NASCAR swings for the fences on the streets of Chicago

It was 74 years and two weeks ago when NASCAR ran the first race of its Strictly Stock division, what we now know as the Cup Series. In the years since, over 2,696 races, those cars have cruised around ovals of dirt, asphalt, and concrete, across roadways, through Atlantic spray, between sand dunes, and even inside globes and soccer fields and across tarmac in New Jersey. jersey.

This weekend, though, those machines and the drivers inside them will be navigating a racetrack unlike anywhere or anyone before them. They will drive their way through the Loop Community of Chicago, the first true street track run by the world’s preeminent stock car series.

These cars are not built for this purpose. Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive were not built for them. It seems that the racers are concerned about the racing of the race and the cockpit heat produced by the special mufflers that will be affixed to the exhaust systems that will be on their cars for this race. Why? Due to complaints from quite a few Chicagoans who want to spend the weekend in Grant Park, get a little angry at the nearly 800 horses running red lights and rattling the walls all weekend, especially museum walls covered in fine art.

So, question: why are you even doing this?

Well, an answer. And it comes from a guy who knows a little bit about turning left and right in a high-end racing machine on the same streets where regular people do the same on city buses and vans.

“Why not?” He will make his second Cup Series appearance this weekend after finishing 37th on debut him in Austin on March 26. “I think it’s great that they’re willing to pull something different, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work.” It’s one race on the calendar.”

may not work. But do you know why? It may work beautifully. Like, literally pretty. Brightly colored next-gen NASCAR machines banging on doors and knocking on Columbus Avenue with the Chicago skyline in the background? This doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

“At least it would look cool, right?” said Ross Chastain, who won for the first time in 2023 last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway. “I think wanting to try something different, maybe it wasn’t easy for NASCAR, but they’ve definitely been doing it a lot lately and for the most part, yeah, it worked out.”

This readiness is still very new. Seemingly forever, the Cup Series schedule has gone to the same racetracks on the same weekends to run the same races. This isn’t a terrible way to go about your business, creating routines for fans and teams, but it’s only good when it works, and it has for a long time. Then you didn’t. Fear the NASCAR brass, who admit they threw a lot of change into their fanbase during the mid-2000s—see: the Car of Tomorrow, leaving traditional markets for new racetracks out West, an ever-changing postseason format, and even a ban Inside on Booking Country Music Acts – Moving away from the traditional schedule can seem like a history of many extremes that repeat themselves.

“Conscious change is the goal. New ideas that will get people excited, but rooted ideas that come from what made NASCAR great in the first place,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps explained during a preseason chat in his office in Daytona. “We all admit anxiety and indecision.”

When they finally got over those fears and indecision, wow, did they really get over it. Like Chastain, he rode the wall into the final turn at Martinsville last fall.

The Chicago street course is just the latest iteration amid a five-year stretch of “let’s try this” ideas that NASCAR would never have thought of not long ago.

First came the design of the course at Charlotte Motor Speedway that made “Roval” a real word. This was followed by covering Bristol Motor Speedway in the dirt. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was then moved from the oval to a road course and from August to July. The season finale turned into Phoenix after 18 years at Homestead-Miami Speedway. lights at Martinsville Speedway; add more road courses; the construction of a temporary oval inside the LA Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash season; back to the track where Chastain just won; looking back on another Nashville date at another track, the legendary fairgrounds; and the resistance piece This racing renaissance, taking the now-mobile NASCAR All-Star Race and dropping it at North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track that’s been closed for nearly three decades.

“I think on paper, it might sound like a lot, and it’s a lot,” Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., admitted in May. (SMI), owners of 11 racetracks that host Cup events, including the cores of those changes in Bristol, Charlotte, North Wilkesboro and Nashville. “But you, too, might hit it big. And for all the changes that have been made, if you really look, we’ve all worked hard to ensure that the familiar foundation is still there.”

