NASCAR Cup Series
Inside the Most Unique Opening Day in NASCAR History
Feb 5, 2022
During a spaghetti lunch in 2013 at Five Flags Speedway to promote a K&N Pro Series East event, a lesser known driver with a greater known pedigree already had a vision for what NASCAR could someday become.
Back then, Ben Kennedy was a 21-year-old development driver, who was already considered the next in line to helm the sport after great grandfather Bill France Sr., grandfather Bill France Jr. and uncle Brian France. He just wasn’t quite ready to give up the dream of checkered flags, trophies and glory at the highest levels.
But he always had a vision for what the sport could someday evolve into.
Over a bowl of pasta, Kennedy said it would be cool if the Cup Series could someday return to its roots and return to a place like Five Flags, a venue that hosted its lone Grand National race in 1953 in a rain-shortened race.
He also cited the potential of races on dirt and true bullring short tracks.
"I remember that," a more polished, but still earnest Kennedy said from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday afternoon.
Kennedy is now the Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation for NASCAR, the first step into fulfilling the expectation that he will someday lead the sport, but he still thinks and operates like a driver. So, is it any surprise that the Cup Series now features both a dirt track and quarter mile for the first time since 1970?
"I think one of the really neat things about our sport is that we have everything from a short track, intermediate track, road courses and super speedways," Kennedy said. "It really emphasizes that these are the best drivers in the world, and they compete on all these different types of tracks.
"In order to be a champion, you have to compete and win on all of them."
NASCAR Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell previously applauded Kennedy’s role in reshaping the schedule in 2021.
"We wanted to be bold," O’Donnell said. "We think the work that Ben Kennedy has done by leading this really continues us on that journey not only for this year but we're going to continue to be bold in '22 as well."
And they have, but Kennedy doesn’t like to take any individual credit for the direction, instead crediting O’Donnell, league president Steve Phelps and the entire senior leadership group.
"I have to give a ton of credit to Patrick Rogers, Amy Lupo, Dave Allen and the entire team has been fantastic," Kennedy said. "When you think about how little time we had between September and February, it's a small window to announce it and then a smaller window to build it, so this is a vision for the entire team to promote it, build the track and I'm excited for them to see it come together on Sunday."
That’s who Kennedy is -- the leader who defers credit to those around him.
With that said, much of the sport’s future scheduling is spearheaded by Kennedy. That means he is the visionary behind races in international markets, a potential downtown city street course event and the possibility of creating a rotation of stadiums like the Coliseum in which to host the preseason Clash.
It’s a vision that even the folks who operate the Coliseum found hard to buy into.
"We came out here for the first time in December 2019 and met with them at the 1923 Club here," Kennedy said. "It's funny, because we came here to have an event and they thought we meant having an industry party over in the hospitality space and we're like, 'no, we want to build a race track inside the Coliseum.
"At the time, we were still trying to grasp what this would be, and they were too, but they were eventually blown away by the concept."
That concept was basically, what if NASCAR built Bowman Gray Stadium into the Los Angeles Coliseum, right in the middle of a downtown area containing just under four million people.
"If you overlay Bowman Gray Stadium and the Coliseum, it's really almost identical," Kennedy says. "The straights are bowed out a little bit here, but that's due to the natural circumference of the stadium. The corners are about the same radius, but the only difference is two and a half degrees of banking to help the card rotate on the corners."
NASCAR has a one-year contract with the Los Angeles Coliseum that includes a two-year option held by the sanctioning body to return in 2023 and 2024. Kennedy says he would like to keep the Clash in Los Angeles if the inaugural event is deemed a success.
At the same time, he also recognizes that this model could be replicated throughout the globe with NASCAR already having conceptually explored races in the United Kingdom, Mexico, China and Australia.
"You know, NASCAR has series in Canada, Mexico and Europe," Kennedy said. "I think there are a handful of markets are team has already looked at like South America and Asia that are probably more long term, at least to start, but it would most likely be located in markets that already have NASCAR series."
Kennedy says senior NASCAR leadership will probably lock themselves in a room for a day or two after the Coliseum Clash is over to comb over the data. Any future of racing in additional major arenas would need to be decided by the quality of competition and if the sport successfully captivated new, lapsed and existing fans.
While Kennedy isn’t expecting any significant additions to the 2023 schedule, especially after adding Bristol Dirt, Nashville Superspeedway, Gateway, Circuit of the Americas and the LA Coliseum the past two years, his team is still looking towards the future.
After staging an iRacing event on a digital downtown Chicago street course, that could be the final variable of diversity for NASCAR’s future -- racing on stadium bullrings, short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways, road courses and in city streets.
"We're more than willing to explore anything," Kennedy said. "Street course racing is a good example of that. I think it's interesting. If we're going to do it, it has to be the right time, the right market and the right course.
"When we do anything, we want it to be exciting and compelling for our fans and something they can look forward to."
Even though Kennedy has traded his fire suit for a suit and tie, the scheduling philosophy is true to the racer roots of the fourth-generation Kennedy-France who eats, sleeps and breathes creating the best possible version of NASCAR for its fans.
When the Coliseum Clash is over, NASCAR will immediately begin disassembling the track, and will have it completely removed before the Super Bowl begins down the road at SoFi Stadium. Kennedy might take a souvenir piece of pavement, but the truth is that his mind will have long turned to the Daytona 500 and whatever big vision concept comes next.