Chicago appears to have absorbed the chaos that comes along with a NASCAR weekend.
Can hulking American stock cars race—and race well—on streets typically traversed by garbage trucks and limousines and taxis and city buses?
So many questions yet to be answered as NASCAR goes street racing.
And now for something completely different…
NASCAR drivers roamed the busy sidewalks of center-city Chicago Friday almost totally under the radar.
But there were NASCAR T-shirts here and there, and it was almost impossible to ignore the various “There’s a race in town” signage along city streets. Some streets already were closed as NASCAR gets ready for racing along Lake Shore Drive, Columbus Drive and other Chicago streets Saturday and Sunday.
The city appears to have absorbed the chaos that comes along with a NASCAR weekend with the same aplomb that the town that has been called the City of Big Shoulders has dealt with for any number of unusual events over the decades.
For the drivers and the teams and the fans, however, it’s as new as new gets. The reality—and it is real, despite the protests of many who have claimed since the race announcement that it would never happen—hit full-speed this week as drivers, their entourages and their car haulers arrived on site. On Friday, drivers walked the race course – practice is on Saturday—for reconnaissance.
Is it going to work? Can hulking American stock cars race—and race well—on streets typically traversed by garbage trucks and limousines and taxis and city buses?
Do drivers want this? Should there be a street race every year?
So many questions. Not many answers yet.
“At some point you just gotta go do things,” said team owner and driver Brad Keselowski. “You can talk yourself out of a lot of things. But it’s important to be fresh and new.
“The great thing is that we’ve seen this model with IndyCar and Formula 1 where you bring the race to the people. It has its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are that you’re in a city or city center, it’s easier access for people and there is a community that gets really excited. The difficult part is all the logistical things—how do you execute the race, not just as a race team but the entire sport. That can be tedious, and like any other sport, sometimes it works really well and sometimes it doesn’t.”
NASCAR continues to toss caution to the winds in its attempts to rebrand its sport and expand its landscape.
You know that approach is reaching a serious level when a Cup race can be scheduled and the drivers’ massive motorhomes—literally their homes away from home, their sanctuaries—are nowhere in sight. With no convenient space to park them for this weekend, drivers are staying in area hotels.
Ross Chastain has had Chicago breakfast burritos—culinary report, they’re good—for the past two days.
“I’m looking out all these windows (while in the Art Institute of Chicago), and I can’t see the sky, only buildings,” Chastain said. “I see a couple trees. I’m not used to that. I’m used to wide-open farm fields and two-lane roads in south Florida.
“But it’s real. It’s here. I get to be a part of it.”
Former F1 champion Jenson Button, scheduled to race Sunday for the Stewart-Haas team, knows street racing.
“I like that NASCAR is thinking outside of the box, and that we’re trying new things,” he said. “Why not? There are so many races on the calendar, and this is one of the 38 races that you guys do.... It is a big, heavy car, and I must admit when I first drove it, I thought it would soak up the bumps a lot better than it does.
“The V8 Supercars that race in Australia—they race on street courses all the time, and that’s the same kind of philosophy, the same ideas behind the car itself. We can make it work, but it’s just a limited amount of time to get the car into a working range before qualifying. The person who does will come out quickest.
“I think that’s one thing about racing in the streets here. There are a lot of new fans that come to the sport. You have to respect the people that have been a fan of this sport for decades, but you also want to bring in a new, younger fan base. This is a good way of doing that.”