NASCAR Shines Bright in Chicago for Inaugural Street Race

Despite all of the challenges, NASCAR's inaugural street race in Chicago was an impressive event that brought the sport to many new fans and proved the series could potentially go anywhere to race.


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“We’re never going to look at Michigan Ave the same again!”

“I was riding my bike down Lake Shore just last week, this is nuts!”

Comments like these were commonplace this past weekend walking around the 2.2-mile, 12-turn course built in the heart of Grant Park in Chicago. The entire area was electric, full of excitement and wonder, one where people standing on tippy toes or climbing trees or trash cans to get a better look was the norm.

Chicago is often referred to as ‘The Second City,’ but this past weekend it showed up and showed out for NASCAR, and the entire NASCAR industry did the same for the iconic city located on the southwest coast of Lake Michigan.

While there were skeptics and cynics ahead of NASCAR’s inaugural street course around the iconic city, it was clear once on-site that this event was going to be one of the biggest in NASCAR history.

Although the city is ripe with high rise buildings that rival those of New York or Miami, the lakefront section of Chicago is carved out for people to enjoy. Open spaces for parks and activities, museums, aquariums, boating, fountains, and more, this area provided the perfect space for NASCAR to set up a temporary 2.2-mile, 12-turn course.

From the time NASCAR arrived on-site in Chicago, it was clear the sport was going to have a big weekend, and everyone knew NASCAR was in town.

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The Chicago Cubs hosted a NASCAR night on Thursday, where Harrison Burton, John Hunter Nemechek and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. threw out the first pitch and helped lead the singing of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ during the seventh inning stretch. A pair of 23XI Racing show cars sat outside the ballpark and on Friday afternoon, Bubba Wallace threw out the first pitch, while Tyler Reddick and Kurt Busch from 23XI did their part to lead the crowd in singing during the seventh inning stretch.

While the Cubs were celebrating NASCAR night on Thursday, Bubba Wallace hosted ‘Bubba’s Block Party’ at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. The event featured live pit stop demonstrations, sim racing, meet and greets with Bubba Wallace, fun and games, and a concert headlined by Lupe Fiasco.

Walking around to inspect the course set up on Friday afternoon, a line nearly the length of the park’s entrance had already formed to purchase tickets for the weekend’s events. According to some reports, more than 70 percent of attendees were going to see their first NASCAR event. While weather certainly impacted Sunday’s attendance, the weekend was shaping up to be jam-packed with fans.

The temporary walls and fencing may have been an inconvenience to some, but the spectacle brought people off the street and clamoring for their cell phones to capture the immense logistical achievement – and this was before the cars even hit the track.

On most race weekends, NASCAR drivers are tucked away most of the weekend in three places – the hauler, race car or motorhome. With no motorhome lot and the majority of drivers (and the entire industry) staying in hotels just blocks from the street course, it was a common sight to see some of the biggest names in the sport walking seemingly unnoticed down the crowded streets. No swarms of race fans asking for autographs or sprinting to take selfies.

Walking around the Fan Plaza on Saturday, fans were filling the trackside merchandise stands, queuing in line for food and drinks, and taking pictures behind cut outs highlighting some of NASCAR’s iconic moments from its 75-year history. Two of those taking pictures with the Curtis Turner car were NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France and former NASCAR President and current Vice Chairman Mike Helton. France was crouched behind the cut out, the replica helmet on his head, while Helton snapped a picture. Just two race fans enjoying the experience.

Following Sunday’s race, Corey LaJoie had changed into street clothes and was rolling his race bag back to the hotel among the throngs of people leaving the track still buzzing and talking about the race. A few recognized the Spire Motorsports driver, but largely he looked like part of the crowd.

Once the cars hit the track, though, the busy city streets and those bustling around them couldn’t help but stop and stare.

Opening practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series saw people hurrying to get over the crossover bridges and line the fencing for a chance to see the cars race past. While the cars were muffled for the street course, the roar of the NASCAR engines was something few could ignore.

As the field raced through the technical section of Turn 8, 9, 10 and 11, people in the adjacent building were glued to the windows and rooftops to catch a glance of the action below.

While most in those buildings were curious onlookers, some were NASCAR spotters. Spotting for his brother, Ryan Truex said he was set up in a hotel along Michigan Avenue looking out the window and relaying to Martin what was going on around him on track.

Fans and industry members alike – including drivers – had to use one main pedestrian bridge to get from the ‘garage area’ to pit road. This pedestrian bridge also provided fans that did not have access to the garage to get to various other sections of the track along Michigan Avenue. While there were some lines and waits to cross the bridge, it was not uncommon to see drivers and crew members in full fire suits walking among the crowd, much to the delight of the fans walking alongside them.

