Ben Kennedy called Tuesday’s announcement that NASCAR’s Cup Series will race on the streets of Chicago next July a “monumental day” in the sport’s history.
Chicago will host Cup’s first street event on July 1-2 alongside IMSA. There will also be entertainment and music events around the race weekend to maximize the sport’s exposure in a market where NASCAR is eager to showcase the sport.
“I think a big part of it is we have a ton of fans here in Chicago,” Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy, said. “We said earlier this year when we went to L.A., (that was) the No. 1 market for NASCAR fans. This is a top three market for us, worldwide, for NASCAR fans.
“So, it was important from that perspective. Certainly, the city support has been fantastic, and to be able to do our very first street race in downtown Chicago is something that’s going to be a spectacle for fans to see.”
Chicago city mayor Lori Lightfoot has been enthusiastic about the event since initial conversations started a year ago. Lightfoot noted what a huge sports town Chicago is and believes NASCAR will gain from its presence there.
“I think it’s going to be one of the most iconic race courses maybe ever and introduce a whole new fan base to what NASCAR is about in the city of Chicago,” said Lightfoot. “We couldn’t pass up that opportunity. The fans of NASCAR, I don’t have to tell you, are broad and wide and deep, and the opportunity to really ignite our tourism with a new iconic event on the calendar was a no-miss opportunity.”
NASCAR began tweaking its Cup Series schedule recently to try new and innovative ideas. More road courses were added, dirt was put on Bristol Motor Speedway, and a temporary short track was built inside the L.A. Coliseum in February.
Kennedy continues to promise more bold ideas, but believes Chicago is the boldest yet. The 2023 race kicks off a three-year deal with the city of Chicago to run the race.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, attended Tuesday’s announcement and continues to be a supporter of the ways the NASCAR schedule has evolved.
“Chicago, the Midwest, is a huge market,” said Wilson. “We really miss racing here in Chicago. One of our biggest sales regions is just up the road here in the greater Chicago area, so we can’t wait to create some really fun engagement around this event. Obviously, the comparison was made to the L.A. Coliseum, and I think we all agree on the success that was. It is going to be an event. It is bigger than the race.
“Now, we’re all obviously holding our breath about the actual product on track. We don’t know what that’s going to look like, and I’ve heard it being compared to Monaco, which is awesome. Monaco has become pretty iconic. I’m not sure if the racing is that captivating, but we have to think bigger than just the race, and that’s why while we want to put on a show, we want to leverage this incredible market and just blow it up.”
Bubba Wallace not only attended the event but took his 23XI Racing Toyota for a drive around the city, stopping by iconic venues. Wallace likes how NASCAR continues to find ways to break away from what had become the norm, although he doesn’t envy the task NASCAR and the city of Chicago have in front of them to put the event on.
“This is a huge demographic for many walks of life, many races, just many different people,” Wallace said. “Chicagoland Speedway was about an hour from here, and this will be a totally different face tuning in. Being here in the streets, some will be here for the race, and some will be here because it’s Chicago, and there happens to be a race going on. But still, representation matters. There’s going to be a lot of kids tuning in and being here in person, being able to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, they’ll want to be a part of it in some capacity.”
The temporary course will be 2.2 miles and 12 turns. Wallace hopes NASCAR will get driver input among feedback from others on making sure the course is wide enough and can put on good racing. Watching last year’s eNASCAR event on the Chicago street course had Wallace concerned about passing zones and lanes being blocked when incidents occurred.
Kennedy said the series will do the necessary work to ensure Cup Series drivers have a quality track to compete.
“iRacing has been a tremendous partner in all of this and helping pull this course together, similar to what we did in L.A,” he said.
“They came out and scanned the [Chicago] city streets overnight and developed the course virtually. We’ve tested a handful of different configurations, we’ve run it clockwise and counterclockwise, we’ve moved pit road to different places, and ultimately ended with the course layout we have right now. So, I think the course will be great.
“There are some narrower spots, and there are also some really wide spots. When the cars head northbound down Columbus heading toward the Chicago skyline, it’s going to be seven lanes wide, and I think there’s going to be a lot of really good passing zones around the course.”