Martinsville Speedway is remarkably short, the smallest track in the NASCAR Cup Series. The Talladega Superspeedway is remarkably long, the largest track in the series. Daytona International Speedway is particularly angled and slopes 30 degrees.
Each has posed its own challenge to Martin Flugger, NASCAR’s Vice President of Engineering Services. He has made a career of helping build such diverse courses. Heck, in his past life, he built a bridge in Miami with a railroad car.
But no one really compared to Flugger’s latest venture – to try to build a temporary racetrack inside the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“A lot of surprise,” Flugger said of his initial reaction to NASCAR’s idea and chuckled. “You want to leave a mark where? ”
USC fans entering the Colosseum on Sunday will not find the usual shard of green grass that serves as the footsteps of Trojan horses. On the contrary, they will see a quarter-mile loop of asphalt that serves as the site of NASCAR’s preseason Busch Light Clash.
As natural as it may seem on race day, it’s the first time NASCAR has experimented with building a track inside a stadium. The small dimensions have given managers like Flugger a challenge. But with the show in 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 Highway 110 in August 2019 while the Los Angeles afternoon sun smiled down as he watched the iconic arches of the Colosseum whiz past.
Kennedy, NASCAR’s Vice President of Strategy and Innovation, was on a trip to explore new markets. A simple thought popped into his head: How cool would it be to have a race in there?
Talks between NASCAR and the Colosseum stalled during the pandemic, but picked up speed again last summer. The first step was to determine if the dimensions of the stadium could provide a legitimate run.
“I think there were rumors, ‘Oh, they’re going to build a streetcar outside of it – there’s no way they can actually build a track inside of it,'” Kennedy said.
But after Flugger’s team drew up concept sketches and created a virtual version of the pitch with the iRacing simulation service, they realized that the Colosseum was not a normal football stadium. A dirt track borders the field, which provided just enough space for a race to take place.
“At some point, the corners can get too tight,” Flugger said. “This setup was perfect.”
He was excited about the upcoming challenge, which he only had a few months to complete.
Flies were also very, very worried.
Questions whistled around his head. How would the Colosseum’s field be preserved under tons of asphalt? How would vehicles get in and out of the stadium, and where would a pit road go? How would the race run when the track was finished?
Soon, everything fell into place, and Flugger’s team worked with contractors to lay nearly 14,000 cubic feet of asphalt inside the Colosseum. Cars will be able to get in and out for repairs through the tunnels on either side of the stadium, the first fourteen rows of seats closest to the pitch will be closed off for safety, and lights that normally illuminate the pitch at night will be relocated for to cover the entire track.
The track is now completed, the asphalt is left to harden a few more days before cars hum around the Colosseum during the Busch Light Clash. But Flugger will not be happy until he sees the pitch in action.
“There’s always the factor where you hold your breath – that, ‘Is that right?'” Said Flugger. “Just waiting for the cars to turn those laps.”
Terry Swinford is no stranger to the turbidity and grandeur of NASCAR as he grew up in Talladega, Ala. A construction worker, Swinford, helped build a few tracks but had not worked on anything inside a stadium hosting two Summer Olympics.
“I think this is one [historic] event, “Swinford said.
Earlier this month, as members of the Carson boys ‘and girls’ clubs watched from a distance, Swinford worked with a crew to install safety barriers on the inside of the track that would absorb a car’s impact and redirect potential energy to the outer walls.
This is crucial considering how cramped the track could be on race day. In the last race in the Clash, 23 cars will drive up at the same time on the quarter-mile track. Drivers William Byron and Cole Custer each jumped on the iRacing simulation of the Colosseum track before it was built, saying fans should expect some chaos.
“It’s just a really tight race track,” said Custer, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing. “It’s extremely small, it’s extremely narrow, and there’s going to be a lot of banging and banging.”
The track itself is a return to the tight street races drivers like Custer and Byron grew up on.
“We have a lot of short track races around the country that will see that race and be excited to cheer on it,” said Byron, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports.
Drivers will drive around the infield under the legendary peristyle, the air heavy with memories of gold medals and iconic college football matches.
Student Jarik Monge, who toured the field with the Boys ‘and Girls’ Club, expressed it best.
“Absolutely shit, this looks like a Roman colosseum,” Monge said, wondering about the architecture. “Hopefully we get a wagon race one day.”
As NASCAR continues to explore newer markets such as Los Angeles and St. Louis, many feel that the effort can help expand the sport.
“It will bring fans to the racetrack that you have not seen before,” Custer said. “It will get us more in the spotlight, and I think it’s something everyone in the industry is looking forward to.”