The lightning and weather that postponed Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race and the concerts that were scheduled to follow were a bit of a damper, and looking at the forecast for Sunday it was clear it would be a challenging day ahead for everyone involved.

Waiting around before the events were officially postponed, nearly every person that I spoke with was experiencing NASCAR for the first time. They were eager to see the race and could not wait to learn more about the sport. Most had bags of newly purchased merchandise and ready for their next race experience.

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Heavy rains forced NASCAR to cancel the Xfinity Series race two laps short of an official race and canceled concerts throughout the weekend, but it did not keep the fans away from being there to witness history. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Despite Sunday’s torrential rain and flooding, fans still flocked to the track once it was announced that racing would resume. The disappointment of Saturday’s postponement was turned completely on its head as fans braved the rain, mud, and crowds as they headed to the track to witness history.

Once the green flag flew under wet conditions, the fences were packed full of fans and arms were stretched as high as they could to capture the moment on cell phones. Video screens around the track allowed fans to wander the course and take it in from a variety of viewing areas.

Although many in attendance were first-time fans, they were hooked by the action, reacting to the mistakes and slides of some drivers, the impressive overtakes by others, and they were left cheering as Shane van Gisbergen made history by taking the checkered flag at the end of the day.

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What an experience in the crowd out here. This was so cool. This is what you dream of."

Shane van Gisbergen

While the experience was one-of-a-kind in person, those watching at home were thrilled by the action as well. The promotion ahead of time and uniqueness of the event saw this event reach Daytona 500-level viewership and engagement. The NASCAR on NBC broadcast of Sunday’s race was seen by 4.796 million viewers, the most-watched NASCAR race on the network in six years.

NASCAR officials indicated they would take a deep dive into the event postmortem to learn all they could from what took place and learn for what may come, but overall, they were pleased with how things turned out, despite the challenges they faced.

“I think certainly a remarkable weekend, a historic weekend for us,” said Ben Kennedy, senior vice president of racing development and racing strategy, and the one largely responsible for envisioning this event. “I would say first of all a huge thank you to the city of Chicago. The city showed up so well today from the backdrop on NBC to the energy among the fans in the city and the crowds. It was certainly remarkable to see.

“Certainly, a neat event. Good to see a first-time winner in Shane, and as a fan, it was a lot of fun to watch,” he added.

Following the event, many drivers took to social media to thank NASCAR and the city for making the event possible, calling for more like it in the future.

“I think the rain probably puts a bit of a damper on (things). Otherwise, I think it would have been a home run, personally,” said third-place finisher Chase Elliott. “I think the rain added an element of excitement for TV or the fans here at the racetrack. But certainly, for people coming out and having that pre-race excitement, I do think it hurt that a little bit.

“Overall, I thought it was a success,” he said. “I thought it ended up being a pretty good race.”

Runner-up Justin Haley called the atmosphere “amazing” and “an awesome event,” adding that the rain-shortened Xfinity race and canceled concerts were “just a bummer.”

“Just incredible idea that NASCAR is expanding their market, and this is just a testimony to everyone there. I felt like the Coliseum was kind of the first you saw, and ever since, we've just been coming to tracks like this,” said Haley. “It definitely was a first-class event. I obviously enjoyed it and hope we come back (next year). I don't know about the back half of the grid, but yeah, very cool. Glad to be a part of it.”

Sometimes the wildest and riskiest ideas are the ones that turn into major wins, and while it was not without its challenges, the inaugural Chicago street race seems to have been one of NASCAR’s biggest wins in a long time. Exposing new fans to the sport in a unique way, doing so in an iconic city with a picturesque backdrop, and having a thrilling battle to the checkered flag, the entire industry wins when things like this happen, and here is to more of happening in the future.

“I’m a huge believer in street races,” said Justin Marks, owner for the racing-winning Project 91 team at Trackhouse Racing. “I'm a big fan because I think that there's an important -- it's important for racing series to take the product to the fans and to be able to take it into these cities and expose a lot of new fans to it.

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I've been a huge fan of the Chicago street race, the concept of NASCAR going street racing from the get-go. A huge supporter of it, and I think that they knocked it out of the park this weekend."

Justin Marks

“The track was great. Everybody was really -- there was a ton of people there, everybody walking the sidewalks and really excited about it,” he said. “And even in the industry everybody that I talked to in the garage area was like, man, I had some trepidation about it, but this is unbelievable. This is awesome. Everybody was wide-eyed and really excited about it.”

It is probably a safe bet there are still a lot of people wide-eyed and excited about what they saw this weekend.

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