NASCAR on the streets of Chicago was fun. Imagine if everything had gone right.

NASCAR on the streets of Chicago was fun. Imagine if everything had gone right.
Shane van Gisbergen celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 on Sunday at the Chicago street course. The New Zealander won the first-time event in his NASCAR debut.

We traded Road America for this?

That’s a sentence I wrote in my head after the announcement nearly a year ago that NASCAR was taking to the streets of Chicago on the Fourth of July weekend 2023. I assumed I would need it Sunday.

NASCAR was abandoning the best road course in the United States for a rinky-dink, designed-on-a-video-game, built-on-the-fly course jammed between hotels and a park.

And yeah, Chicago’s a great sports town. Just not this sport.

Sure enough, the weekend did have its disappointments. Not for the way it played out, though, for the way it might have played out even better.

Fans, many of them new to the sport, lost more than one-half of Saturday’s Xfinity race due to lightning, one-quarter of the Cup Series race Sunday due to darkness and several concerts due to time constraints and safety concerns.

Still, NASCAR and the city delivered a wildly entertaining and completely unpredictable Grant Park 220 and the first debut winner in 60 years. All things considered, who would have predicted that?

NASCAR on the Chicago streets ‘was an amazing experience’

“It was an amazing experience and I hope everybody here enjoyed it as much as I did,” said 2021 Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, who finished fourth. “I hope the fans here that maybe had never been to a race before enjoyed it. I hope the city enjoyed it enough to welcome us back because I felt like the buzz around the city the last handful of days was amazing.”.

Even Australia and New Zealand were buzzing after Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen, an 80-race winner and three-time champion in Australian Supercars, beat Justin Haley to the checkered flag. Van Gisbergen, who had never set foot in Chicago before the race weekend and usually drives from the other side of the car, became the first driver to win his first start in NASCAR’s top division since Johnny Rutherford at Daytona in 1963.

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“The crowd stuck around the whole race too,” Larson continued. “I mean, it was downpouring all (afternoon) long and I was not sure what kind of crowd we were going to have once we got going and it was great. Without the rain we had yesterday and today, it would have been way better with the concerts and all that. So, hopefully we get another go at it next year because I enjoyed it.”.

This isn’t to say the Chicago weekend was necessarily better than what NASCAR delivered at Road America in 2021, when it made the first of two modern-day trips to the traditional road course in the Wisconsin countryside. That facility drew its biggest crowd in decades – perhaps ever – and Chase Elliott came through the field to score a popular victory. Then the fans backed that up in ’22, and Tyler Reddick picked up his first Cup win.

This was just different. Way different. And different is OK in NASCAR these days.

NASCAR has gotten bolder with its schedule

In fact, if the sanctioning body didn’t do different, it wouldn’t have taken the Cup Series to Road America in the first place. NASCAR gave up on its own track, Chicagoland Speedway southwest of the city in Joliet, after 19 races and then took that date to Road America for two years.

That came around the same time, NASCAR moved it’s preseason exhibition race to the Los Angeles Coliseum, added the Nashville and St. Louis markets to the Cup schedule, buried Bristol Motor Speedway in dirt, took the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race from the fabled oval to the road course and held the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, resurrected after a generation of dormancy.

This may seem like splitting hairs to fans of Road America, but NASCAR didn’t take away a date from the Wisconsin road course to go to Chicago. The initial promise was for two years, no more. That success to the north didn’t make the move any easier, but it was going to happen regardless.

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These changes simply didn’t happen over decades of copy/paste schedules.

“As we go through (changes), we’re by no means saying that everything is going to be perfect from Day 1,” said Ben Kennedy, senior vice president of racing development and racing strategy and great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France.

“But you don’t know unless you try, and we gave it a really good effort today, and (we’re) certainly proud of all the work that everyone has done.

“I think the city showed so well, certainly on broadcast today, and then the energy around the field and around the park today was palpable.”.

A street race was a tough sell to some NASCAR fans

For 49 weeks, some traditionalists blathered about the impossibility of a good race on a street course, the certainty fans would be killed in Chicago’s dangerous downtown, the inconvenience to shop owners and tourists and the way the weekend was marketed to new fans who didn’t care while the diehards were ignored.

The concerns proved largely unfounded.

Turns out Sunday’s race had five cars spin or tangle between the concrete barriers on the first lap yet continue without a caution. That seems unlikely to have happened at, oh, say, Road America. Numerous drivers survived or recovered from trouble, including Kyle Busch, who was buried windshield deep in a tire barrier only to finish fifth.

A wet track early favored one group of drivers. The changing conditions and the decision to shorten the race affected strategies. And finally, passing was possible even on dry track, as evidenced by three swaps of the lead between van Gisbergen and Haley in just three corners.

“When we had that strategy back to 18th I started to worry a bit but had some full stands on some people, and the racing was really good, everyone was respectful,” van Gisbergen said in his television interview. “It was tough but a lot of fun.”.

NASCAR in downtown Chicago was fun, but can it last?

Anecdotally, a fair number of naysayers were swayed by the weekend, although plenty were not.

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Perhaps more importantly, the race attracted newcomers – 80% of tickets reportedly went to first-time buyers – and they fought gamely through uncertainty and miserable conditions. NBC reached unfamiliar viewers around the country, and the race drew international attention no other venue on the schedule would have.

Now the question for Chicago becomes sustainability.

The cost to put on the event will continue to rise in the days that follow. Much of that expense – whether it’s the $50 million that seems to be the baseline estimate, or more – went toward assets that became obsolete moments after the checkered flag. Streets became a racetrack, the racetrack becomes streets again and the cycle repeats every year and what if they couldn’t have got the race in Sunday?

Then, will the novelty wear off? Maybe first-timers bring friends, the way those at Road America did for the second Fourth of July weekend last year. But maybe they renew their loyalties to the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls and ‘Hawks. Or they simply move on to the next new thing.

“Obviously we’re going to have a very deep dive postmortem after this event,” Kennedy said. “A lot of surveys will go out collecting a lot of feedback. Of course there were a lot of things that went according to plan; there were some things that didn’t go according to plan obviously with the weather.

“We’re going to have a lot of takeaways from this weekend, which I think will be really good, but from what I’ve seen so far, certainly from the fans and from a lot of folks in the industry has been positive.”.

Remember, though, they said that about Road America, too.

One doesn’t have to replace the other.

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