He is not mistaken. Although some of its dates have been shuffled and at least one facility, California Speedway, will be offline in 2024, the 21 mega-tracks that hosted points-driven Cup Series races in 2019 are still on the schedule this year. And while the downtown Chicago street track is new, the market is not. Chicagoland Speedway, located in Joliet, Illinois, hosted 19 Cup Series races from 2001 to 2019.

“I think the exciting thing about what’s happening now is the enthusiasm to try things,” Smith continued, pointing to the racetrack behind him, a resurgent North Wilkesboro. “Swing for the fences. You might swing and miss a lot. But when you connect, you can connect big, too.”

Up to this point, some of these great ideas have worked. Some did not. Much of it was evidence of “necessity is the mother of invention” ideas born out of the abyss of the 2020 pandemic. It was NASCAR that returned to facilities and televisions first among all major American sports. Determined to make a full 36-race season despite the nearly 10-week darkness, Phelps and his team locked themselves in a conference room in Daytona and threw every idea against the wall. They have booked doubleheaders and midweek races. Somehow, it worked.

It also opened a door that was already broken.

“People forget now, but the 2020 schedule was already full of big changes even before the pandemic,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president of racing development and strategy, recalled earlier this spring. “Brickyard stunts and the season finale were already on the books for this season. So were the doubleheaders at Pocono Raceway and Martinsville under the spotlight. And our riskiest idea, which started in the fall of 2019.”

He’s talking about the Busch Light Collision at the Colosseum. Kennedy, then the just-promoted Vice President of Racing Development, was only 27 and less than two years old from his last start in the Xfinity Series as a driver. When he met the operators of the nearly century-old home of the Olympics and the USC Trojans, they thought he was inquiring about hosting a NASCAR collaboration event. Then he told them that he wanted to build a race track inside the football field.

“For me, that’s it. That’s it. Be bold. Why not?” says Joey Logano, who raced Kennedy nine times between the Xfinity Series and Trucks. “It’s not about trying crazy things just for the sake of trying them, but ideas that it’s going to look like NASCAR. If it doesn’t work, well, don’t do it again. But if it works, it should be all you want to want to be. Create something old-school fans care about.” , but also attract the attention of others.

The opening event at the LA Coliseum did just that. He created a preseason buzz among diehard fans and casual TV viewers suffering from a post-football hangover that was evident two weeks later during the Daytona Speedweeks. He also opened talks with other potentially unconventional venues. Like, for example, the third largest city in America in the city center.

“Chicago happened here because of what we did in Los Angeles,” Kennedy, now 31, explained in May. “The conversation about this event started almost immediately after the 2022 Busch Light Clash, and now we’re here. It’s exciting when ideas come to fruition for everyone.”

It was Kennedy’s great-grandfather, Bill France, who founded NASCAR 75 years ago and, as its first president, booked racing events wherever he could be, from long-demolished road courses to horse racing tracks and even Chicago’s Soldier Field, home of the bear. Kennedy’s grandfather, Bill France Jr., streamlined that schedule during the 1970s and established the basic calendar that the Cup Series has largely adhered to through its greatest decades of growth. His mother, Lisa France Kennedy, pioneered the creation of new markets and venues for the sport during the 1990s and 2000s, with some huge hits (see: Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway) and some huge misses (closed exploration projects in Seattle, Denver, New York). .

Now, with that DNA and a collaboration with the NASCAR Steves (Phelps and COO O’Donnell) as well as Marcus Smith and SMI, Kennedy sits in rooms full of people eager to see what’s next and to talk about big ideas. finally. Like Kennedy, though, these guys all have their own ingrained NASCAR DNA always whispering in their ears…

Kennedy says his inner voice tells him, “If it feels like a great idea and you have the means to try it, try it.” “But what makes it such a great idea for us, no matter how out of the ordinary, does it still sound like NASCAR? It needs to. Because if it strikes that balance, it’s hard to lose.”

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