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The Unknown History of Racing in Chicago

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Joshua Lipowski

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When you think motorsports, Chicago is probably not the first place that comes to mind. A somewhat surprising fact given its close proximity to cities like Indianapolis, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan. However, Chicago has a deeper history with auto racing than you may think, and has hosted racing in some pretty interesting venues.

America’s First Auto Race: Chicago to Evanston, Thanksgiving 1895

Yes, the very first auto race in the history of the United States was held in Chicago, and sponsored by the now defunct local newspaper, the Chicago Times-Herald. The race was far from a smooth show, however.

According to EnjoyIllinois.com, 83 vehicles were originally slated to enter, but only six made it to the starting grid. The race was also delayed by almost four weeks partially due to automobiles being illegal. EnjoyIllinois.com also reports that this race played a role in automobiles being legalized in Chicago.

As for the race, it was eventually held on November 28, 1895, Thanksgiving Day. Of course, weather was cold, and there was snow on the ground. The 54 mile race featured only two finishers, but auto racing in America was now a thing, albeit a long way off from what it would become through the years.

Racing at Soldier Field: 1950s

In 1924, Soldier Field, Chicago’s new multi-purpose stadium was built. Any big event that came through Chicago then and even today was and has been held at Soldier Field, from sporting events, to political rallies, to Billy Graham Crusades, to concerts, to even auto racing. During the early years of Soldier Field, the stadium was fit with a 1/4 mile track surrounding the playing field.

NASCAR in its early years held a few races at Soldier Field in 1956 and 1957. The first race was a convertible series race on June 30, 1956 won by Chicago local Tom Pistone over NASCAR star Curtis Turner.

Three weeks later, NASCAR’s top division, then known as the Grand National Division, came to Soldier Field. Fireball Roberts took the win, and NASCAR held two more convertible series races, with one more in 1956 and another in 1957.

That was the last time NASCAR held a race at Soldier Field, and, by the 1970s, the track was gone. Auto racing would have to move to a new location in Chicago.

O’Hare Stadium (1956-1968)

O’Hare Airport is now one of the busiest airports in the world, but in the 1950s, the surrounding area hosted racing. Yes, a dirt track was built just outside of O’Hare Airport.

According to Sean McNally of Journal & Topics, future NASCAR star Fred Lorenzen won at the track in 1958. The track was open from 1956 until 1968.

The race track did not have an exceptionally long life, but it did have its moment in the sun. It was a place where one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers cut his teeth, and it gave local race fans something to watch through those years.

However, following the closing of O’Hare Stadium, auto racing in Chicago sort of died off. NASCAR never really made any effort in the city for decades afterwards, until the sport expanded.

Chicago Motor Speedway (1999-2002)

While NASCAR and IndyCar were both looking to expand, many remember Chicagoland Speedway, but very few remember the first race track that was built in the Chicago area during this time. In the suburb of Cicero, Illinois, literally neighboring the City of Chicago, a 1.03 mile oval track was built by a group including Chip Ganassi.

The attempt seemingly was to get CART into the major market of Chicago before the IRL did, and they did succeed. The track opened in 1999 before the Chicagoland Speedway even broke ground.

Juan Pablo Montoya won the inaugural race there in 1999 over Dario Franchitti. NASCAR also brought the Craftsman Truck Series there in 2000 and 2001, with races won by Joe Ruttman and Scott Riggs.

Well, Chicagoland Speedway was built in 2001 and started selling out their NASCAR and IRL races. Chicago Motor Speedway had little purpose then for auto racing, and the track was closed to auto racing in 2002.

Chicagoland Speedway: 2001-2019

In 1999, NASCAR broke ground on its newest speedway, Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. The track hosted NASCAR and the IRL from its inaugural season in 2001. NASCAR would traditionally host its race in the middle of the summer, the week after the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. IndyCar would host their race late in the season in later August/early September.

NASCAR would routinely sell out, and IndyCar would have some of the closest finishes in the history of the series. In 2011, IndyCar left, but the NASCAR date moved from the middle of the summer to the opening race of the Playoffs. The Xfinity Series would still run an extra race weekend in the summer for a few years as well.

In 2018, the Cup Series date was moved back to the middle of the summer, the original date for Chicagoland. In 2019, Alex Bowman won his first career race at the track, but, global events changed the course of the track.

The global pandemic cancelled the Chicagoland race for 2020, and NASCAR revamped the schedule for 2021, leaving Chicagoland off of the schedule once again. However, NASCAR was not done with the Chicago market.

In 2023, NASCAR returns to Chicago for another first, the first ever street race in the history of NASCAR. It is interesting how all things come full circle. From the first auto race in history to the first street race in America’s premier motorsport.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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