Credit: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 02: Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #91 Enhance Health Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course on July 02, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s historic Chicago street race buzzes through Windy City with high praise

Published On July 23, 2023 | By John Haverlin | News, Top Posts

Editor’s Note: This column can be found in the August 2023 edition of the New Mexico Motorsports Report magazine.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most memorable part of NASCAR’s inaugural Chicago Street Course race from Independence Day Weekend.

The event was historic as it was the first time the Xfinity and Cup Series ran on a street circuit through the middle of a city. It was hyped for its unique setting, and it made local residents take notice of the buzz.

About 70 percent of the spectators had never been to a NASCAR race before this event. When NASCAR was booming in popularity two decades ago and building tracks in new markets outside the Southeast, it allowed fans to see racing in rural areas on the outskirts of cities around the country. Chicago was one of those markets as it had Chicagoland Speedway built an hour away in Joliet, Illinois.

But NASCAR’s approach to attracting new fans has changed. Instead of building tracks outside the city limits, it brought the racing right into the heart of the metro area.

NASCAR first did this with its Los Angeles Clash at the Memorial Coliseum at the start of 2022, and it has done it again with the Chicago event, which was years in the making.

“If you go back two or three years of us trying to put this event together and the planning process, a lot of folks were here today that were with us from the very start in some of those early conversations,” NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Development and Strategy Ben Kennedy said. “It was neat to see them. Some of them were actually down in Victory Lane kind of taking in the moment and soaking it all in because I know NASCAR and the industry put a lot of effort in, but the city certainly put a lot of effort into this event, and it showed.”

The weekend was well-received by fans and individuals within the industry, but it almost became a huge disappointment. It was nothing NASCAR could control, though, because the torrential rain on Saturday and Sunday spoiled the ending of the Xfinity race and canceled three of the four scheduled concerts.

Chicago received seven inches of rain on Sunday, and for most of the day, the Cup race might have to be held off until Monday. Logistically, that would have pinned NASCAR in a challenging position as it would have had to pay the city additional fees to keep the track maintained for an extra day before deconstruction began. And just as it would be on any other weekend, fans who bought tickets might be unable to return for the race if it ran on a weekday.

NASCAR worked tirelessly to get the track prepared, though. The jet driers were out in full force, removing the puddles of water around the track, and the rain relented in the late afternoon, so the race got underway.

It was scheduled to be 100 laps, but due to the delay and limited daylight hours, the Grant Park 220 only logged 78 laps. But with a damp track and a few less-familiar names running at the front of the field, there was plenty of action throughout the evening.

As fascinating as the weekend was, perhaps its winner was the most exciting facet of the Cup race. Three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen qualified third and won in his NASCAR debut. It was the first time a driver won his first Cup race since 1963, when Johnny Rutherford did so in one of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500.

Van Gisbergen drove Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car, created by team owner Justin Marks to bring in talent worldwide. Kimi Raikkonen, the retired Formula 1 star who won the 2007 world championship, drove the entry at Watkins Glen last year and at Circuit of The Americas in the spring. Van Gisbergen is the second driver to run in the No. 91 Chevrolet, and he brought it to victory in its third-ever start.

“Anything is possible,” van Gisbergen said. “The fans in Australia and New Zealand, the response this week and the coverage has been — I can’t explain it. Like the response and the support I’ve got from everyone and even over here how welcoming everyone is, I can’t believe it. Dream come true.”

Despite the rain and uncertainty over how the weekend would transpire, NASCAR’s Chicago experiment succeeded. It’s not certain the race will return to the 2024 schedule, but even if it doesn’t, the opportunity to visit other cities — not just within the U.S. but across borders — is possible.

“I think we’re all confident at NASCAR that we could take the Cup Series anywhere we want,” NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell said. “I know the race we put on today would sell and would be embraced globally for sure.”

Photo credit: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – JULY 02: Shane Van Gisbergen, driver of the #91 Enhance Health Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course on July 02, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Like this Article? Share it!

About The Author

— a Long Island, New York native, is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he studied communication and journalism. Since 2013, he has covered auto racing’s various forms, including NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, IMSA, and Formula E. During his downtime, he likes to play his Les Paul guitar, hit the golf course and watch the New York Mets.

Comments are closed.