When the green flag drops Feb. 6 on the Clash exhibition at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it could christen a new era of NASCAR and major metropolitan markets.
After a late 1990s building boom that included Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, more than two decades have elapsed since a major-league track was built near a big city (Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway, which both opened in 2001, were the most recent).
Plans for tracks in New York, the Pacific Northwest (either Seattle or Portland) and Denver fizzled, putting the brakes on NASCAR’s schedule expansion.
If it wants to fulfill a two-pronged goal of adding more short tracks while renewing the push to reach new markets, the L.A. Coliseum template might be the best path for NASCAR, which has added five new track layouts to its Cup schedule over the past two seasons.
2022 CUP SERIES SCHEDULE: Where NASCAR will be racing next year
“We think about what existing tracks are out there that you could realistically and feasibly go to, but also about what new markets are out there, too,” NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives Ben Kennedy told NBC Sports. “And I think the L.A. Coliseum and a concept like this brings about the ability to go to different markets. And in particular as we think about international markets as well. There’s a ton of soccer stadiums across the world, and being able to duplicate this in other markets, I think really turns this into a proof of concept as well.”
Because of limited room on the temporary asphalt quarter-mile (which will allow up to only 10 pit stalls), the Coliseum will make its debut as an exhibition race.
But Kennedy said NASCAR “would not rule out the possibility of either the Coliseum or some sort of stadium event being a points race in the future.”
Many have pointed to Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as another model for stadiums playing host to NASCAR’s premier series (which once raced at Soldier Field in 1956).
Kennedy, though, cautioned that many stadiums are less well-suited for playing host to temporary racetracks.
“I think part of the reasoning why the Coliseum hopefully will work out so well is just the size of the footprint inside the field itself,” Kennedy said. “So I think a lot of football stadiums you have today are frankly too tight to build a track inside of it. The L.A. Coliseum, seeing that they had track and field events in the past for the Olympics, I think gave us an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, can we actually put a short track in here?’
“So I think that’s something we can look at in the future is what other venues like this would you realistically be able to do something like that. But that said, really our core focus right now is really putting on a special event at the Coliseum for our fans and something new and fresh.”
The Clash at the Coliseum tops the list of curiosities about the decision-making process behind next season’s slate.
Here are answers to more pressing questions about the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule and the future of short-track stadium racing:
Q: How did World Wide Technology Raceway gain a Cup race?
A: Track owner Curtis Francois, who rescued the 1.25-mile oval after it fell dormant 10 years ago, said it’s because the track has shown an ability to attract large crowds while building connections to grass-roots fans (WWTR has sponsored dirt-track drivers and also has been involved in the Chili Bowl).
As the Camping World Truck Series returned to the track seven years ago, Francois said he told NASCAR from the outset that the track eventually wanted a Cup race, and that 2022 provided the right timing.
“(NASCAR) realized we’re just authentic folks here,” Francois told NBC Sports. “We lead with authenticity. We try to be good listeners to the fans and always deliver the best experience we possibly can. We’re rock-solid stewards of our community here. All of that goes a long way. It’s a very folksy atmosphere here of having fun and doing a great job at the same time.”
Francois also credited a small NASCAR delegation that visited St. Louis a couple of months ago to meet with St. Louis business and political leaders.
“An important part of the process was introducing NASCAR to St. Louis and introducing St. Louis to NASCAR,” he said. “Many of the stakeholders in our city were able to meet with the France family and others at NASCAR, and it was just a great day of conversations and camaraderie around the sport. I think both NASCAR and our city were impressed with one another, and I think that was a pivotal point in making sure everything came together for us to have a Cup date.”
Though there are no financial commitments yet from St. Louis, Francois said “I would anticipate as we’re working toward bringing thousands of (hotel) room nights into the metro area, it would be fair to have conversations around that subject.” The track cites a recent economic impact study by The Rawlings Sports Business Management Department at Maryville University that projects the Cup race weekend generating $60 million for St. Louis.
Francois said the goal is a sellout of the track’s 57,000 seats for its inaugural Cup race (though the series raced at the track from 1997-2010, there are no current plans for an Xfinity race). Francois said there will be “a lot more fan-facing improvements,” continuing a decadelong trend of annual infrastructure upgrades at the track, which will become the only U.S. facility to play host to the NHRA, IndyCar and NASCAR Cup series.
Though the track’s Cup race will come as Pocono Raceway loses a date, Francois said he “had no line of sight into anything with respect to where our date was coming from or how it was getting to St. Louis, that wasn’t part of our discussions.” In a Wednesday statement from the track, Pocono Raceway said it was “disappointed NASCAR has chosen to eliminate” one of its races.
Asked by NBC Sports whether Pocono track ownership was compensated or would be involved with World Wide Technology Raceway date, Kennedy said “I can’t really share any details on that.”
