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What if The Chicago Street Race Succeeds?

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Joshua Lipowski

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The Chicago Street Race is only a few days away, and some hard data is starting to come in about the race. Adam Stern released two tweets which help measure how this race is appealing to the local market. First, he noted that 70% of ticket buyers for this weekend will be attending their first NASCAR race.

Stern called the race “High-stakes”, and for good reason. It’s a race in a market that seemed to fall well out of love with the sport over the previous decade. It’s also a race in which local opinion is split on a race in the downtown of their city.

Many people are wondering whether or not this race will succeed or fail, which is an impossible question to answer, but what happens in either of these scenarios? While the obvious answer to if the event fails is that this race will never be run again, then what if it succeeds?

The success of this event could have a major impact on NASCAR both locally and across the country.

The Race Could Become a Crown Jewel

Pretty much every major market in the United States has hosted an auto race on its city streets at some point. Long Beach serves the Southern California area, and it is the biggest street race in the United States. New York hosted a Formula E race in the Borough of Brooklyn between 2017 and 2022, and they have flirted with F1 or IndyCar multiple times in the past.

Back in in the 1980s and 1990s when F1 was searching for its footing in the U.S., races were held on the streets of Detroit, Dallas, and Las Vegas. IndyCar has hosted races in places such as Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit, and Nashville.

Chicago has been noticeably absent. No street race has ever been held in Chicago, save for the 1895 Chicago to Evanston race. This is both a blessing and a curse for NASCAR.

On one hand, this is a totally original street circuit in a market that has never hosted an event like this before, meaning NASCAR can claim this race as their own original idea. F1 cannot claim that about Monaco, since that race existed two decades before F1 existed. IndyCar cannot say that about Long Beach because Long Beach is a race that has been staged by multiple series.

Imagine if this race succeeds, and it begins to run for seven, eight, nine, 10 years. Especially if NASCAR runs more street races, this race can start its’ own brand as the “Original NASCAR Street Race.” That is a recipe for NASCAR’s newest “Crown Jewel” race if this race succeeds.

The downside is obviously that a street race has never been held in Chicago for a reason. Whether its the apathy of the market, the existence of other race tracks, or whatever it is. There is a reason this market has not worked before.

The Race Could Attract a Newer and Younger Audience

The most eye-popping statistic Stern reported is that more than half of those polled between the ages of 18-34 and 4 of 10 people of color are “interested” in attending the race. Long story short, NASCAR seems to have the attention of that key demographic they have seemingly been losing touch with.

If the race succeeds, with multiple young people attending or watching on television, it could open NASCAR up to an entirely new audience. Now, NASCAR cannot and should not totally abandon its core fanbase, but it can’t pitch its tents there either. NASCAR has to be able to adapt their product to a modern audience for it to be sustainable.

I echo what Eric Estepp said about the Chicago Street Race in a recent Out of the Groove episode.

North Wilkesboro was brought back for the longtime, traditional, NASCAR fan. Chicago is for the mainstream. It is. NASCAR is just covering both of its’ bases in my opinion.

Eric Estepp

NASCAR is working to do a better job these days of appealing to its core audience while also growing the sport. This Street Race is just one brand new event in NASCAR trying to grow the sport more. If it succeeds, then you can sell a super exciting superspeedway-type race at Atlanta the following week, a short track race at New Hampshire the next, and a race at the Tricky Triangle the week after.

Younger fans are liking the concept of this race. The job now is to get them to fall in love with the sport as a whole, and successful event in Chicago this weekend can do that.

NASCAR May Start Looking at Other Street Races

One of the things that the Chicago Street Race does well is that it brings NASCAR to the people. As opposed to driving 45 minutes to an hour outside of the city to attend a race, people have it right in their backyard. If this race succeeds, then NASCAR will want to do this in other markets as well, but which markets could they look at?

New York

NASCAR has never hosted a race in the New York City Metropolitan area. The closest NASCAR currently races to New York is two hours away at Pocono Raceway. Steve O’Donnell said before the season started that NASCAR was considering a race in New York City. This likely depends on how Chicago turns out, but what if NASCAR could put itself in or near New York City?

Detroit

IndyCar is now on the streets of Detroit, and Roger Penske currently owns a NASCAR team. Imagine how the OEM’s would love a race in the heart of the motor city. Currently, Michigan International Speedway sits about 90 miles outside of Detroit, and it is now down to one race per year.

Los Angeles

NASCAR’s future in Los Angeles is a shaky one. Auto Club Speedway is in the midst of being renovated, and it will be at least one season before NASCAR can go back there. They have already hosted a race at the Coliseum, why not a street race in Los Angeles?

A successful street race means that NASCAR has far more leverage to put together a pitch for a race in other cities. This could be huge for getting NASCAR into the large markets that has eluded them for years.

What Does it Mean for Chicagoland Speedway?

This is a strange question to answer. If the race fails, then NASCAR may be compelled to go back to Chicagoland to find some way to honor the three-year contract they have with the city. But, would the local market scalded by a failure of a street race support it? If the race succeeds, then what is the point of going back to Chicagoland if you can just race in the city limits of Chicago?

Unfortunately, I do not see any scenario in which anything works out well for Chicagoland Speedway. NASCAR is still staging events at the facility, as they recently held an NHRA event at the nearby Route 66 Raceway, and an SMX race is being hosted at Chicagoland Speedway this September. This is the first time really any action has been at the property since the pandemic.

It’s not out of the question that NASCAR is viewing Chicagoland as a contingency if the street race fails, but, it’s also hard to see that scenario working out to where the local market fills the grandstands again. Long story short, Chicagoland is probably not in a great situation. Either the race succeeds and the track is obsolete, or the race fails and the track has to deal with a potentially scorned market.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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