The USC students tailgated and partied. They burst into the Coliseum and watched the action from their section. They were blown away by the power, speed, aggression and competitiveness of the combatants.
Nary a football was in sight.
They were drawn a year ago to the initial Clash at the Coliseum, a NASCAR brainstorm that proved immensely popular. The football field somehow was transformed into a quarter-mile racetrack. Behind the wheels of revolutionary New Gen race cars making their debut, the nation's best drivers put on a daylong spectacle of bumping, crashing and speeding through four qualifying races and the finale.
Excitement was palpable. The USC students had never seen anything like it.
"I've got friends that go to USC and they were texting me all day," said Noah Gragson, a 22-year-old NASCAR wunderkind who won eight Xfinity Series races in 2022 and will begin his rookie year in the Cup Series on Sunday in the second Clash at the Coliseum.
"A bunch of them went to last year's race, got super hammered and had a great time. They said it was as exciting if not better than the football games. It was cool hearing it from friends who know nothing about racing but got introduced in such a cool way."
The students' experience mirrored most of the crowd that exceeded 50,000. It was the first NASCAR race for more than 70% of attendees. Afterward, drivers high-fived NASCAR officials and pretty much everyone concluded the experiment was an unabashed success.
Now there is talk of the Clash becoming a points race instead of an exhibition in 2024. The only points race in SoCal in 2023 is the Pala Casino 400 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Feb. 26. The two-mile oval is scheduled to undergo a reconstruction, however, that will reduce it to a half-mile track and could take as long as two years to complete. The Clash could fill the void.
Here are five things to know ahead of this weekend's Clash at the Coliseum, beginning with ...
The Clash becoming a SoCal NASCAR staple
NASCAR currently holds 36 Cup Series points races that count toward the championship. The Pala Casino 400 (previously called the Auto Club 400) has long been one of them. But NASCAR is facing the prospect of having no SoCal points race in 2024 and perhaps 2025 while the track's reconstruction takes place.
One potential solution prompting discussion among NASCAR officials is to turn the Clash at the Coliseum into a points race and move it to the end of February after the Daytona 500, which is traditionally the first points race of the year.
The plan makes sense financially for NASCAR and for SoCal fans who otherwise would be deprived of a race that counts. Drivers, however, are hesitant to endorse the potential change because it would change their mindset. Crashing and not finishing the race would put them at the bottom of the standings.
"I think making it a points race would take aggressiveness out of it," driver Erik Jones said. "I wouldn't necessarily like to see that. As an exhibition it's a good fit."
Because the track is so small that straightaways are basically eliminated, the average speed at last year's Clash was only 63 mph. Driver Ty Dillon said that in an exhibition on such a short track, the only risk is "tearing up your race car, damaging door panels, that sort of thing."
Converting the race into a points event changes the calculus.
"Now, you just go for it," Jones said. "There's no reason to hold anything back because even if you crash you aren't losing anything."
A short track leads to short tempers
Getting bumped on a crowded subway can trigger anger. Imagine what it can do to a NASCAR driver trying to win a race on a minuscule quarter-mile track.
Late in last year's Clash, a caution flag went up after Jones' car hit Ross Blaney's from behind, breaking Blaney's right rear suspension. Blaney took his car off the track, climbed out and threw his HANS headgear at Jones.
Blaney said in a trackside interview with Fox Sports moments later that Jones "wants to destroy me for seventh [place]. Don't really make no sense ... Yeah, I was mad."
Jones went on to finish fourth. Blaney finished 17th after repairs.
"It's not like I meant to take the guy out of the race," Jones said. "I didn't just intentionally right rear him into the wall. ... He's probably upset about that for sure. He was having a solid run."
In last year's race, 384 total passes for position were executed, the most memorable a breathtaking maneuver by Joey Logano to get around Kyle Busch for the lead and eventual victory.
Intentions can be misread and faulty assumptions made with 23 cars (27 this year) jostling for precious real estate. Passing is a necessary act of aggression and often includes multiple bumps to squeeze past the competition.
Another, ahem, misunderstanding occurred in last year's Clash between Kyle Larson and Justin Haley, who were battling for third place with 35 laps to go in the 150-lap race.
Larson's teammate, William Byron, hit Haley, sending Haley's car into the back of Larson's car. Larson retaliated by putting Haley into the wall, destroying the front driver's side of Haley's car.
Larson recognized afterward he'd misread the situation and apologized to Haley.
"I talked to him right after the race," Haley said. "It's all good. He said the wreck was his fault. We are good friends. It's part of racing and I don't get too worked up over it, honestly."
That doesn't mean aggression will lessen Sunday.
"Guys will be upset again in this one as well," Jones said. "You don't see those tempers flare every week, it's part of the appeal of this particular race. It's the short-track mentality."
One caveat. We won't see a repeat of the wildly entertaining "Hail Melon" maneuver of riding the right wall by Ross Chastain in October during the last lap on the short track at Martinsville, Va. He passed five cars en route to the playoff finale. NASCAR on Tuesday outlawed any similar attempt to hug the wall.
But Chastain, whose antic earned its nickname because of his lineage as an eighth-generation watermelon farmer, certainly provided fans with a highlight worth repeated viewings.
Two ubertalented, hyperaggressive rookies
Gragson is one of two heralded rookie Cup Series drivers expected to make a serious splash in 2023. The other is Ty Gibbs, the 20-year-old grandson of former NFL coach and current NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs.
They aren't friends, at least not yet.
Ahead of last year's Xfinity Series finale in Phoenix, Gragson pointedly said "I don't like him" because of Gibbs' penchant for crashing into competitors and apologizing. Rather than retaliate by wrecking Gibbs, Gragson said, "I want to beat him straight up. It pisses him off a lot more."
Except that he didn't, with Gibbs winning the race - and title - by four-tenths of a second over Gragson.
The feud resumes Sunday.
The Clash as a Cup Series predictor
Last year's Clash winner Joey Logano went on to capture the Cup Series championship nine months later.
Tyler Reddick led the Clash for 51 laps until exiting with a mechanical failure. His impressive start, however, triggered an impressive season in which he won three races, made the playoffs and led in more laps than he did in the two previous years combined.
Who might kick off 2023 with a strong Clash performance that foreshadows a strong season?
Here's who holds the shortest betting odds for Sunday's race:
Kyle Busch, Joey Lagano, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott: 8-1; Christopher Bell: 9-1; Ryan Blaney: 10-1; Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin: 12-1.
Planning your day at the Coliseum
Cypress Hill will play a prerace concert. Wiz Khalifa will perform during a break at the halfway point of the main race. DJ trio Cheat Codes will play during cautions, joined by social media star Dixie D'Amelio. Actor Rob Lowe will be the grand marshall, tasked with saying, "Drivers, start your engines."
Tickets are available at www.nascarclash.com beginning at $65 and $10 for children under 12.
College students gain entry to a "party porch" for $40, a standing-room-only general admission section located on the Coliseum's peristyle steps. It provides up-close access to the musical entertainment and driver introductions.
The USC football and women's soccer teams will be on the party porch and the Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem. Festivities Saturday will begin with timed trial racing competition between Formula SAE cars designed, built and driven by USC and UCLA students.
Gragson's student pals who enjoyed last year's Clash at the Coliseum should feel even more at home with so much Trojan participation. Providing more excitement than football? The bar is higher after the first captivating season of Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams and Co., but expect NASCAR to again supply racing that emphasizes similar speed, aggression and competitive fire.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.