Rain dampens NASCAR's Chicago Street Race again, but forecast isn't so dreary

CHICAGO — As a candidate in early 2023, Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson was noncommittal about whether he would embrace the downtown NASCAR street race he inherited from the previous administration. With significant opposition to NASCAR’s inaugural event last July, which had drawn grumbles over road closures and the lack of park access for residents, Johnson struck a wait-and-see tone — even after the race took place.

But Johnson, along with many Chicagoans, now appears to have been won over. He not only attended Sunday’s second edition of the Chicago Street Race, but praised NASCAR’s community outreach efforts for creating unity.

“To see the diversity and the makeup in this room, you cannot tell me what’s not possible — not just for this city, but for this country,” Johnson said during brief remarks to the NASCAR Cup Series drivers during their pre-race meeting. “And who would have thought the sport of NASCAR could bring this country together?”

Johnson was later seen wearing a blue NASCAR firesuit on pit road while preparing to take a lap around the 2.2-mile circuit in the pace car. But while the mayor has clearly embraced NASCAR’s presence in the city, an even more powerful force than Chicago politicians has not: Mother Nature.

Last year’s inaugural weekend saw torrential rain and minor flooding, which forced NASCAR to shorten both of its races and cancel three of the four concert headliners for what had been billed as a music-and-racing festival. And despite only a 10 percent chance of rain this year, showers arrived Sunday just before the scheduled green flag and later caused a long delay when heavier precipitation made the track too unsafe.

The downpours once again cost NASCAR an unimpeded opportunity to showcase its racing to potential new fans, which has been the primary intention of the event. Thousands of people could be seen streaming out of the event gates during the delay, and only 128 miles of the scheduled 165 were completed before the race was ended due to darkness.

Most NASCAR races are held on ovals, and a significant number of those are located well outside city centers. The Chicago concept, similar to what Formula One does on streets around the globe, was NASCAR’s attempt at bringing its product directly to the people. The course incorporates famous roads like Michigan Ave. and DuSable Lake Shore Dr., winding through Grant Park in view of Chicago’s world-renowned museums on Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, the festival’s concerts are held on the same main stage as Lollapalooza, and this year featured notable acts like The Black Keys and Keith Urban. Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy also performed, and NASCAR held a showcase celebration for the 40th anniversary of house music. When NASCAR drivers were brought out for an appearance in front of a smaller-than-expected but enthusiastic crowd prior to The Chainsmokers’ concert on Saturday night, the majority of people raised their hands when asked if they were attending their first NASCAR race.

That is consistent with NASCAR’s own data, which showed approximately 60 percent of ticket buyers for the second edition of the street race had never previously purchased a NASCAR ticket. Chicago Street Race president Julie Giese said 85 percent of buyers were at their first NASCAR race in 2023, but had hoped the number would decline somewhat for Year 2.

“This event is about introducing our sport to a new audience, but I want the people who attended last year to return because they had a great time,” she said.

Giese said roughly half of the fans are locals, while others traveled internationally to reach the event; ticket buyers represented 23 different countries this year, up from 15 in 2023. But tickets are priced at a significantly higher rate than most NASCAR races to offset the extreme costs (NASCAR reported spending more than $50 million on last year’s race), which can discourage some traditional fans from picking Chicago over another track. And getting non-NASCAR fans to take a chance on the event relies heavily on the concert lineup, Gen Z-friendly atmosphere and high-end hospitality options, which are much more similar to F1 than the typical NASCAR offerings.

NASCAR Chicago Street Race

Fans watch through a fence during NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race. NASCAR said 60 percent of ticket buyers for Sunday’s race were first-time attendees. (James Gilbert / Getty Images)

But despite the weather, those who attended have been enthusiastic. Last year, even two friends of NASCAR driver Chase Elliott told him they wanted to attend the inaugural race. They had been to some of Elliott’s other races, of course, but were intrigued by an event decidedly outside the NASCAR norm.

Their reaction?

“‘Man, best race on the schedule. Most fun we’ve ever had at a race,’” Elliott recalled this weekend. “You’ve got to listen to that, because they’re not here every week. And when they do come in, they want to have a fun experience. This gave them that.”

Instead of staying in their motorhomes parked in the infield at a normal track, all of the drivers stayed at nearby hotels and walked across Michigan Ave. to the course entrance. Sporting backpacks and street clothes, they blended into the crowd and were able to move around mostly unnoticed by the typical citygoers and tourists walking past The Art Institute of Chicago or flocking to “The Bean” nearby.

Daytona 500 winner William Byron, for example, said Saturday he walked to the track without a single fan interaction. Drivers embraced their relative anonymity not out of convenience, but as a reminder of why the Chicago race exists.

“Curiosity is going to get the best of everybody,” two-time NASCAR champion Joey Logano said. “(People in the city) are going to come over here and want to see what’s going on. Even last year, you think about the people who were trying to peek through the fence. They didn’t have a ticket, but they’re trying to look through the fence to see the race cars like, ‘What’s going on here?’

“What’s bad about that? Nothing.”

While the original thought was Chicago could serve as a test for future NASCAR street races in other cities — whether in this country or overseas — drivers are not eager to move elsewhere just yet. Michael McDowell, a road racer who drove a White Sox car on Sunday, said Chicago could become “one of those iconic street races” a decade from now if the event continues.

NASCAR and Chicago have a three-year agreement, but there are opt-out options. There is also an option for a two-year extension after Year 3. So will the race return again in 2025? There’s nothing to indicate otherwise at the moment, especially given the mayor’s enthusiasm after the city reworked its deal to get more money and saw NASCAR shave six days off the track build.

And Elliott, who acknowledged he’s not a city guy but enjoys Chicago, cautioned the NASCAR industry about believing it would be easy to replicate what the Windy City has offered so far — particularly in terms of the racing itself.

“The course and the part of town that it’s in and having access to the park and everything right here is really nice, and it gave us an opportunity to have a really proper racetrack,” he said. “You’re going to struggle to have this quality of a circuit in a lot of other cities if you were to do something like this.”

And, after two years, no one has yet to see what exactly that quality could truly be in a full-distance Cup race without rain.



Alex Bowman, after Chicago Street Race win, can finally enjoy that bourbon

(Top photo of Sunday’s Chicago Street Race: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

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