While it was mission accomplished for NASCAR in Chicago, not all was smooth sailing

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 01: John Hunter Nemechek, driver of the #20 Yahoo Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Xfinity Series The Loop 121 at the Chicago Street Course on July 01, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Neither rain nor puddles, nor clouds, nor gloom of some Chicago Aldermen could keep NASCAR from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. The appointed rounds in this case being those on the 2.140-mile street course that wound its way through the streets of Chicago.

To be fair, not all the scheduled of those swift rounds were completed, but completed they were. After waiting out historic, flooding rains, NASCAR was finally able to put on a near full race late Sunday; much to the delight of thousands of damp fans who had to wait hours.

There were certainly many unknowns coming into the weekend. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago, shortly after the idea was first hatched that a street course on the streets of Chicago only existed inside a computer simulation.

In many ways it appeared that the mountain NASCAR needed to climb was insurmountable. But climb they did securing permissions from the appropriate city government agencies and the mayor, laying out the course, placating residents and local businesses and all the other logistics that go along with a NASCAR race.

All that was left to do was cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Torrential rains postponed races at the Nascar street course in Chicago, Illinois, on Sunday, July 2, 2023. Nascar is about to hit the road in Chicago for the first-ever street race in its marquee series, but for the city, the spectacle means plenty of hassle and it is likely to produce only a limited payoff. Photographer: Jim Vondruska/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The weekend started on a down note when a contractor who owns an events company setting up for the event tragically lost his life late Friday.  By Saturday morning all the barriers were in place and cars hit the street course for the first time led by the Xfinity series then the Cup series. Both series held practice and qualifying sessions and the Xfinity series took the green flag for its race later in the afternoon while a concert was going on in Grant Park situated inside the course.

The first hint that Mother Nature was upset came at lap 25, not even halfway, when lightning forced officials to stop the Xfinity race for safety. There was some confusion that ensued. Under rules from the city, Grant Park needs to be cleared during a weather alert. This led to fans being forced to leave the grounds rather than take cover somewhere near the course. At a NASCAR race at a sanctioned facility, fans are encouraged to seek shelter under the stands, or somewhere on the grounds. This clashed with the city’s rules and thousands of fans were pushed out of the area.

More lightning occurred, and with darkness approaching and fans mostly still outside the area, NASCAR rescheduled the Xfinity race for the next morning. Unfortunately, the continued lightning forced the cancellation of two of the biggest concerts of the weekend. Then overnight a local 46-year-old resident decided to bust through a barrier and drive onto the track, which was empty at the time. Chicago police arrested the man who is now facing charges, naturally.

Sunday morning didn’t bring much hope. The rain had moved in with a vengeance. It turned out to be an historic storm, one that had been predicted to move through rather quickly but instead spiraled over the city causing flooding and, in some spots, nearly a foot of water on pit road. Still enthusiastic fans draped in ponchos or simply getting wet, waited and smiled.

NASCAR was forced to call the Xfinity race complete even though it had not even reached halfway the day before. For much of the rest of the afternoon the prospects of racing on Sunday looked dim.

But the rain abated and thanks to NASCAR’s ability to race with rain tires, drivers were finally called to their cars and the race got underway nearly 90 minutes past its scheduled start time.

The more laps that ran, the drier the track became, and the more the fans appeared around the outside of the track. The race even featured a Chicago style pile up on lap 50 involving much of the back half of the field that happened as the field made the turn from Michigan Avenue onto Jackson Drive in turn 11. The harmless pileup was soon able to sort itself out but led to plenty of joking about typical Chicago traffic jams.

Due to the late start, NASCAR had to cut the race short by 25 laps due to impending darkness. But there was an overtime finish with a first-time winner from New Zealand racing in his first ever NASCAR race who celebrated the win with burnouts along Columbus drive with the city skyline shimmering in the background.

Yes, there were problems along the way, but once NASCAR was able to put its product in front of fans, many of whom had never seen a NASCAR race in person, many of the issues seemed small.

In the aftermath there were some complaints: tickets ranged from $269 to $3000, and two of the concerts advertised didn’t happen. Food and drink prices seemed extremely high with six packs of domestic beer going for $63; a single slice of pizza was $8 and a pork sandwich $12.

The biggest question lingering in the air now is will there be a next year.

NASCAR has signed a deal three-year deal with the city. The leaves two more years open. But that contract was signed by the previous mayor who was recently voted out of office. And there is a 180-day termination clause that either side can activate. In addition, several of the Chicago City council members, known as Aldermen, or Alderpersons, were very vocal in opposition to the race after the deal was signed.

The new mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, was in attendance Sunday and by all accounts liked what he saw. And of course so did the fans.

Considering what was seen for the short time NASCAR’s product was on the street Sunday, there is little doubt that NASCAR had reached the top of the mountain. Those 75 laps that were run served NASCAR’s purpose; delivering its product directly to the fans, and it did so magnificently.

Imagine if both races would have been run in full; and all the scheduled acts appeared.

There will be issues to address, fences to be mended, and lessons taught on what was learned. Ticket prices need to be addressed, and a rainout policy put in place; food and beverages need to be made more affordable, and any issues or problems raised by the city, the residents, or the local businesses need to be addressed and solved. But NASCAR needs to return to Chicago once more. The path to the top of the mountain has already been charted.

Let’s just try to keep Mother Nature from getting upset next time.

Greg Engle