mean, how the hell do you fit a race track inside a football stadium? As is evident now, the answer is "pretty well" with some strategic alterations. That success comes down to people like Coliseum General Manager Joseph James Furin who has been with the Coliseum since the Mickey Thompson Stadium Off Road series ran events there. He might have been the one person who wasn't phased at all when NASCAR broached the idea.
"When NASCAR came to us, my first response was great, we know we can handle this. We’ve basically done it before," Furin said. "My second response was, my mind was blown. To think that those cars with that horsepower could be zipping around inside the Coliseum. I couldn’t get my head around it."
One of the biggest issues the Coliseum faced in building the track was somehow covering the grass football field without destroying it. This is typical for any one-off event, but doing so with a full asphalt track that can somehow support the weight of a full field of cars and everything jammed in the tiny infield was tricky. Engineers ended up designing a layer cake of plastic sheeting, plywood, geotextile fabric, crushed rock and asphalt that protects both the grass and the valuable infrastructure (water lines, IT cabling, etc) running beneath it.
The stadium itself was once famed for holding crowds over 100,000, but it was renovated with suites and luxury boxes back in 2019 and now holds a far more reasonable 78,000. However on race day that capacity will be reduced even further (primarily for fan safety) to around 60,000 seats. Which are all spoken for, by the way.
The track, which has been under construction since late last year, is exactly a quarter mile long, the length of a high school running track. That is half the size of Martinsville, the shortest track that NASCAR typically runs, and we all know what a Red Wedding that usually turns out to be. Hopefully that's not the case here, because the Next-Gen Car is a truly important moment for the sport that really deserves a proper debut.
The Next-Gen Car Is Here
The last major overhaul to the Cup car came between four decades ago in 1981. The cars have become smaller, shorter, lighter and safer since then, but all of the main ingredients have stayed basically the same. This Next-Gen Car is a totally clean sheet of paper. As veteran crew chief and Fox reporter Larry McReynolds told me, “[The] only thing that’s the same is that you’ve still have a driver that’s bucked in the seat that’s going to be driving the race car.”
The aerodynamics are different, and the cars will look more like their road going counterparts. No more antiquated 4 speed H-pattern stick shift—manual transmission gears are now selected with a 5 speed sequential transaxle. The steering rack has been given a through makeover, no more steering box with pitman arms and tie rods. In its place is a rack similar to the one you’d find on your road car. Only the engines are the same, still a 5.86L naturally-aspirated. With the updated aerodynamics and drag of the new car NASCAR had to play around with the horsepower to keep the speeds similar to what the car have run in the past.
In the past NASCAR teams made a majority of their own components to NASCAR specifications. Now everything is store bought from suppliers. All of the chassis come from one company, the rack and pinion steering rack comes from another, the brakes from another… and on and on. Teams no longer have to make anything except for the engines, where each manufacturer (Ford, Chevy, Toyota) has their own engine company that supplies their respective teams.
The ongoing philosophy is that this will help level the playing field, but McReynolds warns that as nice as that sounds, the cream will still rise to the top. “Maybe it closes the gap a little bit for little while, but talent and cubic dollars will prevail,” he said.
Even though 90 percent of the components on the car come from sole suppliers the teams still have a lot of adjustments they can do to make their cars quicker and handle better. Yes, the box of adjustments gets smaller with this car versus the old car, but there is still things for teams to do. Denny Hamlin's crew chief Chris Gebhart said it best: “If on the old car there were 250 things I could adjust, on the new car it’s more like 125.”
But NASCAR is serious about limiting the “gray areas” in the rules and what teams can do. The series dropped a bomb this week with an announcement on strong penalties for technical rules infractions. As NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell put it to me, “It used to be ‘let’s see what we can get away with and go racing.’ That’s not the case with this car. We’ve built this car to try and make it as fundamentally sound as possible in collaboration with the teams and then really put it on teams, and drivers and pit crews to go out there and win races.”
Infractions range from L1, which includes post-race failure to meet minimum weight requirements and team source parts not meeting the NASCAR rules; to the most severe level L3 infractions for things such as counterfeiting or modifying single-source Next-Gen parts, engine infractions and performance enhancements. Penalties for a Level 3 violation can be as severe as a $500,000 fine, losing postseason eligibility regardless of wins and points, and team suspensions.
New Race Format
NASCAR is well aware of the risk of its grand Gen7 debut turning into a demolition derby; clearly, 40+ cars packed into a ¼ mile tack would look like the 405 freeway on a… well basically every day really. So it came up with a new format for the race.
Drivers will take to the track this afternoon for practice followed by single-car qualifying which will set the field for four separate heat races. Each of the four fastest qualifiers will be on the pole for each heat race. From there, the rest of the field for each heat race will be similarly filled using qualifying positions.
The heat races will be 25 laps each. Which for those doing the math is a whopping 6 miles of racing. The top four finishers in each heat will make it in to the main event and will comprise the first four rows at the start. Any driver who didn’t advance in the heat races will be placed one of two 50 lap Last Chance Qualifying races (LCQ). Drivers finishing in the top three in either one of the LCQ’s will round out positions 17 through 22 in the Clash. Whew.
The last spot in will be reserved for the driver who finished highest in points in 2021 that did not qualify for the finals. So that basically means that 2021 champion Kyle Larson will make it into the Clash regardless of his qualifying runs.
Yes, NASCAR likes to make things complicated. But the end result should be the fastest 23 drivers should be going head to head in the Clash. (It also means that 13 of the 36 registered cars will be going home early.)
Fox NASCAR pit lane reporter Jamie Little told me another big change will be the lack of crew in the infield. Due to the lack of space, there will only be three team members from each team allowed on the infield during each race. So one of the things that teams will have to sort out on the fly is which team members are most valuable to have on the ground. With the short lap, any unscheduled excursion into the pit essentially means that your race is over does it even make sense to have any crew there. Or does it make more sense to have your crew chief in the stands to call strategy and have your best crew guys on the field?
One reason that the latter may be the way to go is the Clash also happens to be the introduction to NASCARs new Next Gen car. While these machines have been throughly tested no one knows how they’ll hold up in wheel to wheel combat. We're about to find out.
The Clash Is Upon Us
Combine a new track, a new car and new rules on a quarter-mile bull ring and things are bound to get… interesting. I for one am really excited to see NASCAR trying new things to expand beyond their typical boundaries. Bringing a NASCAR race to LA with Ice Cube playing the half time show and team owned in part by Michael Jordan and celebrities abound in the stands looks to expose NASCAR to a whole new audience and shake up the status quo.
But of course, what matters is what happens on the track. Ready or not, a new era of NASCAR starts this weekend.
Robb Holland is an American race car driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, the World Touring Car Championships, and more. Got a tip? Send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org