When NASCAR drivers get behind the wheel at this summer’s race in Chicago, it will be a sharp detour from the oval speedways where they normally compete.
Instead, they will roar through the twists and turns of Grant Park and down stretches of DuSable Lake Shore Drive on the first street course in NASCAR’s 75-year history.
The Chicago Street Race, which is expected to draw 100,000 attendees during July Fourth weekend, promises to be a potential tourism boon for the city, but the event could be even more pivotal for NASCAR.
Faced with declining ratings, dwindling attendance and growing domestic competition from the Formula 1 international racing series, which offers several urban street courses, NASCAR is seeking new roads to build its fan base.
“NASCAR needs to compete now with a very sophisticated Formula 1, at least here in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant. “They need to up their game, and the Chicago Street Race is one example of doing that.”
NASCAR is also looking to expand beyond its Southern roots, and the Chicago Street Race could help the racing organization make inroads in Northern urban markets, Ganis said.
Julie Giese, president of the Chicago Street Race, said 71% of tickets to the Chicago event have been purchased by customers new to the NASCAR database. Tickets have been sold in 48 states and 12 countries, with almost 40% coming from outside of the Chicago area, she said.
“The Chicago Street Race is about expanding our audience in a key market for NASCAR,” Giese said.
But whether or not a successful race in Chicago is enough to rejuvenate NASCAR remains to be seen.
Victor Matheson, a sports economics professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said the Chicago Street Race will make for interesting viewing, but it may not solve all of NASCAR’s problems, and it could create some for the city.
“There’s nothing guaranteeing that going to a street race rather than an oval is going to help your numbers,” Matheson said.
NASCAR held its first race on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1948, spawning banked oval tracks across the south that made stock car racing a rabid regional sport. In 1979, CBS televised the first flag-to-flag live coverage of the Daytona 500, elevating NASCAR to national prominence and making star drivers such as Richard Petty a household name.
While national TV contracts, geographic expansion and increasingly sophisticated 200 mph race cars fueled growth, adding tracks in places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, half of NASCAR races still take place in the Southeast.
The stock car circuit has also seen declining attendance since peaking two decades ago. NASCAR even removed seats at some tracks so that events look less empty on TV.
NASCAR, which became a private company upon completion of its $2 billion merger with International Speedway Corp. in 2019, does not disclose attendance figures, but it has sold out only three of its 15 Cup Series races this year, a spokesperson said.
NASCAR is nearing the final lap of a 10-year, $8.2 billion TV rights deal with Fox and NBC that is set to expire at the end of the 2024 season. Ratings this year are averaging 3.54 million viewers, down from 4.19 million in 2022, according to Nielsen.
As NASCAR’s growth has stalled, fortunes have begun to rise for European-bred Formula 1, which features sleek 200 mph open-wheeled cars in two dozen races held in places like Monaco, Azerbaijan and, increasingly, the United States.
In 2017, Colorado-based Liberty Media bought the racing organization for $4.4 billion and installed former Fox executive Chase Carey as CEO. A new TV contract with ESPN and a 2019 Netflix documentary series called “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” helped generate surging interest among younger fans and big ratings for Formula 1 race broadcasts.
This year, Formula 1 will host three U.S. races, including an inaugural street course on the Las Vegas Strip in November, an October race in Austin, Texas, and the second annual Miami Grand Prix, which recently drew 270,000 attendees for its glitzy three-day event.
On Sunday, the Miami Grand Prix aired simultaneously with NASCAR’s AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway, offering channel-flipping viewers a sneak peak of the racing mashup coming to Chicago.
While winged F1 race cars sliced through a 19-turn, 3.4-mile course in front of celebrity-packed grandstands, suites and trackside cabanas, souped-up stock cars ran 267 laps around a 1.5-mile banked oval for die-hard NASCAR fans in the heartland.
It was a pretty close race for TV ratings.
Nearly 1.65 million viewers watched Formula 1 leader Max Verstappen win his third race of the season in Miami on ABC, while about 2.35 million viewers saw NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin notch his first victory this year in Kansas City, Missouri, on Fox, according to Nielsen.
Beyond the TV ratings, the fledgling F1 events in the U.S. have drawn huge crowds, something NASCAR hopes to duplicate for the Chicago Street Race.
“Each event has become a happening,” Ganis said. “It’s not quite the Super Bowl, but it’s really big.”
Thinking outside the oval with the Chicago Street Race could be transformative for NASCAR, Ganis said.
But Matheson isn’t so sure.
Matheson said the NASCAR brand still carries a “Southern redneck” stigma that can be “a little bit toxic” in blue markets like Chicago. A Formula 1 race can better span the red/blue divide with both fast cars and European sensibilities, he said.
As street races gain traction in the U.S., Matheson questioned whether attendance will wane when the novelty wears off. Enthusiastic boosters may also be discounting collateral economic damage, he said.
“The big problem with any sort of open road race is that it’s wildly disruptive,” Matheson said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be in downtown Chicago if they closed down the Loop to do that one race. You might get some racing fans, but what are you chasing away from that activity at the same time?”
