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Nascar’s Move To Chicago Street Race Leaves Road America Wondering What Happened

ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – JULY 03: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and … [+] Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 HighPoint.com Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Kwik Trip 250 at Road America on July 03, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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NASCSC AAR R held quite the party last week. Gathered in downtown Chicago were NASCAR executives, local leaders including the mayor, drivers, and of course a swarm of media. There was another group who wasn’t invited, however. That group were in a city a little over 150 miles away nestled along the same banks of Lake Michigan.

While the group celebrated in Chicago, the other must have been wondering just what they had done wrong.

NASCAR announced they will hold a street race in Chicago next season. It wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret since they had previewed such a thing virtually a year prior and seemed to receive a great deal of positive feedback. Still nothing is official until it is, and last week it became official.

The Chicago Street race continues the bold moves NASCAR has been making in the past few years. They transformed from a sport anchored in traditions to one that became as nimble as a speedboat; a boat that first left the dock when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. They received a great deal of praise, deservedly so, for meeting the challenges thrown up by a global pandemic. The sport reopened and speeded up during a time when many pro sports seemed to be hiding in a corner.

Just prior to the pandemic, NASCAR began to gamble a bit. They tried new things such as making changes to their Cup series schedule, something that once seemed to be encased in concrete so thick it could hold back the Colorado River like the Hoover Dam. In March of 2019, NASCAR revealed the 2020 schedule which had, what at the time seemed to be, radical changes including the removal of the July 4th weekend race at Daytona which had held that date for 60 years, replaced by Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a new location for the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

MORE FROM FORBESNascar Reaches Three-Year Deal For Street Race In Chicago Starting July 4 Weekend In 2023by Maury Brown

All that seemed for naught thanks to covid, but it was as radical a shift as had been seen in years.

Then came 2021.

Emboldened perhaps by their success during the covid period when the 2021 schedule was announced in September 2020, there were several major changes. And that might be putting it mildly. The half-mile bullring at Bristol was covered in dirt, the Cup series would head to Nashville Superspeedway, and three new road courses were added: The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Indianapolis would shift from its oval to its infield road course , and the Cup series would race at Road America in Wisconsin.

Opened in 1955, NASCAR raced Road America in 1956 before moving on. The 4,048-mile road course has become almost hallowed ground in American motorsports. Situated on 640 acres with more than 1,500 campsites nestled among rolling hills, “America’s National Park of Speed” had hosted the Xfinity series since 2010, and its first Cup race since 1956 on July 4th of 2021.

By all accounts that first Cup race back was a huge success. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, and reigning Cup series champion, Chase Elliott, won that first race. And while attendance numbers aren’t released by NASCAR anymore, everyone was in agreement that the race seemed sold out.

ELKHART LAKE, WI – AUGUST 12, 1956: Johnny Dodson (No. 131) leads fellow Chevrolet driver Gwyn … [+] Staley (No. 2) on an uphill portion of the road course at Road America during the NASCAR Cup race. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition, is from Rockford, Illinois about 150 miles south of Road America. He wasn’t surprised at the turnout for that first race, telling NASCAR.com:

“I hadn’t been here in 20-plus years. This venue is still just as exciting today for me as what it was when I came here 20-something years ago. It’s a beautiful facility.”

“Racing up here is such a huge deal, always has been,” he added. “You can name hundreds of greats that came out of this area, not only from the driver’s standpoint but from the mechanics, crew chiefs, all that. Deep-rooted motorsports group up here.

“Any time you go into a venue, you see memorabilia on the walls – photographs, hoods, the beer signs with Dale Jr. on them. All that stuff is everywhere, right? People really love motorsports up here.”

Chase Elliott drives for Hendrick Motorsports so naturally after the win, Knaus was very happy indeed.

“Could you have asked for anything better?” Knaus said. “Holy smokes, it was phenomenal.”

ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – JULY 04: A general view of NASCAR fans on a grassy field and under … [+] canopies watching the NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip at Road America on July 04, 2021 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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This season Road America hosted its second consecutive Cup race and again by all accounts it was another success. However, one thing seemed missing. Most years during a race weekend the host track can be seen hawing tickets for next season. Some years there hasn’t been a schedule announcement for the following season, but there is still encouragement for fans to return next year.

This season however, Road America was silent on that front. And that could have been an omen for the future. Road America had no contract for 2023, another indication that a return for the Cup series was in doubt. In the second Cup race held there Tyler Reddick held off Chase Elliott to win his first ever Cup race. He said he was excited to race at Chicago but added:

“I just hope we don’t lose a track that’s also really good for us, too.”

