Nascar is racing on the streets of the WindyCity in 2023.
For the first time, the Nascar Cup Series will race in downtown Chicago on July 4th weekend with the Cup race on Sunday, July 2nd. As part of the event, Nascar-owned IMSA will race the preceding day on July 1st.
The move to a street race follows Nascar’s plans to be bold with the schedule following the exhibition Busch Light Clash inside the LA Coliseum that debuted earlier this year, as well as adding dirt to the Bristol Motor Speedway short track in 2021.
The race in Chicago will be the first-ever street course Cup race for Nascar. The agreement between Nascar and the city of Chicago is for a minimum of three years showing an investment by the city and Nascar in the event.
As part of the race weekend, Nascar will include music and entertainment options making it a wide-ranging event. Entertainment artists are still being worked on, although bookings are expected soon. While total race weekend attendance is still being factored based on hospitality space and grandstands, the hope is something close to “Lollapalooza” range which can be around 100,000. Nascar officials made it clear that they have a long-term investment in the Chicago street race, no removal of trees or other key landmarks would be disturbed, and will be working after the event to return the grounds to their prior condition before returning the following year.
While many of the details for the race will be worked on over the next year, in an exclusive interview with me for Forbes, Ben Kennedy the senior VP of Racing Development and Strategy at Nascar, said the event has been in the works for around 2.5 years. A dedicated team at Nascar of around 30 people in Chicago is working on the event, with that team expected to grow significantly at the local level as the event approaches.
“Certainly there will be a lot of costs and considerable infrastructure work that will be involved on the front side,” Kennedy said. “But we wanted to make this partnership bigger than just a one-year deal. Having that two or three-year runway was crucial to us to show that this event is important and something that we’re serious about.”
“Chicago’s streets are as iconic as our skyline and our reputation as a world-class sports city is indisputable,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “I am thrilled to welcome our partners at Nascar to Chicago for an event that will attract thousands of people to our city. Chicago’s world-class entertainment and hospitality industries, coupled with our city’s history as a conduit for sports talent, make us the perfect hosts for this unique event.”
“Welcoming yet another NASCAR event to Illinois just weeks after the inaugural Enjoy Illinois 300 Cup Series race is a testament to the strength of our tourism industry from Chicago to Metro East,” said Governor JB Pritzker. “Illinois, with its longstanding tradition of innovation, is a fitting host for NASCAR’s first-ever street race, and we are thrilled to welcome this new series to America’s most iconic drive next summer.”
The 12-turn, 2.2-mile street course will run on iconic Lakeshore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and South Columbia Drive as part of the layout. The start/finish line and pit road will be located along South Columbia Drive directly in front of Buckingham Fountain. The course will also pass through Grant Park and come near Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears.
Nascar has had plenty of research done on the layout as it is the exact one used by iRacing for the street course. The scanning of the course layout took place in 2020 and use in the gaming format with simulators allowed Nascar to gain critical information. Several Nascar drivers then drove the course in simulators. Feedback from Cup drivers, as well as iRacing drivers, provided feedback on the course. Tests running it clockwise and counterclockwise were done. The layout announced today was listed with the caveat that it could change before race weekend. Kennedy mentioned that there would be a handful of runoff areas, much like you see with F1 and IndyCar, but that the course would be “tight” in locations.
The race will be run rain or shine, and Nascar’s asphalt team has already examined the circuit. At this point and has been deemed to be in good enough condition with spotty cracks and potholes needing to be addressed.
A key to making the race feasible was the Cup series moving to the NextGen (Gen-7) car, which has better ground clearance and according to drivers has worked well with road courses.
Nascar owns IMSA, and according to Kennedy, it’s unlikely that the top prototype classes would partake in the July 1st event and instead see GTD Pro and/or GTD classes involved.
Given that the Chicago street course event will be part of the 2023 points schedule, there is a casualty. While Kennedy said that the event organizers and races have been exceptional, the Road America event in Wisconsin will be dropped, although he said that returning to the road course with the Cup series is not out of the question in the future.
Back to the Chicago event, it follows a strategy that Nascar is focusing on: bringing racing inside large markets. That started with the Clash at the LA Coliseum and continues with the three-year deal for the WindyCity street race. As the Clash serves as a pilot for other stadium racing events, so too, the street race is a pilot to see how street races could work in other markets. The reason for the street race is not just about race potential; it’s about eye candy.
“The optics of the Chicago street race are going to be incredible,” says Kennedy. “I think it’s going to be a spectacle — it’s going to be one of our biggest moments of next year and, and certainly one of the biggest sporting events in our country next year. So we’re very excited about it. We know we have a ton of work ahead of us, but we have the right team and the right folks around us to be able to pull it off and make it something special.”
Tickets for the 2023 Chicago street race will be available later this year.