The Martinsville Speedway is particularly short, the smallest track in the NASCAR Cup Series. The Talladega Superspeedway is particularly long, the largest track in the series. The Daytona International Speedway is notably banked, banked at 30 degrees.
Each posed their own challenge to Martin Flugger, NASCAR’s vice president of engineering services. He has made a career out of helping to create such diverse courses. Heck, in his past life he built a bridge in Miami with a railroad car.
But none were quite comparable to Flugger’s last endeavor – trying to build a temporary running track inside the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“A lot of surprise,” Flugger said of his initial reaction to the idea of NASCAR, laughing. “You want to put a track where?”
USC fans entering the Coliseum on Sunday won’t find the usual strip of green grass that serves as the Trojans’ playground. Instead, they’ll see a quarter-mile loop of asphalt serving as the site for NASCAR’s preseason Busch Light Clash.
As natural as it may seem on race day, this is the first time NASCAR has experimented with building a track inside a stadium. The small dimensions gave executives like Flugger a challenge. But with the show at a historic location, NASCAR hopes to usher in a new era for the sport.
“Knowing what this event would end up being,” said Joe Furin, General Manager of the Colosseum, “literally took my breath away.”
Ben Kennedy was driving down the 110 Freeway in August 2019, the Los Angeles afternoon sun smiling, when he saw the iconic arches of the Colosseum pass by.
Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president for strategy and innovation, was on the trip to explore new markets. A simple thought came to him: would it be cool to have a race there?
Talks between NASCAR and the Coliseum were halted during the pandemic, but resumed last summer. The first step was to determine if the dimensions of the stadium could support a legitimate race.
“I think there were rumors, ‘Oh, they’re going to build a street course outside – there’s no way they could actually build a track inside,'” he said. Kennedy.
Yet after Flugger’s team drew up concept sketches and created a virtual version of the course with simulation service iRacing, they realized the Colosseum was no normal football stadium. A dirt road borders the terrain, which left just enough space for a run to be feasible.
“At some point the turns might get too tight,” Flugger said. “This setup was perfect.”
He was excited about the challenge ahead, which he only had a few months to complete.
Flugger was also very, very worried.
The questions swirled around his head. How would the Colosseum grounds be preserved under tons of asphalt? How would vehicles enter and exit the stadium, and where would a pit road go? How would the race go once the track was completed?
Soon everything fell into place, with Flugger’s team working with contractors to lay nearly 14,000 cubic meters of asphalt inside the Colosseum. Cars will be able to enter and exit for repairs through the tunnels on either side of the stadium, the first fourteen rows of seats closest to the track will be closed for safety reasons, and the lights that normally illuminate the pitch at night are repositioned to cover the entire track.
The course is now complete, the asphalt allowed to harden for a few more days before the cars rumble around the Colosseum during the Busch Light Clash. But Flugger won’t be satisfied until he sees the track in action.
“There’s always this factor of holding your breath — which is, ‘Is this real?'” Flugger said. “I’m just waiting for the cars to do those tricks.”
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Terry Swinford is no stranger to the courage and greatness of NASCAR, having grown up in Talladega, Ala. A construction worker, Swinford helped build a few tracks but hadn’t worked on anything inside a stadium that hosted two Summer Olympics.
“I think it’s a [historic] event,” Swinford said.
Earlier this month, as members of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Carson watched from a distance, Swinford worked with a crew to install crash barriers inside the track that would absorb the impact of a car and redirect potential energy to the outer walls.
This is of paramount importance given the narrowness of the course on race day. In the final race of the Clash, 23 cars will rev up at the same time on the quarter-mile track. Drivers William Byron and Cole Custer each hopped on the iRacing simulation of the Coliseum track before it was built and said fans should expect a bit of chaos.
“It’s just a very tight circuit,” said Custer, who will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing. “It’s extremely small, it’s extremely tight quarters, and there’s going to be a lot of kicking and kicking.”
The course itself is a throwback to the tight street racing that riders like Custer and Byron grew up on.
“We have a lot of short track races across the country who will watch this race and be happy to cheer it on,” said Byron, who races for Hendrick Motorsports.
Drivers will circle the infield under the legendary peristyle, the air laden with memories of gold medals and iconic college football games.
Student Jarik Monge, visiting the course with the Boys and Girls Club, said it well.
“Holy shit, it looks like a Roman coliseum,” Monge said, marveling at the architecture. “I hope one day we will have a carriage race.”
As NASCAR continues to explore new markets like Los Angeles and St. Louis, many believe the effort could help grow the sport.
“It’s going to bring fans to the racetrack that you’ve never seen before,” Custer said. “It’s going to put us in the spotlight more, and I think that’s something everyone in the industry is looking forward to.”