NASCAR returns to Chicago Street Course, hoping for a smoother ride

CHICAGO — Julie Giese was attending an event earlier this year at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte, N.C., when suddenly event staff began handing out umbrellas to those sitting at her table. No, attendees weren’t getting pelted with raindrops; everyone was inside the building while outside it was a picturesque spring day.

The umbrellas were a comedic nod to last year’s inaugural race on the Chicago Street Course, where Giese serves as president, that faced a torrential downpour for most of the weekend. Upon seeing the umbrellas, Giese paused, her face tightened. Perhaps she was recoiling at the thought of rain nearly forcing the postponement of one of the most highly touted events in recent NASCAR history. But soon, she started chuckling, acknowledging the obvious.

At least Giese can laugh about it now, because 12 months ago she was not. A considerable amount of time, energy and many, many millions of dollars had been invested into putting on the first street course race in modern NASCAR Cup Series history. Yet, as the record amount of rain continued to fall — 9 inches in less than 24 hours — and caused streets to flood, it pushed the event to the brink of being a washout.

But by mid-afternoon, the rain slowed down enough to allow the excess water to be drained from the course so that the race could be run. And once the green flag was waved, fans were treated to an entertaining show that exceeded most expectations and drew NBC’s biggest NASCAR television audience in six years.

“There was a lot thrown at us,” Giese said, “and to get through that weekend and to see just whether it was the (television) viewership to just how great the competition was to the feedback from the attendees — I still think about after the checkered flag waved last year, just people truly having this genuine excitement as they’re leaving the course, knowing what they witnessed in spite of the crazy weather that we had throughout the day.”

Unlike a year ago, the weather for this weekend looks far less ominous. But it’s not just the forecast that is different as NASCAR returns to Chicago.

There’s a more optimistic vibe surrounding NASCAR’s second foray racing around the 12-turn, 2.2-mile circuit. Last year featured so many unknowns. Racing on a temporary street circuit was a new venture for NASCAR; questions lingered over whether the league could successfully construct a track incorporating city streets that would withstand the rigors of big, heavy lumbering stock cars and if the layout would produce a satisfactory level of racing, which is often not the case on street circuits.

The answer to both questions was yes. There were no problems with the course build itself; the flooding on Sunday was due to drainage issues that would’ve occurred regardless of the volume of rain. And the trepidation drivers had — worrying if it would it be a crash fest, if they could pass, if they could race side-by-side — proved unsubstantiated.

“Honestly, it’s actually fun. It’s so different,” Bubba Wallace said.

Aside from the racing, the impact of the race on the city has been a major issue for NASCAR and local officials. Since it became known in July 2022 that NASCAR would construct a course around Grant Park, many city leaders and local citizens have pushed back. Former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot faced a torrent of criticism for approving the deal without getting the city council’s sign-off, and it became such a hot-button issue that doubts arose about whether the race would even take place.

NASCAR Chicago Street Race

The temporary track around Chicago’s Grant Park provided a compelling race and strong TV ratings in 2023 despite a gloomy weekend of weather. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

One year later, the outcry from city leaders has seemingly diminished, though public support remains divided for an event that necessitates high costs, major roads shutting down, and changes to foot traffic for businesses in the area. New mayor Brandon Johnson and NASCAR have worked to help minimize those inconveniences to residents and improve the deal for Chicago. Course construction has been cut from 25 days last year to 19 days. NASCAR also increased its payment to the city by $2 million. Still, the event requires a weeks-long summer disruption to one of the city’s most popular open spaces.

“The common theme now is that everyone understands it,” Giese said. “They know how to get around. And, honestly, I heard from many people that it wasn’t as bad as they thought. They now know what to expect, they know how to get around. Our team works around the clock and is doing so again this year just to make sure everyone around the footprint, as well as really around the city, has an understanding of the street closures to dog park access to access to the tennis and pickleball courts. We’re making sure we’ve answered all of those questions.”

Among the changes based on feedback are three additional bridges — two for pedestrians, one for the industry that goes from the garage straight to pit road — the installation of larger brake markers so that drivers can better identify corners, and a larger fan zone area.

Of course, out of Giese’s control is the predominant factor that will go a long way to dictating whether the race weekend is a success. Since last year, it’s been nearly impossible to talk about the Chicago race weekend without mentioning the downpour.

“I am looking forward to it,” said Ryan Blaney, defending Cup Series champion. “I’m looking forward to hopefully having good weather this weekend there. I mean, it can’t get much worse than what was there last year. So knock on wood. But that city deserves it. I feel like the hype around that race last year was through the roof and the amount of people that still came even though the weather was what it was.

“If it all goes good this year, weather-wise, I feel like it’s just going to be an absolute spectacle to see. I’m excited about going back.”



NASCAR at Chicago expert predictions: Street course favors SVG and unpredictability

(Photo of Shane van Gisbergen celebrating his win at last year’s Chicago Street Race: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

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