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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Why NASCAR Is Spending $50 Million to Race in Downtown Chicago

  • NASCAR is finally running street races, and every part of the $50 million Chicago event has been built from scratch.
  • “This is part of our long-term strategic plan,” says NASCAR’s SVP of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy.
NASCAR Chicago Street Race

CHICAGO — Grant Park has seen its fair share of celebrations over the years.

“Chicago’s Front Yard” hosts the world-famous Lollapalooza music festival annually, serves as the start and finish of the Chicago Marathon, and has hosted championship victory parades for the Blackhawks, Bulls, and Cubs.

But it’s never seen anything like what NASCAR is bringing to town.

The promotion’s Chicago Street Race Weekend — which includes Saturday’s The Loop 121 (Xfinity Series) and Sunday’s Grant Park 220 (Cup Series) — will be the first street races in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

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“When you look at the past several years from a NASCAR fan experience perspective, we’ve really pushed ourselves,” Chicago Street Course president Julie Giese told Front Office Sports.

The city course represents a paradigm shift from the typical image of the sport: stock cars racing around an oval in a rural stadium with a homogenous demographic of spectators.

“This is part of our long-term strategic plan,” says NASCAR’s SVP of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy. “About three years ago, around the time that we had the acquisition of ISC [International Speedway Corporation ] … we put a number of initiatives in place to start to think about, ‘Hey, how do we take the sport and transcend it to the next level?’”

A crew paints the start/finish line on the road for the NASCAR Chicago Street Race Weekend.
Crews assembling the racetrack in Grant Park. Credit: Doug Greenberg/Front Office Sports

While this weekend could be daunting for drivers who aren’t used to street courses, they recognize its importance.

“We’re not just doing the same old things,” 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace told FOS. “I’m all about being different.”

A $50M Undertaking

For a business accustomed to facilities with permanent garages, stands, and racecourses, setting up the 12-turn, 2.2-mile course in Grant Park has been a complicated and expensive undertaking.

The company has some experience setting up temporary arrangements, building a quarter-mile track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash each February since 2022.

The total investment for that event was over $1 million — relatively insignificant compared to the $50 million-plus NASCAR is spending to put on the Chicago Street Race Weekend, per Giese.

Every part has been built from the ground up, from the walls and fencing to the grandstands, suites, and hospitality areas, along with food, beverage, and merchandise stands. The two-story President’s Paddock Club — a premium seating option starting at $3,015 — is situated directly over Pit Road.

“We wanted to create options that appeal to everyone,” says Kennedy. “So anything from a general-admission ticket where people can really walk around the entire park, see the drivers on the grid, go down and watch music for the festival, and really roam around, all the way up to our highest zone area.”

NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace leads Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon into turn two during the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway.
NASCAR’s future is focused on winning over new markets. Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Still, a two-day GA ticket will cost nearly $300 — a sticking point for those saying the event is inaccessible to the average consumer. For context, a fan could go to both races next weekend in the Atlanta area, for around $100.

‘Proof of Concept’

You could suggest that NASCAR was pushed to innovate by the rise in popularity of Formula 1.

NASCAR brass and sponsors reject this notion, instead attributing their new events in Chicago and L.A. to a general need to keep up with an evolving sports entertainment marketplace.

“Where I think it’s a response is the creation of experiences that fans of any sport or any entertainment property are expecting these days,” says Comcast VP of branded partnerships Matt Lederer. “The competition that they’re working against is the expectation of the fans and the experience that they expect, and not necessarily a direct response to one specific sport.”

A general view of a NASCAR sign next to Buckingham Fountain before the Chicago Street Race as smoke from Canadian wildfires obscures the skyline.
NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season comes to Chicago. Credit: Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

A street race through the heart of an urban center, including the famous Lake Shore Drive, is a good idea in theory, but ultimately worthless if the course can’t produce a good race. For reassurance, NASCAR modeled the course and tested its feasibility via iRacing in July 2021.

“If you talk to the team at the city, they would tell you that that virtual race really helped them see the opportunity to promote Chicago,” says Giese.

NASCAR and Chicago have a three-year contract in which the city receives $500,000 this year, $550,000 in 2024, and $605,000 in 2025. The city will receive $2 per ticket sold and a percentage of net commissions on concessions and merchandise sales.

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Kennedy says that during NASCAR’s decision-making process, Chicago was found to be the sport’s third-biggest market by total volume. The company staged races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet (about an hour from Chicago) for nearly two decades before deciding to move downtown.

So where does NASCAR go from here? Strong ratings on NBC’s family of channels and big crowds this weekend could make the Chicago event a permanent fixture, or inspire more street races.

“My focus is on Chicago and executing that agreement,” says Giese. “It’s not lost on me or anyone with the team here that this is a proof of concept.”

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