At 3:59 p.m. CT on Sunday (July 2), the third floor of the Art Institute of Chicago was filled with a loud shrill.
The source of the noise, coming from numerous phones, was a National Weather Service alert informing people that a Flash Flood Warning was in effect for the area until 6:30 p.m.
As the noise ended, a loud chuckle – which said “Because of course” – rippled across the room.
It was a moment of dark humor amid what had been a dreary, wet day.
The metro area was in the final stages of a monsoon. A storm front had been cycling over the city all day like a hurricane, dumping between three and eight inches of rain across the region.
The postponed NASCAR Xfinity Series race from Saturday had been called by NASCAR, two laps from the official distance needed to complete a race. It resulted in one of the most awkward winner press conferences in recent memory, with Cole Custer having to talk about a race that hadn’t run a lap in 24 hours.
After a day of sitting around and waiting, NASCAR started going through the motions of eventually starting the Grant Park 220 at 4:05 p.m. CT.
The sound of a heavy downpour heard on the media center’s roof created a sense of unease, especially for anyone who remembers the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas.
Around 3:30 p.m. teams were starting to put wet tires on cars in the midst of the downpour.
At 3:37 p.m., polesitter Denny Hamlin tweeted pleading with NASCAR to not go through with running the race in the current conditions.
Though NASCAR never intended to start the race at 4:05.
“So I think a little confusion that was put out by some folks of, ‘I can’t believe NASCAR is going green,'” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief operating officer. “We were never going to go green under those circumstances. We wanted to get all that stuff in place so that the window we saw kind of starting at 5:00, 5:30 where we’d be able to race — we didn’t want to have to go through all the pre-race stuff if we could get that out of the way was the thinking.”
At 3:52 p.m., drivers were told they could return to their haulers.
About one minute later, a voice came across the official NASCAR radio channel, saying “This is the worst it’s been all day.”
The visuals backed it up.
Right at that moment, Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie, tweeted a picture showing a stack of four Goodyear tires on pit road.
Water was halfway up the bottom tire.
At that moment, no one in their right mind would have thought the Grant Park 220 was going to be run on Sunday, if at all.
No one would have expected drivers to be called back to their cars 50 minutes later and for the command to start engines to be given almost 20 minutes after that.
Four-and-a-half hours after that National Weather Service alert went out, a sense of doom had been replaced by one of elation, as Shane van Gisbergen celebrated his first NASCAR win in the streets of Chicago with hundreds of people.
While the good feelings were fueled by the historic win, undoubtedly it was boosted by a sense of relief.
NASCAR had done it.
Like the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum and Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track race, NASCAR took a risk, rolled the dice and largely succeeded.
The Cup Series’ first street course race was in the record books.
“We’re by no means saying that everything is going to be perfect from day one,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing development and racing strategy. “But you don’t know unless you try, and we gave it a really good effort today.”
NASCAR wanted to make some noise by bringing stock car racing to the people.
The people came, even if some had to watch from the roof of a subway station.
And the people at home watched, too.
Roughly 4.8 million watched NBC’s broadcast of the race, making it NBC’s most-watched NASCAR event since 2017.
The only race this season with higher viewership was the Daytona 500, which had about 8 million.
In Chicago alone, almost 10% of TVs were tuned to the race. That was three times the share Chicago had for the Daytona 500.
This kind of surge, albeit for a very special event, doesn’t happen this late in the season.
Sunday was a big deal with many lessons to be learned from it.
But it was a big deal that almost didn’t happen.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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