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LOS ANGELES — Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson stood on his tiptoes and held his right hand in the air, trying to get the attention of NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell.
O’Donnell was addressing a group of reporters about the last-minute decision to move NASCAR’s season-opening Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to race a day earlier than planned — to beat the severe weather approaching Southern California — and speaking about the financial implications of doing so.
“It certainly hurts,” O’Donnell said. “Financially, it’s not going to be great, right? Nor will it be from a (TV) ratings standpoint.
“But at the end of the day it’s, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ And, ‘What’s the right thing to do to keep everyone safe?’ This is that decision.”
Larson, along with his fellow drivers and their race teams, understood NASCAR was going to lose several million dollars by moving the race (“a huge hit,” as Larson called it). But with the decision boiling down to either trying to race a day early or potentially not racing at all, Larson wanted O’Donnell to see him giving an emphatic thumbs up — and he certainly wasn’t alone in his sentiment.
Christopher Bell called the move “genius.” Sharp-tongued Kyle Busch called it “an unprecedented mark in our sport” and “one all of us will applaud NASCAR for.”
Added Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver: “It’s one of the most logical decisions we’ve made as an industry, potentially ever.”
Several factors made this a unique situation, and there was no guarantee NASCAR could pull it off. The National Weather Service had been calling for a high volume of rain and the potential for “life-threatening and damaging flooding” as part of a storm system headed toward the Los Angeles area.
Throughout the week, officials had monitored the forecast while hoping for an improvement — but the forecast only grew worse, and the rain appeared as if it could last through Tuesday. Emergency personnel was likely to be needed elsewhere in the area, NASCAR was obligated to start tearing down the temporary track inside the Coliseum this week (meaning it couldn’t be rescheduled for later in the season), and race teams needed to get back to their North Carolina headquarters in time to prepare their cars for the upcoming Daytona 500.
Though NASCAR has waited until midweek for rain to clear in the past at permanent tracks like Michigan and Texas, the unique circumstances left officials concerned enough to begin meeting about contingency plans on Friday night.
By Saturday morning, on a pleasant and rain-free day, those discussions intensified. NASCAR began consulting with Fox Sports (which was set to broadcast the race), plus local government officials and the Coliseum staff.
Some of the biggest potential obstacles included Fox Sports finding another TV window to show the race and NASCAR’s willingness to refund several million dollars in tickets to fans who were expecting to see a race on Sunday (Saturday was a free admission day).
NASCAR decided it would be willing to eat the lost ticket revenue if it meant getting the race in and sending teams home before any flooding occurred.
The race couldn’t be moved to the main Fox network; Caitlin Clark and her Iowa basketball team already had that prime-time slot locked up. Fortunately, Fox Sports had a window on its sports network FS1 because it was already planning to show NASCAR’s preliminary heat races, originally scheduled for Saturday. (Those heats were canceled, and practice results from Saturday afternoon were used to set the field for the Clash.)
“It’s a really progressive move,” driver William Byron said. “I wish we could be like the NFL and flex things forward or back. We’ve all sat at tracks until Wednesday (while waiting for rain to clear), and that’s not good for viewership or the product.”
Bill Wanger, Fox Sports executive vice president and head of programming and scheduling, told The Athletic it took approximately two hours of phone calls to ensure moving the race was a possibility for the network.
It had to shift the start of a college basketball game to FS2 and implement a backup plan with entertainment programming for Sunday night’s slot on Fox, but Wanger said everyone felt it was the best option. NASCAR then announced the decision less than five hours before the green flag.
“It took a tremendous amount of collaboration with all parties involved to be able to showcase the race and keep everyone safe in Los Angeles,” Wanger said. “We’ve been in business with NASCAR for more than 20 years, so we have a great relationship with them and we were able to be flexible and nimble enough to move it.”
That was a crucial factor in the call, because NASCAR would have otherwise likely been forced to keep the race as scheduled. And that may have meant the Clash’s cancellation, depending how long the weather would have lasted (at a minimum, teams would have lost tens of thousands of dollars alone on extending hotel rooms for their personnel).
Ultimately, it was a decision that represented the better of two bad choices.
“You risk not running it at all,” race winner Denny Hamlin said. “It’s like ‘Deal or No Deal’ — you have to take the banker’s (offer) on this one.”
(Photo of Denny Hamlin after winning the Clash at the Coliseum on Saturday: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)