Chicago Street Course provides one-of-a-kind racing experience for drivers

Cars line up on pit road prior to Grant Park 220 qualifiers Friday. (Jared Ramsey/MEDILL)

By Jared Ramsey
Medill Reports

Thousands of people congregated in Grant Park over the holiday weekend, but the draw wasn’t fireworks over Lake Michigan, it was race cars flying around downtown.

The first street race in NASCAR’s history took over downtown Chicago this weekend as the world’s best drivers raced on iconic  Chicago streets best known for traditional city gridlock, like Michigan Avenue and DuSable Lake Shore Drive. It weaved between the lake and the skyscrapers, providing a completely new landscape for drivers. 

The track spanned 2.2 miles around Grant Park across Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Drive, consisting of 12 turns, seven of them 90 degrees, and a narrow entrance into pit road behind Buckingham Fountain. 

The 12 turns tripled the normal amount on a typical race track and were narrower and sharper, which led to 23 total crashes or spinouts during the race. Each turn provided a new adventure with city manhole covers, crosswalk paint and transitions from freshly-paved asphalt to beaten-down concrete and potholes on Lake Shore Drive. The course forced drivers to be patient, with speeds fluctuating between 20 mph and 150 mph due to the turns and wet, uneven pavement. 

“The changes in surface were extreme,” race winner Shane van Gisbergen said. “Like, to go from old to new, and then the concrete. I’ve never driven on concrete like that, but then when it rained, the concrete was crazy slippery for everyone. So it was quite, quite different.”

Drivers expected the course to get faster over the course of the weekend due to wear and tear, but the grip trended in the other direction from qualifying to the race because of Mother Nature. Chicago was hit with its heaviest rainfall of 2023 Saturday night into Sunday morning, leading to flash floods throughout the city. 

The Loop 121 Xfinity Series race was delayed from Saturday night then outright canceled Sunday morning after 11 straight hours of rain left over 2 inches of standing water on the track. Cole Custer, who won the Loop 121 after just 26 of a possible 55 laps, called the experience “the weirdest win of my life”. 

The track was cleared for the Grant Park 220, the Cup Series race, later on Sunday, but the wet pavement led to slower, more conservative driving to avoid sliding into barriers. The slower speeds resulted in slower lap times compared with qualifying by an average of four seconds, but it couldn’t prevent the carnage promised on the street course. There were two dozen crashes, nine caution flags and two full restarts, including a 20-car pileup on Turn 11 that turned Michigan Avenue into a parking lot. 

“We’ve been through that scenario (rain) before but adding that to an already kind of new and different atmosphere in different a circuit was a little odd,” third-place finisher Chase Elliott said. 

The turn that provided the most headaches in qualifying was Turn 4, a right-hand turn from Lake Shore Drive to Roosevelt Road. Tyler Reddick, who finished 28th, said the narrow turn, wide enough for about four cars, was anxiety-inducing each lap.

“Every single lap you’re holding your breath going through there,” Reddick said after qualifying. “So you don’t know if you’re gonna make it or not, especially when you’re pushing it.”

But the most dangerous turn on Sunday proved to be Turn 6 — a 90 degree left turn from Columbus Drive to East Balbo Drive — which accounted for nearly half of the crashes or spinouts during the race. One of the dozens who failed the turn was Reddick, who crashed into the tire barrier on lap 60 after sitting in fourth place.

“People were just locking their brakes up when it was wet, and it’s a little bumpy there as well,” fourth-place finisher Kyle Larson said. 

Larson said even though the course was one of the most challenging he’s raced on, he had a blast racing in a new place. 

“I crashed about five times this weekend, it was really tough,” Larson said. “But I think the track was really fun and a good challenge.”

The course received glowing reviews from nearly every driver despite the increased challenges on the track. Drivers praised both NASCAR and the city of Chicago repeatedly throughout the weekend for putting the event together and creating a unique track that challenged each driver.

“I think everyone was a little skeptical coming into the weekend, but NASCAR did a great job putting this together,” Custer said. “The course is such a blast to drive. It’s a lot of risk versus reward.”

For every driver besides van Gisbergen, the Chicago Street Race was their first taste of professional street racing in stock cars. But every driver already knew every single inch of the course before arriving to Chicago thanks to iRacing, a racing simulator that allows drivers to virtually tour a track from the comfort of their offices. 

“It was pretty similar to the sim,” Bubba Wallace, who finished 31st, said. “We all knew that Turn 4 and Turn 7 would be the treacherous corners and that lined up from simulation to real life.”

Drivers were quick to compliment the course after the race and are waiting to see if the event as a whole was a success which could lead to more street races in NASCAR’s future.

“I don’t know if the event overall was a success,” fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch said. “I thought that probably the race was pretty exciting there with Shane being able to drive through the field and get up towards the front and make some really good moves and make some passes. As far as racing on the streets, we did it.”

NASCAR executives were not as reluctant as Busch to declare the street race as a success. Senior Vice President of NASCAR Ben Kennedy said it was a perfect showcase for the sport outside of the rain delays. 

“The city showed up so well from the background on NBC to the energy among the fans in the city and crowd,” Kennedy said. “It was certainly a remarkable, historic weekend for us.”

Jared Ramsey is a sports media graduate student at Northwestern. You can follow him at @jared_ramsey22 on Twitter or on LinkedIn.