NASCAR hits the streets of Chicago with downtown racing

A runner jogs on a trail along the shore of Lake Michigan as the downtown skyline is seen in the background in Chicago on July 19, 2022.The Canadian Press

NASCAR will celebrate its 75th season with an unprecedented street race through downtown Chicago, marking another radical change to the once-stay schedule.

The Cup Series will compete on July 2 in the debut race of a three-year deal with the City of Chicago against a backdrop of Lake Michigan and Grant Park. The company was spearheaded by Ben Kennedy, the 30-year-old great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France.

It was Kennedy who successfully orchestrated January’s exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which will be held for the second time in 2023. Kennedy told the Associated Press he began work on both the Coliseum and the Chicago street race in 2019.

The new venues come as NASCAR has fundamentally changed its oval-heavy schedule, first adding both a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, additional street courses and now an all-new concept.

The Chicago race will be combined with an IMSA sports car race the day before, along with music and entertainment along the 2.2-mile, 12-turn road course.

“In the past we were always short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways, eventually started getting more street courses, and then came up with the Coliseum concept,” Kennedy told the AP.

“But the street circuit is something we haven’t explored that much before and the opportunity for us to create a downtown environment like his and give our fans racing, a street circuit is a perfect opportunity to do that.”

NASCAR confirmed last month that the Colosseum would return next January, but the rest of the 2023 schedule has yet to be announced. However, Kennedy confirmed to the AP that the Chicago street course will replace the Road America street course race on the Cup schedule.

Road America in Wisconsin has hosted the Cup Series on the same weekend for the past two seasons. The move to downtown Chicago keeps NASCAR a race in the Midwest region while returning to a coveted market. NASCAR held 19 cup races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, a 45-mile drive from downtown.

NASCAR had tried to generate interest in the market, even making Chicagoland the inaugural race of the playoffs in 2011. But the track was just too far from downtown to attract a new crowd, and NASCAR pulled out after the 2019 season.

The downtown course covers iconic Chicago areas including Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and South Columbia Drive, where the start/finish line and pit lane are directly in front of Buckingham Fountain. The course cuts through Grant Park and approaches the north edge of Soldier Field – site of the only other Cup Series race, held in downtown Chicago in 1956.

Kennedy said NASCAR will be the promoter, which usually means the party responsible for all costs of producing the race. He declined to discuss agreements with the City of Chicago or the Chicago Sports Commission.

“Chicago’s streets are as iconic as our skyline, and our reputation as a world-class sports city is undeniable,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “I am very excited to welcome our partners at NASCAR to Chicago for an event that will draw thousands of people to our city. Chicago’s world-class entertainment and hospitality industries, coupled with our city’s history as a channel for sports talent, make us the perfect host for this unique event.”

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