NASCAR weekend begins in Chicago with curious, excited fans and not-so-great weather

By Connor Dore and Leah Love

Though a weather delay ultimately put an early pause on the main race of the day, the highly anticipated NASCAR race weekend began Saturday with crowds of car fanatics and curious Chicagoans gathering around the Grant Park tracks to see the action.

The unprecedented street race weekend is a part of a three-year contract between NASCAR and the city, a deal made under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot that was announced a year ago.

The first-of-its-kind street course has 12 turns, seven of which are sharp, 90-degree turns. The majority of turns are to the right, making the historic track even more unique because a typical race goes around an oval-shaped track and the cars veer left.

The XFinity Series qualifying race — held before each race to determine the order each racer will start in the main race — saw multiple barrier collisions, mainly into piled-up tires placed at each sharp turn. No injuries to any of the drivers were reported.

Attendees of the XFinity Series Loop 121 Chicago Street Course swarm under the Fountain Club seating area to get a look at Pit Row and drivers speeding by on Saturday, July 1, 2023. (Andres Guerra)

Inside the festival grounds, fans enjoyed the races from various vantage points. Those inside the Fountain Club, where tickets started at $1,515, watched the cars speed by from behind glass. Meanwhile, spectators with general admission access clamored from the sparse gaps between the reserved bleachers to watch from right behind the metal fence barriers.

Many fans, especially those populating the grandstands, sported bright red noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to muffle the sound of the stock cars, which can reach over 100 decibels. All NASCAR cars are considered stock cars, identical vehicles that are mass-produced, but the races include both stock and racing cars.

Away from the noise of the track, Tony McFadden and Bernard Murray, brothers from Chicago, said they have been car fans since they were kids, so coming down to watch the inaugural race was an opportunity of a lifetime.

“When I look around, it’s more diverse than, you know, I would’ve anticipated, but I want more,” said Murray, who hopes the race will expose more young people of color to the sport.

McFadden said he is looking forward to the race’s economic impact on Chicago.

“Just think about how much money your hotels will gain, how much the restaurants will gain, how much money they will gain just from this one event,” McFadden said. Critics “don’t look at the long term, they look at the short term inconvenience. This is like a marathon, not a race. It’s a marathon. I’ll come every year if they have it.”

Outside the gates, people who couldn’t make it into the race lined up around the fenced-in barriers and sought high ground to watch the race. Some climbed trees to get a better viewing spot of the track while others were lounging in hammocks amidst the excitement.

Die-hard fans wore their favorite driver on their shirt — everyone cheered when the cars raced by.

Evan Thomas said he has been a NASCAR fan since he was a kid. He was wearing his favorite driver’s shirt, Brad Keselowski who races on Sunday. “Being here is pretty cool,” Thomas said. “It helps the city out, there are so many people here… I think it opened up a new market to people in Chicago that might like NASCAR and this be their first NASCAR event.”

Saturday’s NASCAR races brought people together and introduced many of them to a sport culture not common in American cities. It also has not been common to host NASCAR races that aren’t on a built race track, which gave the seasoned fans a new experience.

Another life-long fan, Anthony Hudson, said it was “really cool” that the race was taking place in Chicago, outside of the common, more rural settings. “It’s a totally different crowd which is really good for the sport,” Hudson said.

Butler Park was designated as the free admission area for fans, vendors and artists to enjoy the race; different detailed cars were also parked in the field to take pictures with. Next to the cars, artists from Paint The City — a company dedicated to helping and uplifting minority artists — turned a regular mustang into their own art piece. The car will go on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Once Barrett Keithley, co-founder of Paint The City, heard the big racing event was coming to Chicago he wanted to make a “conscious effort to collaborate with NASCAR.”

Keithley is focused on the artists success coming from this weekend. “I just want more opportunity for other artists that we work with to have a platform and propel them because that’s the whole mission,” he said.

Around 5 p.m., during Lap 25 of 55, officials announced that lightning was expected in the area and ordered fans to evacuate the grandstands. Soon after, a 30-minute weather delay was announced and spectators were instructed to leave the grounds and seek shelter elsewhere, while fans on their way to the festival were quickly redirected by security staff. At 6:25 p.m. the race was officially rescheduled for the next morning, and a planned post-race Chainsmokers concert was canceled.

The paused Loop 121 race is set to resume Sunday at 10 a.m., and the Grant 220 race, originally scheduled for 4:30 p.m., has been pushed to 5:00 p.m. Denny Hamlin is the poll winner from the afternoon qualifying race. He will have the first spot in tomorrow’s Cup Series race.