Why the time is right for NASCAR's first street course

NASCAR will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2023 and never in its history has its premier series competed on a street course. So, why now?

It’s no secret in recent years NASCAR has made several bold changes, from shaking up its schedule with new venues to the introduction of the Next Generation car in the Cup Series.

NASCAR has also championed efforts to improve inclusion and diversity within the sport and the addition of a street course in downtown Chicago is seen as chance to embrace those ideals while also exposing its product to a potential new audience.

Even in the brief glimpse shown Tuesday with Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace driving his #23 Toyota through Grant Park and past the iconic Buckingham Fountain – areas which will be included in the course layout – there was the sense of something new and different.

Yes, NASCAR had races years ago at Soldier Field and nearly an hour away in the suburb of Joliet, Illinois, but stock cars on the streets of a major metropolitan city certainly tops NASCAR’s efforts to be “bold and innovative.”

 

“Our 75th year anniversary is going to be a special one and there are going to be different activations we do throughout the year. Part of it will be leaning back to our history, our roots and our tradition, where we came from as a sport,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing development and strategy.

“But, also, part it is, where are we going as far as the future goes? I think it’s important for us in the 2023 schedule to have one very big change and this is that big change. We were already probably the most diverse motorsports out there on scheduling the different types of tracks we go to. We’ve got superspeedways, we’ve got intermediates, we’ve got short tracks, we’ve got the L.A. Coliseum, road courses, the dirt track at Bristol.

“It’s an exclamation point on our drivers not only being the best drivers in the world but also the most versatile drivers in the world.”

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With any change, there are those who wish things stayed the same, or another choice was made. Some may like the idea of a street course but not at the expense of losing Road America from the schedule, for instance.

But NASCAR has also emphasised its willingness to think outside the box and it was not going to pass up the opportunity in Chicago.

“There is a contingent that will say NASCAR should never race on a street course. I disagree with that,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “If it’s a failure – like everything else we have said – we’re going to try something; if it doesn’t work, we won’t go back.

“I believe it’s going to be fantastic. I believe the racing is going to be good. I believe the atmosphere around this race is going to be extraordinary and unlike any other NASCAR race perhaps ever.”

NASCAR has not shied away from its desire to attract new fans and the Chicago street course offers a prime opportunity.

“If you think about parts of the country - take St. Louis. Going to St. Louis was important. Having the event at the LA Coliseum was important. I think geography and bringing our great sport to race fans is important,” Phelps said.

“If you think about this race next year, I think it will emulate some of the things you saw at the Coliseum in that 70 percent of the people who bought a ticket had never been to a NASCAR race. Brand new fans to this sport.

“We’re going to have that here in Chicago.”

A difficult balance 

Still, there is a tightrope that NASCAR must walk while trying to keep longtime fans while also enticing new ones into the sport.

It’s clear, however, NASCAR’s direction isn’t changing anytime soon.

“I think we all change,” said Mike Helton, now senior advisor to NASCAR and the sport’s former president. “If you look at your own personal life, you change over time. Your family members change over time, and you adapt.

“We’ve got some of the best hard-core fans, some from a long time ago. As we move along, they understand the moves that we’re making and then we pick up new fans who join them in support of NASCAR. I think it’s natural and in human nature, particularly in today’s word, to look at change as a positive thing.”

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