Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: Let’s Talk About the Chicago Street Course

Well, it’s finally here.

In a three- to four-year stretch filled with inaugural NASCAR Cup Series races that shook up the sport, we’ve reached arguably the biggest shaker.

The Chicago Street Course.

We got here in the span of three years.

NASCAR went from holding an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race on a hypothetical Chicago Street Course on June 2, 2021, to making the first NASCAR national series street course race a reality this weekend.

It hasn’t come without its headaches.

There’s been the complaints of locals and elected officials who weren’t happy with the deal and its expediency.

According to The Athletic: When it comes to the permit for the event, NASCAR will pay the city $500,000 this year, $550,000 in 2024 and $605,000 in 2025. Chicago will earn $2 per ticket sold, plus a percentage of net commissions on concessions and souvenirs, and there’s a $50,000 security deposit NASCAR must put down for any damages to Grant Park.

Earlier this year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who spearheaded the deal for the city, lost a re-election bid.

There’s the pearl-clutching from a certain subsect — who clearly watch one 24-hour news channel and other outlets to get their information, especially about Chicago — who believe the city is “too dangerous” to hold a NASCAR event.

Which ignores the fact that NASCAR races near or even in cities — including two of the last three Cup weekends — with worse violent crime rates than The Windy City.

And finally, NASCAR Twitter has its fair share of naysayers who, before the haulers have even arrived at the 12-turn, 2.2-mile circuit, want the throw the towel in the ring on the race itself.

They just can’t allow themselves to believe the first NASCAR Cup street course race could possibly be a success.

Hey, I get it. In real life, I’m a pessamist.

Is there little to no runoff on a track surrounded by concrete walls?

Yes.

Are there multiple blind spots and sharp 90-degree turns?

You betcha.

But there’s a problem with any inaugural race, whether it’s the Bristol Dirt Race, Nashville Superspeedway, Circuit of the Americas or Chicago.

It’s like any first date, really.

We have no idea what the racing — or the relationship — will be like until the green flag drops, or maybe even further down the road (if there are more dates).

When Nashville was added to the Cup schedule, it wasn’t the most exciting announcement.

Most people’s opinions were shaped by how the 1.33-mile oval fared when it hosted the Craftsman Truck and Xfinity series from 2001 to 2011: It hadn’t provided much that was memorable.

However, when drivers got out of their cars after practice in 2021, especially those like Brad Keselowski who had experienced the track the first time around, they seemed to be pleasantly surprised.

Now, here we are after three Cup Series visits to Nashville, and the concrete track is selling out and putting on consistently entertaining competition.

Why go into this weekend fearing the worst? Why not embrace the uncertainty?

Anything’s possible right now.

Sure, we’re only used to open-wheel races on street courses.

But nothing’s a given about NASCAR these days.

As for the race, Kyle Busch thinks the 100-lap affair will be one of “survival,” but whether there’s “action” or not will determine whether it’s succesful.

“Having a good race and story to tell about a street course,” Busch said over the weekend. “You know, I looked at the IndyCar race from Nashville the first year they did it. They had that big pileup and about blocked the track […] things like that.

“It’s not action that us drivers want to see, but fans kind of sometimes enjoy calamity. And that then turns into a social moment where they’re like, ‘Hey, check this out.’ If we’re those guys, then so be it and that’s kind of where it’ll lay.”

Very few of the competitors in Sunday’s race have ever taken part in a street course race.

But there’s at least AJ Allmendinger and Michael McDowell.

They both competed in street races in CART in the 2000s, plus McDowell has raced at Long Beach in sports cars.

The Front Row Motorsports driver isn’t really concerned about the on-track product this weekend.

“I think street courses are so much fun and just great events and opportunities to bring the race to the people,” McDowell said. “Yes, there are some challenges — no doubt there are some challenges. I think for all of us: Logistically, just figuring out the flow and routine of all the things that you probably think we wouldn’t think about […] pit lane, making changes, just planning out where you’re going to go, what happens if this happens and having a plan for those different scenarios.

“The on-track stuff, I’m not terribly concerned about. It’s very straightforward. It’s a street course with concrete barriers, 90-degree turns, bumpy, not a lot of run-off, and you can’t make any mistakes.”

McDowell predicted Sunday’s (July 2) race will be one of “calculated aggression” compared to what he’s experienced in the past.

“I think I’m fairly unique in this response,” McDowell said. “I feel like street courses are so tough by yourself, that your level of aggression is turned down, sort of automatically. Because you’re just trying to not make a mistake on your own — let alone when you’re trying to set up a pass and things like that.

McDowell then compared the Chicago course to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which has been … eventful in its NASCAR era.

