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  • Writer's pictureAdam Tropper

When it Rains it Pours - Lessons Learned from Experiencing NASCAR’s Boldest Experiment Ever Live

Adam Tropper - Motorsports Today Contributor

There are many words that you can use to sum up NASCAR’s trip to Chicago for a weekend of racing in Grant Park. Some that immediately come to mind are bold, exciting, and wet. However, I think the best word to describe the entire event was successful. Regardless of how the city of Chicago and its new administration may see it, if there was one thing proven by NASCAR, it’s that they can bring their product right to the masses in a safe and timely manner.

The below picture epitomizes this in my opinion. Right in front of the main entrance to the closed off grounds, there were a few show cars. Seeing a 23XI branded car with the Chicago skyline on it (considering Michael Jordan’s legendary status in Chicago) got you hyped for everything that was about to come. With that out of the way, let’s dive more into the specifics of what worked, what flopped, and what to do now after Chicago’s Street Race Weekend.

How did we even get here?

Back in 2020 when the Covid-19 Pandemic halted the world as we knew it, NASCAR and Iracing teamed up to provide us with some entertainment until we could go back racing for real. Real drivers used the simulator to race around the streets of Chicago on a hypothetical temporary race course. And that’s exactly what people thought of it for about two years - just a hypothetical, a fantasy track. Little did we know that when the 2023 schedule was announced, included into the 4th of July weekend was an actual race weekend on this same hypothetical course initially created through Iracing.

Many people, including myself, were understandably skeptical of how good of a show bulky racecars could put on while trying to make 90 degree turns in the middle of a major city. Personally, I was looking forward to this event since it was announced, even before I knew I would have the opportunity to go in person. Now, a week after the Cup series race as of this writing, I can definitively say NASCAR exceeded my already lofty expectations.

The Track

Very simply put, the constructed course layout worked surprisingly well. There were definitely enough on-track incidents throughout the weekend that would keep any causal fan entertained, but the skill level needed to be successful on a street course is unparalleled. Even though many fans believed the races would be nothing short of a disaster, both the Xfinity and Cup drivers looked like the professional racecar drivers they’re supposed to be. At any given turn you could see passing, crashing, or just pure speed. I was speechless from Michigan Avenue, watching from turn 11 on Saturday and from turns 8 & 9 on Sunday. Both these angles gave me great vantage points of braking zones and curves, with mainly single file racing but the opportunity for passing zones to emerge.

The Weather Impact

This is a major aspect of the weekend that simply cannot be ignored. Torrential downpours heavily affected the entire event itinerary. Of course the worst drought Chicago has faced in a decade came to an end right when NASCAR set up shop. Unfortunately this happens more often than I’d like to admit when it comes to live sports. I wish there were clear skies all weekend, but I want to emphasize that the effects of the rain on the weekend CANNOT be blamed on NASCAR.

On Saturday, while practice and qualifying for both series went as planned, the same can’t be said for the Xfinity series race. The race was halted after only 25 laps (of the scheduled 55) due to lightning and then later darkness. While initially moved to Sunday morning before the Cup series race, NASCAR made an unprecedented and unpopular decision in canceling the remainder of the Xfinity event, even though the 50% race distance to make the race official was not reached. While disappointing, the Xfinity series put on a great show when they were on track.

Just when you got past the disappointment of Xfinity racing being cut short, along came the serve rainfall, causing significant flooding throughout most of the race course. I was standing under the bleachers, trying to find some area to stay relatively dry (I was unsuccessful). I fully expected the race to be delayed until Monday afternoon, and was ready to go back to my hotel when we got the word that drivers were being called to their cars.

Event Atmosphere

The crowd turnout was incredible, with tens of thousands of fans showing up both days eager to see either what all the NASCAR hype was about or just to attend another race. Regardless, NASACR went all out, advertising the weekend as a race and music festival. Four concerts were planned, with musical acts including The Chainsmokers and Miranda Lambert. However, only the Black Crows got to play, as the weather led to three non-refundable casualties. This was yet another disappointment to many in attendance, but at least for me, the on track product was the main priority.

I still commend NASCAR for attempting something this bold to begin with. They fought the intensive backlash from the locals with community outreach programs and a ton of tourism money for the city. With the special 75th anniversary season in full swing, I respect the fact that NASCAR is trying to evolve and position themselves for the next 75 years.

Something to note however were some of the logistical missteps when it came to crowd control. Multiple sets of bleachers (including mine) were only accessible using an overhead bridge next to turn 12. This led to major backups both before and after each race, with ten thousand plus people trying to get on a 10 foot wide walking bridge. I actually missed SVG’s victory celebrations as a result. I won’t knock NASCAR too hard on this, but it’s absolutely something to look into if the Chicago Street Race does return in 2024.

What happens now?

As I reflect on my experience in Chicago, I will always have amazing memories of being lucky enough to attend NASCAR’s first ever street race. As an added bonus, this was my first ever NASCAR race as well. As a diehard fan for about 15 years now, it’s a great feeling to know my first race will also go down as an important piece of the sport’s history.

The biggest question now is simply will there be a Chicago Street Race in 2024. The short answer at the moment is that I have no idea. There were promising signs, including the fact that the television viewership was the highest for a single race since 2017, with almost 5 million viewers. However, constant road closures in the weeks leading up to the event led to a lot of bad press. Additionally, it has been reported that former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (who was the one to strike the deal with NASCAR) left a lot of potential money for Chicago on the table. New Mayor Brandon Johnson attended the race, but did not offer an immediate decision regarding next year. Instead, he pointed out that the city’s financial analysis would need to be released before they make any attempt to continue their contract with NASCAR.

Unfortunately, I believe this is going to come down to local politics instead of the actual racing product and the inaugural Chicago Street Race may become the only Chicago Street Race. Luckily, NASCAR has already proved that the street race concept works, and has been contacted by other cities about holding events in other markets in the near future. No matter what happens in the next few months regarding the decisions that will need to be made, I’m still pleased to say that NASCAR’s presence in the Windy City throughout the entire weekend blew me away.

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