Kennedy said NASCAR was attracted to World Wide Technology Raceway because it’s “a strong market, just the Midwest in general, for NASCAR fans. And it puts on a great racing product, too. The truck series there for over 20 years always puts on a great race. The fans always turn out. … I know that community is going to embrace it. They want to make that event really special.”
Q: Why is Homestead-Miami Speedway moving to the playoffs and bumping Richmond Raceway to the regular season?
A: Homestead built a reputation as perhaps the best 1.5-mile track on the circuit during an 18-year run as the Cup Series season finale from 2002-19.
Returning Homestead to an Oct. 23, 2022 race after a two-year run with dates in February and June, NASCAR is acknowledging that the fall is a better fit for the racetrack and also validating its reputation for races that are worthy of the playoffs.
“The data we’ve seen from the fans is they love the racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway,” Kennedy said. “So I think introducing that to the playoffs, and in particular the penultimate round of the playoffs, will create some really neat storylines.”
Q: Why are both of Richmond’s races shifting to Sunday afternoons?
A: Though Richmond Raceway officials previously have defended Saturday night racing as the 0.75-mile oval’s “brand,” the racing under the lights has been noticeably more of a single-groove affair. Recent daytime races at Richmond (some scheduled; some because of postponements) have produced more options on slicker asphalt.
“I think primarily to enhance the quality of racing,” Kennedy said about moving Richmond’s races to Sundays. “And I think a lot of fans are just frankly accustomed to coming out to a racetrack on a Sunday or tuning in on a Sunday, too. We saw a little bit of that in 2021 with midweek racing and the number of doubleheaders we had throughout the season. I think our fans and myself personally, I’m accustomed to turning on the TV Sunday afternoon and seeing Cup racing.”
Q: Why is the Bristol Dirt Race moving to Easter Sunday evening?
A: The prime-time event will be the first time in more than 30 years that NASCAR will run on Easter Sunday, which typically had been viewed as a taboo holiday for racing. That philosophy has shifted as NASCAR has grown more comfortable with racing on Mother’s Day weekend, and Kennedy said an evening race also will allow for better track conditions than in direct sunlight (when it’s difficult for a surface to hold moisture that is critical for dirt racing).
“We looked at a handful of dates and one of those was Easter Sunday,” Kennedy said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a Cup race on Easter Sunday. That said, having families together on that weekend and at home, we thought what better way to introduce NASCAR racing on a special holiday then to put it on that evening in prime time.”
Q: Does NASCAR still want more short-track races?
A: Kennedy said “that’s fair to say,” given that next year will mark the second consecutive year of only five short-track asphalt races (and now two in the playoffs).
The introduction of three new road courses last year was driven by fan interest, which also remains strong for short tracks.
There are some potential candidates on the horizon with the Nashville Fairgrounds and the proposed reconfiguration of Auto Club Speedway – but that track in Fontana, California, will remain a 2-mile oval next year.
“As you look toward the future, it would be great to continue to have more short tracks come into the schedule,” Kennedy said. “I think the L.A. Coliseum will be one of them that we’ll be able to see. Nothing to report today, but something that we’re continuing to look at, too, is that redevelopment of Auto Club and potentially turning that into a short track.”
Q: What is the rationale behind how NASCAR decides which tracks lose races while others keep two annual events?
A: This remains a hot topic as Pocono has joined New Hampshire and Dover in losing one of its dates next year. Meanwhile, Darlington Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway – which once both lost a second race more than a decade ago — will have two annually scheduled races for the second consecutive season.
NASCAR officials previously have said they wanted to reward Darlington, which was the site of the return to racing during the pandemic last year. Kennedy cited Atlanta’s makeover for next season as the reason for its second race.
“It’s something we continually look at,” Kennedy said. “We moved to two races this year with the thought of the reconfiguration coming to Atlanta, so I think that was part of the calculus and the reasoning behind why we decided to shift the two races in 2021 to set us up for 2022 and kind of prime the market.
“But we’re continuing to look at the number of tracks that have two dates, one date and the number of new venues that we’re going to, too. We had a lot of good research and insights from our fans and the fan council and then a number of studies that we do outside of that. Our OEMs, team and broadcast partners, the entire industry. We have a lot of good feedback and data on the schedule that ultimately helps us try to make a lot of these decisions.”
Q: Is a Chicago street race still a possibility?
A: In running an iRacing event on a downtown Chicago layout in June, NASCAR disclosed it had explored the concept in reality with a marketing agency. Kennedy visited the site in person several months ago but indicated this week that nothing is imminent.
“It was great to see the support and excitement in the Chicago area during that iRacing event,” he said. “It’s something we’ll continue to look at as we do everything on the schedule.”
Q: What will become of Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway?
A: For the third consecutive year, neither of the 1.5-mile speedways will be on the Cup schedule. With no racing at either track since 2019 and none planned, the futures of both facilities seem very uncertain.
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Questions and answers about 2022 Cup schedule: Will stadium races be new trend? originally appeared on NBCSports.com