“So, turn 1 at Indy: You bury it down in there, because there’s an oval, grass, access routes,” McDowell said. “But when there’s a 90-degree with a concrete barrier, you’re going to think twice about burying it down in there.

“It’s just the reality of it. Calculated aggression is going to be what wins this race.”

2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com. 

The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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Dawg

Here’s my thinking on this race. First off, I don’t think that most street courses offer as good a race as those on a purpose-built road course. But this is another specialty race & might get a pass because of it.
Road America isn’t that far away, & would in all probability put on a better race & could be rotated in W/O adding another road race.
But the quality of the race, is sometimes secondary to the number of people it attracts. And I expect this to be very well attended.

I used to live in the Chicago area & know how fierce the traffic in under normal conditions, The citizens who are being inconvenienced will be complaining long & loud to their representatives. And as noted this was put together under a previous administration, so the alderpersons won’t feel the need to defend it, & there were already rumblings about the amount of $$ being paid.

When prosecutors are building a case, they say “follow the money.” If this race is a great financial bonanza for the city, & it’s businesses, in the number of visitors it attracts. And the payouts from tickets, & concessions, then we might see a second one. But if those numbers suffer a steep decline in the second year. I doubt we’ll see a third.

Marshall

I think taking NASCAR to downtown in a big city without any connection to NASCAR (or any other motorsports event that I’m aware of) is a risky move. I think the race itself is going to be terrible given how poorly the current car has performed on road courses and how uninspired the track layout is. I also think a lot of people will be turned off by the asking price- at first I thought I was missing out by not going to NASCAR’s first street race, but then… $270 just for general admission, and I don’t even like The Chainsmokers. NASCAR should have considered doing something admittedly less flamboyant but probably more practical and cost-effective. Chicago appears to have 2 airports fairly close to downtown with public transit available, so maybe an airport race could have worked? It’s also the type of temporary event that could be tried in almost any big market NASCAR wants to explore, especially if stadium racing get boring.

John

Wreckfest coming. I’ll be surprised if half the cars are running at the end of the race–bad idea all around.

gbvette

Why did the writer feel it was necessary to add his own personal political bias to this article? While Chicago may not be the most dangerous city in the US, or even have the most murders per 100,000 residents, it still has the most total murders of any US city. Chicago had almost 700 murders last year, more than any other US city, and it was the third year in a row that they approached 700. To compare WWT, Road America or Nashville to Chicago is complete BS. WWT is is across the river and 6 or 7 miles from downtown St Louis, Road America’s an hour north of Milwaukee and the Nashville Superspeedway is 30+ miles from Nashville. By comparison, the Chicago street course is in the heart of downtown Chicago. With that many murders, people have a right to be uncomfortable with the location of the race.

I’m a big road racing fan, but I don’t like street races. I spent years crewing for a Trans Am team and have been to plenty of street races. We raced on the streets of Detroit, St Pete, Meadowlands, Dallas, Long Beach, etc and they were never great races, in my opinion. Our Trans Am cars were 700 pounds lighter and quite a bit smaller then modern Cup cars, but still struggled to pass, and just about any wreck blocked the course. I’ve seen TA cars move a “Jersey barrier”, I wonder what a 3500 pound Cup car’s going to do when it hits one?

Echo

Good points all. I took I too wondered about the authors purpose as soon as I saw the picture.

WJW Motorsports

The event only exists because of politics. I’d only respect them if they were honest and raced on the south side – but they’d need to be racing MRAPs probably if that was the case. This particular author carries the woke flag for this site – probably the first DEI hire. He, like so many others of his ilk, jumps right in with the accusations if one simply points out facts.

Last edited 10 months ago by WJW Motorsports
Kicks

Go back to using the Chicagoland Speedway 1.5 mile oval in the suburbs. It’s easier to get to, less costly tickets, free parking and the Cup cars are running quite nicely on the intermediate tracks. The street course is a made for tv hype event.

Duane

I am glad I wasn’t the only person to see the bias the writer put in the article. So his point of not worrying about being in unsafe Chicago is other cities have high crime rates. So instead of focusing on the facts of all cities should not be this dangerous. That is like saying it is OK you got robbed with a knife , just be glad it wasn’t gun.

Nascar built the sport on oval track racing. They had a track an hour from Chicago and couldn’t get people to come and see the core product. So Nascar has the bright idea to put a race on in a city that wouldn’t drive to an oval race and probably 90 % of the cities population thinks Nascar fans are rednecks. And if the race is such a great idea why the need for all the entertainment to entice people to come. It is almost like a street festival or concert with oh by the way there is race. Not the best look for the highest racing series in America.

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