Ryan: NASCAR deserved a second round in Chicago, but with a few minor improvements

Sweet Home Chicago? A large part of the stock car community certainly agrees.

The NASCAR industry, and much of its fanbase, hardly needs convincing that “The Windy City” deserves a spot on the 2024 (and maybe even permanent) schedule.

Despite record monsoons shattering the festival atmosphere at Grant Park last Sunday, the chorus of Cup drivers calling for a second edition was virtually unanimous.

“One thousand percent yes,” said Justin Haley, the runner-up to debut winner Shane van Gisbergen
, SiriusXM told NASCAR Radio in an interview Thursday morning. “Just being there, it was entertainment of the highest order. Obviously the weather wasn’t great. Apart from that it was just a great event. I can’t say enough about what NASCAR has accomplished. You have thought of everything. Everything was mapped out for the drivers. The logistics were so well done.

“A few things could be better but for the first try I don’t know what to complain about. I would like to do it again if I finish last or first. Just the experience of saying I did that is something really cool.”

The most-watched NASCAR-on-NBC race in six years
received a whopping local rating of 9.3 (first in the US markets

), suggesting that Chicago was also intrigued.

NASCAR’s contract with the city is two years from now, but the deal was negotiated with the previous administration.

Mayor Brandon Johnson (who took office May 15) said he reviews the race weekend
and soliciting input from constituents (Some of them had inconveniences
) before deciding on his future. A release clause allows Chicago to terminate the contract with a notice period of six months

and without financial penalty.

There’s certainly hope here that NASCAR will be granted another year – if for no other reason than to have the chance to host a weekend uninterrupted by the threat of biblical flash floods.

No street race goes smoothly. Temporary tracks being built on permanent city streets are always fluid affairs, with access points, fan facilities, and mid-haul layouts that can vary yearly (if not daily).

As the first street race in the NASCAR Cup Series’ 75-year history, Chicago performed remarkably well for an inaugural event (apart from the uncontrollable weather, which resulted in three out of four concerts being canceled). And as with every road race, there were also typical observations and suggestions for improvement.

Here are a few, while we keep our fingers crossed for them to be confirmed next year:

Cars! cars cars!

The most striking thing about how well NASCAR has been received in Chicago?

This was a street race that lacked the ubiquitous sounds and smells that are at the heart of every successful counterpart.

Once the spectator gates open in Long Beach and St. Petersburg, the gaps between the cars that constantly pound the pavement and fill the air with roaring engines and spent fuel are short.

With IndyCar headlining both races, this year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg hosted five other series (Indy NXT, USF Pro 2000, USF2000, GT America and MX-5 Cup), as did the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach ( IMSA). WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Porsche Carrera Cup, Stadium Super Trucks, Historic Motorsports Association, Formula D Super Drift)

The cacophony of vehicles from countless racing series sets the backdrop for these motorsport carnivals, which are as much about throwing a party as they are about to race.

That seemed to be the original plan for Chicago, where an IMSA support series was originally announced (which was unspecified and quietly disappeared).

Expanding the schedule to include the NASCAR-related sports cars would be an easy option. NASCAR has also been in talks with other series (including Formula E and IndyCar) about sharing a street course law.

There would be some problems. Multi-series street courses typically last at least three days, and NASCAR was limited to two in Chicago because closures of DuSable Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue were not allowed until Friday night. There are also noise concerns due to the plaza’s proximity to Chicago’s Museum District (although last weekend’s new next-gen mufflers seemed to mostly fix that issue).

But there seems to be room for growth and improving the atmosphere with the addition of series. Unlike a typical compact street race, the Chicago schedule did not overlap between the concerts and the limited time that the Cup and Xfinity cars were on track.

Think of the first year as a “soft open” for a city that knew little about NASCAR, let alone street racing. Now that many are convinced of the concept, the focus can be more on cars than on concerts.

Have an evening headliner rather than trying to fit in an extra musical act between Cup qualifiers and the Xfinity race (which, after several incidents in determining Sunday’s starting grid, resulted in the Black Crowes’ sentence being cut to 40 minutes became).

This also brings us to…

parking rules

The only instance where NASCAR seemed a little caught on the wrong foot was Saturday night when Grant Park was evacuated during the Xfinity race due to possible lightning strikes. The race has been postponed
and The Chainsmokers postrace concert has been canceled – clear skies.

The bad weather ravaged the area, and NASCAR experienced a jarring juxtaposition of empty grandstands and seats while the sidewalks across Michigan Avenue bustled with patrons and theatergoers.

NASCAR and race officials were aware of the city’s severe weather policy, but the message confused many in the stands and raised some questions.

After NASCAR’s blitz, could the Xfinity race have ended without fans? (Yes, and that was true even when the gates were initially closed on Sunday morning because an Xfinity race that never restarted was ultimately doomed.)

What happens to Lollapalooza in these situations? (Music festival organizers canceled bands but stuck to the headlining schedule while waiting for fans to be reinstated.)

NASCAR is used to running its own tracks under far less government control. However, in the case of races on public downtown grounds, the sanctioning authority cannot set the rules, underscoring the importance of building relationships with those making such calls for the city.

As NASCAR gained a foothold in the community through charities and youth initiatives, developing closer ties with Chicago’s bureaucrats seemed to be a blind spot over the past year.

Street racing cities are generally given an incentive to help the organizers. St. Pete wanted to host the NTT IndyCar Series, and the annual season opener has become a staple of the city, with a presence that stretches dozens of blocks beyond track boundaries. The Long Beach race is an institution that is as synonymous with the city as Snoop Dogg and the Queen Mary.

When the Detroit Grand Prix moved downtown this year, it was anchored at General Motors’ global headquarters and organized by Roger Penske’s top lieutenants.

It’s well-documented that Chicago’s NASCAR lacked such widespread support (particularly after the change of government in the mayoralty). The event could use a “fixer” to navigate the city’s political machinery.

to build bridges

There were three footbridges for fans out and about in the Chicago Street Race. The grounds could have used at least one more spot – particularly at Hutchinson Field, where the concert stage was located. The thousands of visitors to The Black Crowes got stuck in a huge traffic jam trying to get back to the grandstand and suite areas via Balbo Drive in time for the Xfinity race (the wait time for those who stayed until the end of the show , was at least 15 minutes).

While the bridges could have been wider to facilitate entry/exit, the main reasons for the safeguards were 1) lack of controlled traffic flow (maintaining direction on either side of a center railing); and 2) fans pausing with their cellphones above the track.

Both of these problems could easily be remedied by vigilant security guards and reducing the view from the bridge (generally this is achieved by installing obstructive mesh/screens over the fences).

Another date?

Ahead of the weekend, there was considerable (and understandable) animosity from longtime residents, unhappy that the race had ousted The Taste of Chicago. The long-running food festival had been a July staple at Grant Park for four decades prior to the pandemic. After a reduced version returned to Grant Park last year
the button was moved to the weekend of September 8-10 this year to host the NASCAR race.

NASCAR’s contract calls for the race to be held in 2024 the weekend of July 6-7

. But if it helps win the goodwill of the mayor and the city, maybe another (and cooler?) date could be negotiated.

Just make sure the bears aren’t in town.

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