Drivers, Fans React Positively to NASCAR in Chicago
NASCAR's first foray into racing on the streets of downtown Chicago was met with criticism from the public and skepticism from the drivers before the race even took place. Most, if not all, of the drivers sounded a positive tune after being on track. Fans, too, seemed pretty happy with the event.
Take Nick Fornero, 30, from Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. The lifelong NASCAR fan, attending his second NASCAR race, said "I love to see this. I hope they bring it back many times."
Or Shawn Kapoor, 26, from Indianapolis. The NASCAR first-timer said he had fun, although like most folks he was annoyed by the inclement weather. He also said a malfunctioning video board was his sole complaint about the event.
Another Chicagoan and first-timer, Chris G., said the only thing he would change was the weather. The 30-year-old said he'd "definitely" come to another race in the future.
Jason Hanely from Oregon, Ohio was the only fan I spoke to with strong specific complaints, but he also said "everything has been great so far." The 38-year-old, who had his 7-year-old son Jack in tow, said the only problems were a lack of communication during the weather delays and a lack of concession stands. He also complained about delays on the pedestrian bridges -- a complaint I also heard from assembled media members. His son was happy to meet his favorite driver, Denny Hamlin, by chance.
Drivers, too, were happy. Hamlin said on Saturday that it was his "single best day at the track." Of course, Hamlin said that shortly after he won the pole for Sunday's race.
"I certainly was pessimistic when it was first announced," he said. "But obviously when you see the fans walking around here on Saturday, their excitement of just seeing a NASCAR racecar up close, taking pictures, I mean it's kinda like what we're supposed to do here."
Bubba Wallace, who hosted a party on the city's South Side a few days before the race, said "seeing the fan interaction, the fan engagement, has been really good for our team and I think, just for the sport." Wallace mentioned he wasn't being recognized as he walked down the street and he'd listen in to hear how locals perceived the race. He mentioned overhearing one family discussing the finer points of shifting and pit stops and said "that's pretty cool." He also told a story about another family that did recognize him -- and wished him luck before paying for his team's meal.
Most drivers I talked to said the trip was mostly business and that they didn't get out and do much in the way of tourist activities. Justin Haley told me he forgot his luggage back in Charlotte, so he and his fiancee hit up the local stores. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch told me that he and his wife Samantha went to the Willis Tower -- something they also did right after they got married here in Chicago.
As for the track itself, the drivers I talked to before the race generally seemed happy with it -- but that was before the rains came. Ryan Preece said he enjoyed it because it was a "constant challenge". Busch said it reminded him of Road America because it was tight but unlike Road America, there were walls on every side. Michael McDowell said: "Track's a lot of fun. Super challenging. It's everything I think we all thought it would be." He added that while he was driving, he didn't notice the skyline scenery since he too focused on what was happening in front of the car. This is a sentiment I heard echoed by other drivers.
Those conversations took place before the race. I wasn't able to track as many drivers down post-race -- I was attending the press conference with winner Shane van Gisbergen and other top finishers such as Chase Elliott. I've reached out to NASCAR to see if other drivers will chime in with their post-race thoughts, and if I can wrangle some more track talk, I will either update this post or add another.
Until then, I will leave you with van Gisbergen's thoughts on his favorite part of the track.
"From turn six onwards, and then you got to the tight, twisty technical stuff...I was quite confident through there with how close you had to be to the walls," he said. He added: "There's no bad parts to the track. It's all just character."
Spoken like a true street racer.
[Image © 2023 Tim Healey/TTAC]
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