Getting Wet and Wild With NASCAR in Chicago
There’s always a first for everything. In the case of NASCAR’s Grant Park 220, there were a lot of firsts.
It was NASCAR’s first street race ever. It was the first time Chicago has hosted a street race for a major racing series in the modern era – and while we’re on the topic of firsts, what’s billed as the first-ever American auto race took place on the streets of the city and nearby Evanston in 1895. And it was the first NASCAR victory for Shane van Gisbergen in his first-ever NASCAR start.
On a personal level, it was my first time at a NASCAR event wearing a media credential. I know TTAC doesn’t cover racing on the regular, but with a major NASCAR event taking place just 15 minutes from my house, one that wasn’t just a “normal” NASCAR race, I knew I had to cover it. Even if it meant getting soaked. The things I do for our readership…
The NASCAR race had been the subject of controversy in the time since it was announced last summer – a lot of locals were upset about a lot of things. I heard many, many complaints about the street closures, for one. Others were concerned about environmental damage or the noise from the cars. Some business owners claimed they’d have to shut down and lose a weekend’s worth of business. There were complaints about the fact that streets would be closed both well before and well after the race for event setup and take down. I even heard that there were concerns that vibrations from the cars would damage the priceless works of art at the world-famous Art Institute of Chicago.
Based on what I saw, most of those concerns were either unfounded or overblown. And the sights and sounds of NASCAR stockers blasting around Grant Park and the Loop, sometimes fishtailing through corners (even when the pavement was dry), seemed quite worth any inconvenience.
Sure, I’m biased as a semi-casual racing fan and member of the automotive media. I’m also someone who has long thought a street course in Chicago, regardless of what type of cars were running, would be cool. I remember playing a PC game (Midtown Madness maybe? I am not sure.) in the mid-‘90s that allow you to drive like an idiot in downtown Chicago – well, even more so than people do in real life.
That said, except for the biblical rains, the event seemed to go off about as well as any other big event that is held in downtown Chicago. I kept comparing it to the music festival Lollapalooza, which uses most of the same space each August, in my head. And I felt like NASCAR was no more of an inconvenience than Lolla.
Maybe less so – the race ended earlier than Lolla does each night. Lolla dumps a lot of fans, many of whom are in an altered state of mind, into the Loop right at 11 pm for three nights in a row.
Yes, the cars were loud – but the noise struck me as less annoying, at least from a distance, than I expected. I arrived mid-morning Saturday during Xfinity practice, and I could hear them as I walked to the media center in the Art Institute from the Monroe Red Line stop. I didn’t think they were much louder, from a few blocks away, than when some mook drives a souped-up muscle car with an aftermarket exhaust at a high rate of speed down DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Locals know this is not an infrequent occurrence.
The cars were, of course, much louder closer to the track, but except for the stretch that used Michigan Avenue, most of the course kept the cars away from residential buildings. I do wonder how those living in the apartments/staying in the hotels along Michigan felt about the noise, but no cars were running early in the morning or late at night, so I doubt many people had sleep disrupted.
Even during the Cup race, the sound faded when the cars were on parts of the course far from where I was standing.
As far as the street closures go, I suspect having DuSable Lake Shore shut was a pain for anyone going from the South Side to the North or vice versa, especially since the best alternative route is also under construction, but traffic didn’t seem any worse than when any other major event comes to downtown. Even with the lightning hold that eventually led to the Xfinity race being called less than halfway through, I got home in about half an hour. Not unreasonable.
The stands were full for both races, so NASCAR seemingly had no trouble drawing folks, despite the high price of tickets – $269 was the base price. Sure, that included access to two races and five concerts (including Miranda Lambert, The Black Crowes, and The Chainsmokers), but it was still dear. I’d have thought NASCAR would’ve had some cheaper general admission tickets – maybe to just one race, no concert access – to get those curious about racing to purchase a seat, but I am no pricing expert.
When I woke up Sunday, I heard thunder rumbling, but I shrugged it off – every weather prediction I’d seen suggested that the skies would clear around noon.
