It seems NASCAR usually has a road-course ringer or ten when its races require turning right as well as left, but for its inaugural street-course contest in the Windy City of Chicago, Illinois, teams are bringing street-course ringers to try and boost their fortunes.
There are two drivers coming from differing backgrounds that are hoping to make their marks during this weekend’s Grant Park 220, which is being held on a 2.2-mile, 12-turn circuit beneath Chicago’s massive skyscrapers and adjacent to Lake Michigan. One is Shane van Gisbergen, who owns three championships in Australia’s Supercars series. The other is 2009 FIA Formula One champ Jenson Button, 43, making his third NASCAR start: he raced at Circuit of the Americas and in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Garage 56 entry (which wasn’t counted in the final results but did finish the race as an exhibition car).
Van Gisbergen is in the No. 91 Trackhouse Racing Enhanced Health/Quad Lock Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Cup Series car, continuing the team’s vision of having guest drivers in a third car to spread some international flavor. This weekend marks the third race for the PROJECT 91 Camaro, following two appearances by 2007 FIA Formula One World Champion Kimi Raikkonen. Van Gisbergen, 33, drives a Camaro in Supercars and has 78 victories and 47 pole positions, including two wins at the famed Bathurst 1000.
“I just want to do my best,” van Gisbergen said of his first NASCAR start. While he’s been watching Cup Series races from the Antipodes on Mondays, he’s ready to tackle the big differences between his regular ride and the Cup Series car. “The first thing is sitting on the other side of the car, and then climbing through the window,” he laughed. “I’ve never done that before. But the technical side of things is pretty similar in the way the car is built. A big, heavy car. A lot of horsepower.”
The first-timer had an opportunity to test at Charlotte Motor Speedway before he traveled to Chicago for this race. “I’m trying to learn this week and try to not have too many expectations about the street circuit. I just want to do my best, but if I’m prepared the best i can be, we can achieve anything,” he said.
The prospect of racing in the United States is appealing to van Gisbergen, who’s watched former Supercars titleholder Scott McLaughlin adapt to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES the past two years. “I love Supercars and what I’m doing now, but speaking to Justin (Marks, Trackhouse co-owner) has sparked my interest in doing other things. I really just want to see how it goes. I haven’t been to America since before COVID time, so to be able to travel now and experience things again – yeah, we’ll see how it goes and maybe it will lead to more.”
Jenson Button has raced twice in a NASCAR Next Gen car, once at COTA and once in Le Mans. This weekend he’ll be in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford Mustang. Currently living in the Los Angeles area, Button flew into Chicago a day early and was immediately struck by the humidity. Surprisingly, he had little comment on any haze from Canadian wildfires, which could affect the race this weekend. As could rain, which is forecast for Saturday afternoon through Sunday. Button, of course, has raced in the rain and the Le Mans circuit was inundated with wet weather at the beginning of the twice-around-the-clock classic last month.
There are a lot of 90-degree corners in the 12-turn Chicago street course, but Button does think there will be opportunities to pass other cars. “I think Turn 1, Turn 2, Turn 5 and the last corner are the main overtaking places,” he mused. Of course other sections of the track might be too narrow to allow overtaking. “The speeds won’t be extremely high, but when the barriers are that close, it feels unbelievably fast. It feels like they are narrowing in on you throughout the race, so it’s a challenging track,” Button said.
Should the predicted rain squalls settle next to the lake, Button thinks everyone will be affected. “Everything gets more difficult when it rains, especially on a street course.” Because racers don’t know when the circuit last saw precipitation, the slick nature of a wet track replete with oil can make the surface even more slick. “Bumps make it more difficult in the wet – there’s no runoff, so if you want to lock-up, you’re in the wall – exactly the same in the dry. But it’s more likely to happen because there is so much less grip. Racing in the wet… it’ll be nuts. Most of the guys wouldn’t have driven on street courses and most of the guys wouldn’t have raced in the wet. So it’s going to be mayhem out there – but in a good and positive way,” he predicted.
Button was amazed that van Gisbergen actually had the ability to test at Charlotte. “I didn’t.” The fact that he tested in his race car amazed Button as well. But he did drive the highly modified (from NASCAR Cup Series specs) Garage 56 Camaro ZL1 at Le Mans, which he found really easy to drive. “The Cup cars are a lot more difficult, but it doesn’t matter. It means it’s the same for all of us. It’s a challenge. Just getting on-top of how the car is. I think we’ve made a lot of progress from where I had the car at COTA to here, so I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing how it feels.”
While Button is enjoying driving different cars at this stage in his career, “I couldn’t do 38 weekends of the year. For me, having so many years of racing already under my belt, traveling and what-have-you, it’s very difficult. So while it’s a dream to do a whole season (in NASCAR), I don’t think it’s actually a reality. I’d love to keep doing one-off races if there was an opportunity, but it’s also not easy, from a team’s point of view, to find a car or charter that I could just jump into for certain races.”
All eyes might be on these two interlopers, but NASCAR’s prognosticators think the driver who could come in and take control of this race is A.J. Allmendinger, who had a great deal of experience on road and street courses prior to joining NASCAR. His most recent street courses, though, didn’t give the Californian results he wanted or expected in 2013. Allmendinger fell out of the Long Beach INDYCAR race with gearbox issues and never made it past the first corner in the two Detroit contests he drove for Team Penske. Another former open-wheel racer who could surprise here in Michael McDowell, who raced in lower formulae prior to joining the Cup Series, including INDYCAR and Grand-Am SportsCar Series.
The Grant Park 220 Chicago Street Race is scheduled on Sunday, July 2 at 5:30PM ET. It is being broadcast on NBC.