NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race is a defining test for the Cup Series

NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race is a defining test for the Cup Series

Columnist Neil Steinberg, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times last week, describe his shock Check out the ticket site for the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race.

“Did you, like me, see that page and think: ‘They charge me for this?!?!’ Steinberg wrote. “We shut down the heart of Chicago for a month so a bunch of speedsters can chase each other’s tails and ordinary Chicagoans are expected to pay to watch the proceedings?”

Steinberg wrote that he previously thought a NASCAR race would be similar to watching the Chicago Marathon, where he could take a train downtown, spend 30 minutes watching the racers race — for free — take a few photos on social media and then “go find lunch.”

Of course, Steinberg has been vilified by some readers and edified by others (to the point of He wrote an apology column including their heartfelt responses to what makes NASCAR great).

It would be easy to scoff at Steinberg’s take on the race — yes, spending over $50 million staging a major sporting event that would cost viewers to attend — but his column is actually quite valuable. After all, it’s not like Steinberg is the only person in Chicago – or anywhere else – who doesn’t know anything about NASCAR or understand what Cup Series racing involves.

In fact, it shows Steinberg’s misunderstanding of exactly why NASCAR is trying to do this race in the first place.

If all goes well this weekend, NASCAR will have reached a new audience, helped educate them about stock car racing and created a positive enough impression to spread the motorsports gospel—all while laying the groundwork for future street racing.

Why is this important? For one thing, the story of how many NASCAR skeptics turned believers is similar. Non-fans somehow find their way into the race, mostly because a friend or family member wants to pick them up, and then it clicks: the speed! the sound! Access! festival!

In that sense, this is a giant shortcut to creating new fans. As was the case for the Clash’s exhibition race inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, somewhere around three-quarters of Chicago ticket buyers had not previously appeared in NASCAR’s database of buyers.

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So really, the Chicago Street Race would be the most expensive commercial in NASCAR history. Is this worth it?

Team Penske driver Austin Cindrick, who has competed in street racing in other series, said there’s a reason this style of event has been so successful around the world. It’s “bringing the party to the people,” he said, and that can be invaluable.

But some of the community’s opposition to the race has raised many concerns about whether NASCAR is making the right move. Former mayor Lori Lightfoot moved by approving the race without consulting the city council, drawing anger from local officials. Some may grumble for show’s sake, playing the political game of saying one thing to please their constituents while believing another. But others are definitely not keen on seeing major landmarks or streets closed because of NASCAR.

Even new mayor Brandon Johnson said he would review the contract for future years (NASCAR and Chicago signed a three-year contract for the race) and wasn’t committed to attending as of last week.

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Julie Giese was heavily involved in the “Daytona Rising” renovation project that gave a $400 million makeover to NASCAR’s most famous track and later became the head of Phoenix Raceway as it underwent a remodel and became the host of a NASCAR championship race weekend. Now assigned to head the Chicago Street Race, her latest answers about the challenges of the event are revealing.

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The biggest unexpected hurdle? “Making sure we are communicating and informing. Everyone you talk to is looking at it through a different lens.”

How will you measure success? “First and foremost, minimizing those disruptions in and around the community. Making sure everyone in Chicago knows what’s going on and how to move.”

Giese’s hundreds of meetings with community members have clearly sent the message that there are a variety of concerns about disruptions in everyday life, even though that is part of downtown living. Tall residents wanted to know where they were supposed to walk their dogs, hitchhiking hot dog vendors needed to be compensated for lost revenue, and people needed to know alternate routes with two major thoroughfares — Michigan Avenue and Doable Lake Shore Drive — closing.

With a large footprint across Grant Park, NASCAR’s visit to Chicago is causing unrest for local residents in the run-up to Sunday’s race. (John Dore / USA Today)

Of course, Grant Park hosts other major events. Lollapalooza is there every year, for example. But the vast footprint that NASCAR racing takes takes it to a different level—which can be annoying for those who don’t care about NASCAR.

But if NASCAR wants to do future street racing after this first race in its 75-year history, Chicago is a proof of concept. For this reason, things must go well and enough must be learned to allow this to happen in other cities.

Let’s say NASCAR then wants to race on the streets of New York. Don’t you think the residents there would have similar concerns to the citizens of Chicago? Sure, IndyCar and Formula One are experienced in this type of event – but NASCAR is louder, bolder and has a stigma to overcome with urbanites.

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However, the survey included 1,000 residents Conducted by Harris Poll It found a more receptive group of citizens than might be evident from the media coverage. Instead of the population broadly opposed to race, opinions are in fact divided; 38 percent of Cook County residents approved of the decision to host the race and an almost equal share (39 percent) opposed it.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of residents believe the race will positively impact local tourism (with 27 percent saying it would have a “very” positive impact) — although 69 percent said they weren’t interested in attending.

But among those interested in seeing what NASCAR is all about, according to Harris Poll CEO Will Johnson In the Chicago Tribunemore than half of people ages 18-34 (a key demographic) have an interest — as do four out of 10 people of color.

Numbers like these, TV ratings aside, are the kind of stat that should help NASCAR take pride in its decision to try such a gritty race. Now the weekend has to roll off smoothly enough – be it mass logistics or the race itself – to avoid the kind of overwhelming negativity initially associated with the race by local politicians.

It may not be a high handicap, but it will be enough success for NASCAR to borrow one of the W Cubs’ flags to fly after the squares on Sunday.

“We’re not doing something new. We’re doing it more,” Cendric said. “Maybe it doesn’t work in the confines we have in Chicago; This is the only way I see failure. But other than that… from everything I’ve seen, it’s going to be a great weekend. And I hope it’s seen that way.”

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(Photo: John Dore/USA Today)

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