That, obviously, did not happen. The radar on every weather app kept pushing back the time at which the rain was supposed to stop. NASCAR had hoped to start a little after 4 pm Central, but the rain forced a 75-minute delay, and the first part of the race was run on wet pavement. The rain had mostly stopped by then, but we’d gotten so much precipitation so fast that there was standing water and slick surfaces.
Most of the concerts were canceled – I think only Lambert’s took place.
Obviously, the rain isn’t NASCAR’s or the city’s fault. I heard some grumblings about communication being a bit lacking, and again I’d love a bit more available covered space in case of rain, but for the most part, there’s not much one can do against Mother Nature. They say Father Time is undefeated, and Mother Nature is damn close.
As for environmental damage, I am no expert on what, if any, problems these cars racing could cause the local flora and fauna, but I suspect the fans do more damage to the local parks than the cars do. That’s the case every year with the Taste of Chicago, and Lollapalooza, and the marathon.
I can say that no vibrations were felt in either media room in the Art Institute. You could barely even hear the cars from there if you could hear them at all.
As for the effect on local businesses, I’d have to dig more into it. I saw one bookstore complaining on Twitter about the race and how they had no say in the event and that they were “forced to reach the decision” to close for the weekend. Personally, I’d think if I owned a business near the course, I’d have stayed open to see if I could capture tourist dollars. Their complaints about not having a say in the decision should be directed at the previous mayor, who left office in May after being voted out.
The NASCAR critics did raise some fair points – closing DuSable Lake Shore Drive is an inconvenience, no doubt. And Lori Lightfoot, the mayor who helmed this project, did apparently seem to do it without really involving the local residents, business owners, and relevant aldermen. It’s usually fair and necessary to involve local stakeholders when a major event will upend life in any neighborhood, let alone the heart of downtown, for a weekend.
Then again, Chicagoans have a history of putting their hands out, metaphorically speaking. The unofficial city motto is “Where’s Mine?” I have no doubt some of those upset that they didn’t get a say are acting in good faith. I also have no doubt that some just wanted the mayor to give them something that would make them happy – and then they’d have given NASCAR their blessing.
I think there were several factors behind the kvetching from the locals. NASCAR and racing in general aren’t super popular here, and therefore a lot of locals were more hostile towards the race than they’d be otherwise. I sure don’t remember the NFL Draft, which closed some of the same streets, getting the same hate when it was here in this football-crazy city.
I suspect there’s still a stereotyping of NASCAR as backwoods yokels whose social politics are stuck in the 1950s at play, as well. There’s also a strong anti-car sentiment in this city among some folks. People who think your Ford Fusion is evil aren’t going to be happy to see racecars sliding around the streets.
Others were just mad to have access to public parks reduced for yet another period of time during our too-short summers. Certainly, there were some unhappy displaced softball players.
Finally, I’d bet there’s festival fatigue at play. People are used to the marathon and Lollapalooza and the Taste of Chicago shutting down Grant Park in the summer. Those events have all been here for years, so people learn to plan around them. But NASCAR was new this year.
As much as I wanted to see race cars of any type – IndyCar, NASCAR, IMSA, whatever – on the streets of my city, I also shared some of the trepidation about how the race would affect life in Chicago. And again, I have my biases as a race fan and a media member who was covering the event. Along with blind spots – I can only speak to what I saw and experienced firsthand.
All that said, any doubt I had melted the first time I saw a car at full zoot sliding its way around the semi-circle off Michigan Avenue. Seeing the fans’ enthusiasm further bolstered my feelings that this race belonged here.
There will be tweaks and things to change. There needs to be better communication with the fans if the weather goes south along with more places to shelter. I’d suggest wider and/or more pedestrian bridges over the track – they were a logjam of humanity during both races.
I’m sure the actual racecar drivers have feedback about the track itself, as well.
All of these things can be addressed – except for the rain, of course.
NASCAR came to Chicago and faced skeptics, including from the ranks of its drivers. By most accounts, every aspect of the event aside from the weather exceeded expectations. More than a few drivers expressed their pleasant surprise. There’s just something about racecars that makes inconvenience – and extremely inclement weather – worth all the hassle.
[Images © 2023 Tim Healey/TTAC.com]
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