NASCAR’s Chicago Race was a Great Success – or Was it?

These stencils were on sidewalks throughout the city - Getty Images/NASCAR photo
These stencils were on sidewalks throughout the city – Getty Images/NASCAR photo

As NASCAR went from its first ever street circuit to the more familiar confines of Atlanta Motor Speedway, the talk was still on the master racing class put on by Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen on the 12-corner, 2.2-mile walled circuit at the Windy City’s Grant Park.

This past weekend’s rain-shortened Quaker State 400 was a bit more normal, held in an enclosed oval race track next to a town that was accustomed to having racers and race fans in its midst. The same wasn’t true for citizens and business owners in the downtown area of Chicago, who were unable to get from A to B during construction for NASCAR’s first-ever street-course contest, who lost mountains of business when clientele couldn’t access stores and offices.

It’s not an unfamiliar refrain for anyone that lives close to a street circuit that holds motor races. This writer resides in downtown Long Beach, Calif., which has had an open-wheel race on city streets every year since 1975– 2020 being the notable, COVID-19 exception. In the beginning, Long Beach was a Navy town whose downtown resembled downtown Las Vegas more than downtown Los Angeles.

That’s all changed. Gone are the adult theaters, replaced by massive buildings that harbor offices, condos and hotels. Much of the enterprise in the area is due to the races held here each spring, which have ranged from contests for Formula 5000 (the initial race in 1975, sanctioned both by USAC and SCCA), FIA Formula One from 1976 through 1983, CART/Champ Car to 2007 and INDYCAR to the present day.

If there are objections now, they’re drowned out by an enthusiastic citizenry that has finally taken a liking to having as many as 300,000 people in their midst over a three-day period. Good weather doesn’t hurt, as springtime in Long Beach is usually comfortably mild – and it hasn’t rained on Sunday’s race day since, well, it’s never rained on Sunday race day.

The Chicago race was promoted by former mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was succeeded by Brandon Johnson this year. He’s not quite the NASCAR fan she is and, after hearing from many who live, work and visit downtown Chicago it’s touch-and-go as to whether this event will have a second opportunity.

Shane van Gisbergen gave Chicago fans a true burnout – Getty Images/NASCAR photo

It’s a good thing that NASCAR, celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023, is trying to wean itself from its roots as strictly a roundy-round sanctioning body. The company began to go to road courses at an airport course in 1954; in the modern era, NASCAR regularly visits Sonoma Raceway (Sears Point) in northern California, Watkins Glen International in upstate New York, the undulating – and recently repaved – Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, along with Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course that includes part of the venerable 2.5-mile oval.

NASCAR held its second-ever Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this past January, once again using the interior of the famous bowl where football, concerts, motorcycle races and even off-road contests have been held. There weren’t as many people attending the second as the first, and yes, since the second race was held the same day into evening as an awards show, there was monumental traffic but it’s Los Angeles and that’s to be expected. NASCAR constructed the interior race track and did a damn good job at it.

There was a time when teams called in road course ringers; van Gisbergen could be explained away as just that, but his appearance in a Justin Marks-promoted PROJECT 91 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 from Trackhouse Racing was definitely something special, out of the norm, and it had a predictable outcome. His Camaro was quick from the first practice, he started third and used his familiarity with walls – and lots of ‘em – to give a master class in street-circuit competition.

Goodyear rain tires were appropriate in Chicago – Getty Images/NASCAR photo

So yeah, the racing was great and those that waited out the massive rainstorm and stuck around even as the skies darkened to dusk were rewarded with an overtime green-white-checker finish to an unpredictable weekend. There were other road- and street-course veterans in the race, guys like A.J. Allmendinger, who came to NASCAR from Champ Car, Andy Lally from sports cars, Michael McDowell from the Atlantic championship (back in the day).

But the locals didn’t care. They couldn’t get around downtown for weeks before the Chicago race, as construction closed down heavily-traveled streets – even Lake Shore Drive – causing major traffic disruptions in a city already known for being as bad as Los Angeles with regard to traffic issues. Major museums, including the Science and Industry museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and other major visitor sites, were adamant the event cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Access throughout downtown was exceptionally difficult.

Even Chicago fans of the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR’s nearby favorite, Road America, were critical and hope the race is not renewed. “Who do they think they are – F1?” was a familiar refrain. Boat owners who wanted to entertain next to the circuit on Lake Michigan couldn’t get to their boat docks without exceptional planning. Bus routes were so messed up that people couldn’t get to their jobs on time.

The outcry post-event was quite fierce and brings up the question of whether this race will be held a second time. The new mayor isn’t keen on it and the number of complaints he’s received could scuttle the event. While the motoring press was effusive in its praise for the Grant Park 220 and the manner in which it transpired, the jury of citizens is still out as whether the race was a civic success or failure. Will the people of Chicago rally around the positives of this contest or go with the negatives? That’s up to the city and its citizens to decide.

About Anne Proffit 1264 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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