For now, it seems Reddick will be the last Cup series race winner at Road America. Next season’s Chicago Street race will replace the date at Road America.

NASCAR could be keeping a Xfinity race, something that Road America has hosted since 2010 at Road America, but Cup racing in Wisconsin isn’t happening, at least for the foreseeable future.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – JULY 19: (LR) NASCAR and IMSA Chairman Jim France, NASCAR Executive Vice Chair … [+] Lesa France Kennedy, Kara Bauchman, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Bubba Wallace, NASCAR President Steve Phelps, and NASCAR Senior Vice President of Strategy and Innovation Ben Kennedy pose for a photo after a press conference in promotion of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race announcement on July 19, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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Ben Kennedy, NASCAR SVP of racing development and strategy and a driving force behind NASCAR’s resurgence, said the idea for the Chicago Street race has been around since 2019, but really gained momentum in the last 90 days.

The courage to pull the trigger on the Chicago race could have come from this year’s Clash exhibition race which was held at LA Memorial Coliseum in the heart of downtown Los Angeles in February. The non-points event marked the debut of NASCAR’s new Next Gen cars and by all measures was a great victory. It will happen again in 2023. A Cup race at Road America, however, will not.

Just after the Chicago announcement, with the mayor of Chicago listening in, I asked Kennedy what he would say to the folks at Road America.

“We’ve had some great racing at Road America, certainly the past few years with the NASCAR Cup Series, much longer than that with the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” he said. “They’ve been great partners. We’ve seen a great turnout from a fan perspective as well. We’ve seen some great racing there.

“That said, it is unfortunate we’re not going back in 2023.”

However, Kennedy did leave the door open for the future.

ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – JULY 03: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, drives during the … [+] NASCAR Cup Series Kwik Trip 250 at Road America on July 03, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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“Just because it’s a no for 2023 doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a no forever,” he said. “We’ve got some great partners up there. We’ll certainly share more about what other national series’ schedules look like in the future.”

For its part the track elected to only put out a statement to the media.

“Change is never easy, but change is often the catalyst for improvement,” the statement read. “At Road America, we embrace change, and we are consistently improving our facility and events to enhance the experience for everyone. We understand NASCAR’s efforts to improve the sport while introducing it to new fans, and we look forward to welcoming them back to America’s National Park of Speed ​​in the future.”

Road America president and general manager Mike Kertscher did however talk to Dave Kallman who covers racing in the Midwest for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is the longtime beat reporter for Road America.

“They did say that their future plans were to continue to make big changes and aggressive changes with their schedule,” Kertscher told Kallman of the discussions leading up to what was a two-year agreement.

ELKHART LAKE, WI – JUNE 23: The #01 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates BMW Riley, driven by … [+] Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, crosses the finish line to win the Rolex 250 Driven by VISITFLORIDA.COM at Road America on June 23, 2012 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Tyler Barrick/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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“That was part of us getting the race, right?”

“We felt like we put our best foot forward, we delivered the best possible race we could,” Kertscher added. “We delivered the Road America experience for two years and we have nothing to be ashamed about or anything. It’s out of our control.”

Kertscher told Kallman for now the track is focused on the future.

“We asked our fans in a poll and well over 75% of the respondents said that they would still support the event even if Cup wasn’t part of the lineup,” Kertscher said. “I think we owe a duty to our fans to deliver.”

ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – JULY 03: NASCAR fans looks on during pre-race ceremonies prior to the … [+] NASCAR Cup Series Kwik Trip 250 at Road America on July 03, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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Bringing a NASCAR race to a track is a big deal; bringing a top-tier cup race to an even bigger deal. Not just for the track, but for the surrounding areas as well. Tickets, concessions, hotels, rental cars, all add to a multi-million dollar boost to the local economy. Measured over several years and it can run into the billions.

For Road America a large part of that income is gone after two years. For Kennedy, and NASCAR, being 150 miles part keeps Chicago in the Midwest market they were trying to infiltrate with the Cup race at Road America, but it’s a market NASCAR doesn’t want to flood.

“It’s important that we don’t oversaturate ourselves,” Kennedy said. “I won’t say that’s the emphasis to the decision. There were a number of things that went into that decision. But certainly, really appreciate all that they’ve done up there, and we’ll certainly be in touch with them.”

NASCAR has been gambling for the past few years, and by most accounts has been very successful. But in some ways, it seems they might have been playing with house money. Should Chicago prove to be a bust, one card short of a full straight, they might have to pivot. NASCAR might turn once more to that “National Park of Speed” to get back into the Midwest market. If that happens, they shouldn’t be surprised if Road America thinks twice about bringing back a Cup race. After all they seemed to have been abandoned almost before the honeymoon even started.

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