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NASCAR unprepared for spectator demand to watch heat races at Coliseum in grandstand policy reversal

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR backtracked on its plan to close the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum grandstands for the first day of on-track activity for the upcoming Clash on the very same day the shutdown was announced, said Ben Kennedy, the architect of NASCAR's race in the storied venue.

NASCAR last Tuesday revealed the Coliseum would not be open to the public on Feb. 3, the first time this year its Cup cars will be on track. Only problem? NASCAR overhauled the schedule for this third running of the Busch Lite Clash at the Coliseum and that day is a full day of track activity.

Fans were furious — many claimed they assumed one ticket covered both days — and in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Kennedy said NASCAR immediately looked for a solution. NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing development and strategy said he was on the phone with the Coliseum staff by Wednesday morning and on Thursday evening he'd posted a “We heard you” video on social media announcing the grandstands will be open, after all, and free to the public.

“We quickly huddled and made a pretty quick decision to open the gates for free on Saturday,” Kennedy said.

The first two runnings of the Clash were open to ticket holders on both days of the event, but most of the on-track activity was held on Sunday leading into the main event that evening. The overhauled schedule moved four heat races to Saturday. The heat races are used to set the field for the main event and one of the elements that makes the Clash different from the 36 points-paying races on the scheduled.

There is one “last chance qualifier" heat on Sunday, but the fight to make the field was mostly going to happen Saturday in an empty Coliseum.

“It's been a good learning opportunity for us to understand how important those heat races are to our fans,” Kennedy said. “I think as soon as we got that feedback, it was first thing Wednesday morning, we got with the Coliseum and asked ‘How do we find a way to somehow open these gates on Saturday?’”

NASCAR lost sight of how compelling fans find the unusual heat race element in its tight focus on producing a fulfilling main event in the important Southern California market. Because California Speedway is currently off the schedule and its future is unclear, the Clash is NASCAR's only appearance in the second largest media market in the United States right now.

The exhibition Clash was held from its 1979 inception through 2021 at Daytona International Speedway as the opener ahead of the Daytona 500. Kennedy moved the Clash to the Coliseum in 2022 in a made-for-TV event that transforms the famed venue into a temporary short track.

For this third running, the NASCAR Mexico Series will also run — like NASCAR that lower level series will practice and qualify on Saturday, and then its race will be ahead of the Clash on Sunday.

“I think from day one of this event we’ve really leaned toward trying to promote the Sunday ticket as much as possible. L.A. is a big, main-event type of city, and if you look at other sports leagues out there, there aren't a ton that open the gates for practice or qualifying days,” Kennedy said. "Our focus has always been on Sunday. And that was the consensus as we approached this year with the addition of the NASCAR Mexico series.

“We had the ”last chance" race, which he felt drew a lot of attention and storylines, keeping that on Sunday. And then, of course, a lot of the new fans, they’re really coming there for the main event."

Now that Saturday has been rectified for fan attendance, Kennedy is interested to see the turnout.

“I’ve already had a bunch of random friends in L.A. that have reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about coming on Saturday and since I’m going on Saturday, I may as well just get a ticket to Sunday,’” Kennedy said. “It’s neat to see that the crowd is pretty positive about it.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing