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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Breaking Down NASCAR’s Beautiful Disaster in Chicago

  • The Grant Park 220 brought in 4.795 million viewers — NBC’s most-watched NASCAR race since 2017 — and set merchandise records.
  • In his NASCAR Cup Series debut, New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen won the race.
Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #91 Enhance Health Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images via NASCAR

CHICAGO — For hours on Sunday, nothing happened on and around NASCAR’s $50-million, completely temporary Chicago Street Course.

Record rainfall drenched Grant Park to its roots, canceling the Charley Crockett and Miranda Lambert concerts for the day and putting the first-ever Grant Park 220 in jeopardy.

This was after lightning strikes on Saturday canceled The Chainsmokers’ set and caused NASCAR to unprecedentedly declare Cole Custer the winner of the Xfinity Series The Loop 121 before half the race had concluded.

But when the racing got underway Sunday, it was spectacular in every sense of the word.

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The wet conditions caused wrecks early and often, leading to nine cautions throughout the race, including crashes from Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace, and polesitter Denny Hamlin. The delayed start and many yellow flags led NASCAR to shorten the race to 75 laps due to lack of daylight.

But after an overtime period, Shane van Gisbergen emerged victorious in his Cup Series debut — the first NASCAR driver to accomplish that feat since Johnny Rutherford in 1963.

“I miss racing in the States,” said the New Zealand native and three-time Supercars Championship winner. “I’ve done Daytona four or five times now, and just the way the American people are and how they go racing, it’s so much more enjoyable.”

Trackhouse Racing brought van Gisbergen in for the Chicago race as part of Project 91 — a venture where racers from around the world compete in NASCAR a handful of times during the season; Trackhouse had previously entered 2007 Formula 1 champion Kimi Räikkönen for two races.

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“This was a shower idea,” Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks said of the project following the victory. “We’re trying to build something here where the greatest drivers in the world have a place that they can call home if they want to try NASCAR racing.”

“Being in a big city, having a big moment, but also having that international presence and a driver in a series that we have a lot of respect for… contributed to the enthusiasm you saw from the winners, and that’s contagious with the fans as well,” said NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell.

It wasn’t the prettiest racing, but there was a real sense that NASCAR, NBC Sports, and the city all wanted to get the race in Sunday instead of pushing it to Monday when, ironically, perfect conditions graced the park.

All the same, the weekend delivered: Sunday’s race averaged 4.795 million viewers on NBC — the network’s most-watched NASCAR race since 2017 and its most-streamed race ever.

It was excellent PR for both NASCAR and Chicago.

The broadcast produced absolutely stunning shots and brought in many first-time NASCAR viewers. The event also attracted many first-time attendees — as many as 70%, according to event president Julie Giese.

“This is like a giant ongoing advertisement for the city with some racing stuff mixed in,” one user said on Chicago Reddit.

A NASCAR representative also told Front Office Sports that merchandise partner Legends set a record for its highest-ever event sales (outside of the Daytona 500) since the partnership began in 2019; Legends’ average transaction value was up 29% over the previous high.

Of course, it wasn’t all positive. Increased traffic and expensive ticket prices remained sticking points among Chicagoans, and NASCAR did not comment when asked if fans would be getting refunds for the canceled concerts and shortened races.

But between the thunderous engines and the excitement surrounding cars whizzing by on some of Chicago’s most iconic streets, the buzz in the air was palpable, and the vibes were great when the rain wasn’t falling.

With two years left on the contract between Chicago and NASCAR, it builds a strong argument for the event’s future — especially if NASCAR can get dry conditions in 2024 and 2025.

“​​Certainly, this is brand new to us; this is the first time we’ve done something like this,” NASCAR SVP of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy said following the event. “We’re by no means saying that everything’s going to be perfect from day one, but you don’t know unless you try. We gave it a really good effort today, and we are certainly proud of all the work that everyone’s done.”

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