NASCAR’s previous foray into Chicago does not necessarily bode well, Matheson said. He pointed to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, which began hosting Cup Series races when it opened in 2001, but has been idled since NASCAR acquired the 1.5-mile oval in 2019.
The Grant Park 220, a televised Cup Series race on July 2, will feature a 12-turn, 2.2-mile course, with NASCAR drivers navigating closed-off streets lined with temporary fences, grandstands and hospitality suites. Speeds may top 100 miles per hour on straightaways, with slowdowns at turns and traffic bottlenecks, according to the race website.
A separate Xfinity Series race is set for July 1. The weekend’s festivities include full-length concerts headlined by Miranda Lambert, the Chainsmokers and the Black Crowes.
NASCAR is investing $50 million in the event, which is expected to pack Chicago hotels with out-of-town visitors and fill the city’s tax coffers with millions in revenue.
Giese declined to disclose ticket sales, but said the event was on track to meet its goals.
“We are pleased with where we’re at from a sales perspective,” said Giese, 45.
Under the terms of a three-year deal to transform the Grant Park environs into a temporary racecourse, NASCAR will pay the Chicago Park District a $500,000 permit fee this year, $550,000 in 2024 and $605,000 in 2025, with an option to renew for two years.
In addition, NASCAR will pay the Park District a $2 fee per admission ticket, and an escalating commission for food, beverage and merchandise sold at the event.
The course will start on Columbus Drive in front of Buckingham Fountain, taking in stretches of DuSable Lake Shore Drive and South Michigan Avenue as it winds around Grant Park. Grandstands, suites and clubhouses will spring up across the northern half of the course, while general admission will allow ticket holders to roam trackside at Hutchinson Field on the southern end.
Tickets range from $269 for two-day general admission to $3,000 for premium hospitality suites perched above the pit road at the Buckingham Fountain start/finish line. Several sections of reserved seats are already sold out, according to the race website.
“A big objective for us with this event is to drive tourism to the city of Chicago and based on ticket sales, we’re seeing that happening, and I would expect those numbers to continue to grow,” Giese said.
The largest external markets for ticket sales have been New York, Charlotte, Orlando and Detroit, said Giese, who did not directly respond to a question about Formula 1 competition.
A study commissioned by NASCAR and conducted by CSL, a Texas-based sports and entertainment consulting firm, projects nearly $114 million in total economic impact from the inaugural event, including 24,000 hotel room nights in Chicago.
The event is projected to generate nearly $9 million in tax revenue, including $3.2 million for the city, according to the CSL study.
Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism arm, is looking to the street race to boost Chicago as a travel destination, and burnish the city’s image, which has been battered by pandemic disruption and the perception of rising crime.
“This is a chance to show that we can do large events safely, successfully, and really showcase the city to the world,” Osmond said.
Chicago, which was selected last month to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention, could use some wins. The city, which had 61 million visitors in 2019, is slowly “clawing back” to pre-pandemic levels, with 54 million visitors projected this year, Osmond said.
Osmond said some hoteliers are already seeing a perceptible bump from the street race for July Fourth weekend, particularly among operators located near the racecourse.
Beyond the direct economic impact, Osmond said the NBC broadcast will serve as a three-hour commercial for Chicago, with the city’s skyline, lakefront and Museum Campus providing a telegenic backdrop to the street race.
“This event shows the beauty of our city,” Osmond said. “We’re having a huge advertisement for the city of Chicago.”
Adding a layer of difficulty, NASCAR must also build the actual course, a process that is well underway. That includes 2,000 concrete barriers being poured in a Chicago-area facility, and tire packs being put together at the idled Chicagoland Speedway, which may also serve as a staging area for the race teams, Giese said.
The Paddock Club, a premium two-level elevated deck overlooking the start/finish line, was custom-built in Germany and will arrive in Chicago in the next few weeks. Rented fencing and grandstands are also on their way, Giese said.
In a plan finalized with the city last month, traffic closures will begin with parking restrictions on June 2, followed by road closures in the weeks leading up to the race weekend.
“You’ll start to see barriers go into place starting around June 17,” Giese said. “The larger structures will really start to take shape a couple of weeks prior to the event.”
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
Another potential bump in the road for NASCAR is Chicago’s mayoral transition. The three-year deal was struck with outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but when the green flag drops, Brandon Johnson will be in charge.
Giese said the appointment of Rich Guidice, the former head of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, as Johnson’s chief of staff should ease the transition.
“Rich has been heavily involved in the planning up to this point with us through his role at OEMC,” Giese said. “So we’re just looking forward to working with the new administration to execute this event.”
A Wisconsin native who previously headed the Phoenix Raceway, Giese opened the NASCAR Chicago office in November. She has since hired 15 full-time employees, whose efforts have netted McDonald’s and Blue Cross as promotional partners for the Chicago event.
While marketing and ticket sales are expected to accelerate as the event draws closer, the results of NASCAR’s Chicago experiment won’t be evident until the race plays out live on national TV.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” Giese said. “We’re really looking forward to it.”