Let’s talk about NASCAR in Chicago. Many of you know that I’ve been a fan of auto racing for a long time, specifically a NASCAR fan since 2001. Formula 1 came during the late stages of college years. IMSA and some IndyCar into the 2010s. Being a NASCAR fan, Black, and existing as a Southside Chicagoan meant this journey and fandom was something not shared by hardly anyone I knew. I have been to different tracks and driven stock cars, rally models, and “high performance vehicles.” But I’ve never been to a race.
Then Chicago happened.
From the announcement of NASCAR’s first Street Race through Chicago to the rain-soaked, shortened affair, I knew I’d be there. And it was an exciting time. But several feelings have been stirred up about the event. I’ve sat with how to feel about the event, how to process the disdain from other Chicagoans, the glee taken from its possible cancelation due to historical rainfall, and what all this means going forward. So, I’m organizing this to cover my thoughts from two perspectives: A Chicagoan and a racing fan.
Chicagoan: Internally Vexed, Externally Joyous
All the enthusiasm for a race to come to Chicago proper was tempered by one basic question: At what cost?
You know or should know that sports, as an industry, are very good at presenting emotion while taking and making money. Particularly good at taking money from the public. Leveraging cities against each other to demand new stadiums, for instance, with minimal team investment. This tends to be bad business, but cities engage with it because you don’t want the Chicago Bears to be the Arlington Bears, right? Or Wrigley Field to move to the burbs without your taxpayer dollars going to new scoreboards instead of…sewer systems. All of this is to say that the terms of the deal matter. And this NASCAR deal between the Lightfoot administration and NASCAR was made quietly and has some points of concern.
We know the terms of the deal here and they are a sweet starting point for NASCAR and underwhelming for Chicagoans. We’ve seen the $113M projected gains which are certainly not going to be realized because projections are usually WAY high, despite record rains.
The Chicagoan in me that cares about a functioning city and politics shares the frustration and concern about the deal not maximizing gains for the city. Could the permit fee be higher? Yes. Could the percentage of admissions and concessions be greater? Absolutely. Of note, Chicago not getting a cut of advertising dollars is a major miss. How final costs are sorted to clean up is another point of desire. The point is the folks that are pissed about the politics of this race are right to be pissed. I share that. And having the event happen doesn’t change that.
Then there is the external Chicagoan. You all know this person because many of you share this identity. It’s the Chicagoan that loves this complicated, segregated, international city of neighborhoods with too much love to contain itself. The city that is constantly badgered by the national press and is ready to fight against any and everyone who dares to slander it. The city that annoyingly accepts deep dish pizza tropes, misunderstandings of the “Windy City” nickname, and revels in our 3 months of warm weather. It’s the city people visit and fall in love with, the city that embraces you while clowning your outfit. It’s home.
This side of me was thrilled NASCAR was here. It was a showcase for our city to a new audience of people who may subscribe to the tired stereotypes of what the city represents in the national discourse. Lost in the hesitance of Chicagoans hosting NASCAR was the resistance of many racing fans coming to the city. The old specter of danger around every turn on and off the track. And having the images of the race cradled in our beloved skyline was a perfect retort. The pride in seeing Ida B. Wells Street signs with cars flying by was excellent. National commentators, not knowing better, saying DuSable Lake Shore Drive was incredible. As a big city means, by nature, you do big stuff. That’s not to take away from the inconvenience of traffic closures and high congestion. Noise issues. Overstated worry about environmental concern from exhaust fumes, a worry certainly raised by the fireworks used from the past holiday.
Those are the costs of hosting the big stuff that defines a big city. But I started to hear and see enthusiasm as the event got closer. More people who were annoyed by the race saw the barriers and seats go up and said it looked cool. Desire to be there went through the ceiling. There wasn’t some consensus that everyone was rooting for the race to fail. There was the reality of people thinking of better uses of time and resources while proudly celebrating our city being enjoyed by a wider, mostly new audience. Having that showcase for the larger world is a welcome feature to being here.
The Racing Fan
The racing fan in me was skeptical about this weekend. New track, new discipline, and loads of nervousness. I was worried this was going to be a crash fest through the narrow 90 degree turns, minimal passing, and huge gaps between the cars. I also was unsure how this race experience would be for me. How could I follow the event when the cars go by me once every 1:28? Is there too much hype for this weekend?
The hype was exceeded and then some.
NASCAR is an evolving sport out of necessity. Twenty years ago, it was growing faster than any US sport with appeal through the roof. NASCAR jackets were seen all over Chicago and other big cities. Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon featured in songs crossing genres from rap to bluegrass. Ten years ago, NASCAR was scaling down with the boom long forgotten and the latest new normal being accepted by leadership. Now, the sport needs to grow. Confederate flags are banned at races. Most drivers come from the northeast or west coast. And Formula 1, in the matter of a pandemic, shot past NASCAR as the interesting racing series around public zeitgeist. Expansion into Miami and Las Vegas, along with its US race in Austin meant new venues and eyes are on the sport. The nation is changing, and the NASCAR audience has to change too.
A street race was unthinkable as recently as 2019. But on July 1–2, in a drenched city, there was rolling thunder down Columbus Drive. The racing was much better than anticipated with passing through the field, tricky conditions necessitating wet and standard tires. Fans climbed trees, bus stops, and surrounded any space close to the track. It was loud and bold and beautiful.
The Chicago Street Race event also helped NASCAR prove a concept to grow the sport: to get new fans, you need to mobilize them where they live. It meant not hoping they’d travel outside the main city to watch a race; build the race in the city. The detractors may be loud, but enthusiasm for the event was high everywhere. It helped to see NASCAR activations all over the city: Bubba Wallace’s Block Party on the Southside, drivers at a Cubs game, folks popping in at Chicago Park District programming, customized cars in Pilsen and Garfield Park. NASCAR blanketed the city with events and spaces to not just talk about the hype but bring the bombast of motorsport to communities. And it seemed to be received. Speaking with local media in Chicago, drivers and NASCAR officials remarked new outlets and reporters were showing up to learn about the sport. This includes more attention and coverage by Black and Brown media outlets than most any other race in the sport’s history. New places, new sources of information, new fans.
The racing fan in me loves NASCAR because oval-based racing is its own discipline and there is impressive skill in a series like this one. Adding more road races allows for people to better appreciate the wide range of skills drivers possess. Taking the sport and opening new markets means growing the audience and that’s special. The most special element of the weekend was meeting racing fans, particularly Black racing fans from Chicago. I knew they were all around me, but there was never a space to see the community come together until this weekend. Young and old, manufacturer loyalists to team homers, to find my missing community over the race week was moving.
I hope the event returns, hope the terms of the agreement change, and that NASCAR takes its street show across the country because this is how you do modern sports for modern fans.