Imagine cars racing down Lake Shore Drive at 130 mph, burning rubber on South Michigan Avenue and jockeying for position bumper-to-bumper on Balbo Drive. Welcome to the new rush hour in Chicago.
The city announced Tuesday it will transform the Grant Park environs into the first-ever NASCAR street race for a weekend next summer. The televised Cup Series event will feature a 12-turn, 2.2 mile course, with top NASCAR drivers weaving through the park on closed-off streets lined with temporary fences, grandstands and what promoters hope will be thousands of fans.
“This is actually going to be our first race on a street course in our 75-year history,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy. “I think it’s going to be a very unique course.”
The NASCAR race is set to take place on Sunday, July 2, with plans for a separate sports car race scheduled for July 1. The Chicago Street Race will also feature music and entertainment in an effort to attract attendees to Grant Park and much-needed hospitality and tourism revenue to the city.
NASCAR, which is promoting the event, selling the tickets and building the track, will pay rental fees to the Chicago Park District for the use of Grant Park, but terms of the agreement with the city were not disclosed.
“Chicago’s streets are as iconic as our skyline and our reputation as a world class sports city is indisputable,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a news release. “I am thrilled to welcome our partners at NASCAR to Chicago for an event that will attract thousands of people to our city.”
While the street course has been tested in simulations, the proposed length of the race has yet to be determined, Kennedy said.
The Chicago Street Race is slated to be one of 36 events in the NASCAR Cup Series, which stretches from February to November and includes such well-known races as the Daytona 500 and newcomers such the Enjoy Illinois 300, which held its first NASCAR event last month at a track just outside St. Louis.
Most NASCAR tracks range from a quarter-mile to 2 1/2-mile banked ovals, but the Florida-based sanctioning body for stock car racing holds several events at road courses, including Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., which hosted a Cup Series race July 3. That track will be bumped from the NASCAR Cup Series next summer to make way for the Chicago event.
The proposed Chicago course will start on Columbus Drive in front of Buckingham Fountain, in an area that will also serve as pit road. From there, drivers will go south to Balbo Drive and then jog east toward Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Heading south along the lake, drivers will turn west on Roosevelt Road, working back north on Columbus Drive in a rough figure eight that will take in a piece of South Michigan Avenue before reaching the start/finish line.
Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suárez and other top NASCAR drivers are expected to compete in Chicago. Their race cars, which can hit 200 miles per hour, will likely top out at a much lower speed on the Chicago street course, Kennedy said.
“We’re still running simulations to figure that out,” Kennedy said. “I would guess in the neighborhood of 120-plus or so at top speed. And then on the low end, we’ll probably be similar to the speed of cars going around Grant Park right now.”
The streets will be closed to traffic for an indeterminate length of time before, during and after the race, Kennedy said.
While barriers will be erected to keep drivers and spectators safe, the extent of the street closings during the race has not been disclosed.
“We’re going to try to leave a majority of the streets open as long as we can,” Kennedy said. “A lot of construction will only happen overnight. So the walls and fencing will kind of go in probably down the streets ahead of time. And then they’ll wait until the last minute to close off the corners.”
The most dangerous lap may well take place Tuesday afternoon, when NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace navigates the course in real Chicago traffic, led by a police escort.
This is not the first NASCAR race to be held in Chicago, nor the first time the city aspired to turn Lake Shore Drive into a race course.
Soldier Field hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race in July 1956. A quarter century later, an ambitious plan by then-Mayor Jane Byrne to hold a Formula One race on Lake Shore Drive in the summer of 1981 never made it to the starting line.
This time, the course will stay north of Soldier Field and south of the infamous S-curve on Lake Shore Drive.
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The Chicago area has been home to the NASCAR circuit in recent years, with Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet track hosting a number of races since opening in 2001. But the 1.5-mile oval has essentially been idled since it was acquired in 2019 by NASCAR as part of a $2 billion merger agreement with International Speedway Corp.
Most recently, the track has been used as a parking lot for thousands of Ford SUVs built at the Chicago Assembly Plant and awaiting computer chips during the ongoing global semiconductor shortage that has disrupted auto production.
Kennedy said NASCAR will bring racing back to Chicagoland Speedway at some point, but declined to give a specific timeline.
Chicago Tourism has been hard hit and slow to recover from the pandemic, with the city hosting 30.7 million visitors last year, up 86% over 2020, but still far below pre-pandemic years, when the city regularly welcomed more than 50 million visitors annually . Hotel occupancy has picked up this summer, and the city is hoping to see tourism return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
Major events such as the NFL Draft and the Lollapalooza summer music festival, which is held annually in Grant Park, can significantly boost tourism numbers and bring millions of dollars in economic impact to the city. Whether holding a NASCAR race on city streets around Grant Park does the same remains to be seen.
“I’d be lying to say that this wasn’t a big risk, but at the same time, a big opportunity as well,” Kennedy said. “Being on NBC on July 4 weekend, just the backdrop and optics of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan, it’s going to be certainly a spectacle for us next year.”