The WWEX Brands Deliver NASCAR’s First-Ever Street Race to Chicago at Supercharged Speed
June 30, 2023
CHICAGO — After months of planning, weeks of disruption and an 11th-hour push to complete the transformation of Grant Park into a pop-up NASCAR track, ready or not, the inaugural Chicago Street Race has arrived. The July Fourth weekend event is expected to draw 50,000 fans, generate nearly $114 million in economic impact and provide hours of national TV coverage to burnish Chicago's image as a gleaming lakefront tourist destination — assuming the Canadian wildfire haze dissipates. But for the city at large, and the hotels, restaurants, museums and retailers near the 2.2-mile route, there is a mix of optimism and angst over how the first street race in NASCAR's 75-year history will play out, beyond creating an unusual downtown traffic jam.
"We know that access to the Museum Campus will be more challenging, but there will also be a lot of tourists coming in for the race," said Jennifer Howell, a spokesperson for the Adler Planetarium. "Truly, we won't know until we have experienced it." Part of a three-year deal between the Chicago Park District and NASCAR, the Grant Park 220, a nationally televised Cup Series race Sunday, will feature a 12-turn, 2.2-mile course, with top drivers navigating closed-off streets lined with temporary fences, grandstands and hospitality suites. A separate Xfinity Series race is set for Saturday.
The weekend's festivities include full-length concerts headlined by Miranda Lambert, the Chainsmokers and the Black Crowes. Tickets range from $269 for two-day general admission to more than $3,000 for the premium Paddock Club overlooking the start/finish line at Buckingham Fountain. NASCAR also made available a limited number of single-day tickets in partnership with the Chicago Sports Commission. While NASCAR does not disclose ticket sales, nine sections of reserved seats were sold out as of Thursday, a spokesperson said. There are 20,000 reserved seats and 30,000 general admission tickets for the two-day event.
A NASCAR-commissioned economic impact study projects the inaugural Chicago Street Race will bring the city $113.8 million in spending, $3.2 million in tax revenue, 850 full-time equivalent jobs and 24,000 hotel room nights. Allen Sanderson, a University of Chicago sports economist, said the economic impact is likely to be about 10% of the projected total, questioning both the study's methodology and the revenue that will be lost by the disruption of the event. "If I wanted to come to Chicago for a weekend with my family to go to museums or ballgames or something, I wouldn't pick this one," Sanderson said. Early returns for the street race are promising, but some businesses have already been left behind.
The biggest beneficiary of 50,000 racegoers descending on Grant Park for July Fourth weekend may be the Chicago hotel industry, which has nearly climbed back from the depths of the pandemic, when occupancy bottomed out at 26% in 2020.
The central business district has about 150 hotels offering nearly 46,000 rooms, according to Choose Chicago, the city's tourism arm. Occupancy is expected to reach 70% this year, closing in on pre-pandemic levels. Chicago hotels are coming off a record weekend earlier this month when Taylor Swift swept into town for three sold-out shows at Soldier Field. The confluence of 60,000 Swifties per night and the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting at McCormick Place filled nearly 97% of rooms, according to Choose Chicago.
Similarly, hoteliers are expecting a pretty full house during July Fourth weekend. In addition to the NASCAR event, the city is hosting the USA Volleyball girls junior national championship at McCormick Place, which is also expected to draw 50,000 attendees. "There are a lot of hotels sold out, especially those right along the race route on Michigan Avenue," said Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.
Jacobson said hoteliers had some concerns when the NASCAR race was first announced nearly a year ago, but the mood has shifted to a more optimistic outlook as rooms fill up. The 1,218-room Sheraton Grand Chicago Riverwalk in Streeterville, which is about a mile north of the street race site, is sold out this weekend, with NASCAR business boosting demand, said Lisa Timbo, the hotel's general manager. "We expect full occupancy over the weekend, and it's demand from USA Volleyball, demand from the holiday weekend and demand from NASCAR," said Timbo, who also serves as area general manager for Marriott International. "NASCAR is absolutely having a positive effect on our occupancy."
The Museum Campus along DuSable Lake Shore Drive, at the south end of the street course, is among the areas most directly affected by the race, with alternate routes and adjusted hours of operation in place throughout the weekend. In other words, you can still get there from here, but it may take some planning and patience.
"I can't imagine that any of our local museums on the Museum Campus are really thrilled about Saturday and Sunday," Sanderson said. The Shedd Aquarium will be closed Saturday and Sunday, while the Field Museum will have reduced hours. Adler Planetarium plans to maintain normal hours throughout the weekend. All three museums are preparing for disruption. "As this is a new event for the city, none of us is entirely sure what the traffic impact will be, and we have been working to navigate potential disruptions for visitors and staff during the event," Field Museum spokesperson Bridgette Russell said in a statement.
To entice visitors, the Field Museum is offering free admission to Illinois residents during the race weekend. Those who do find their way in will be able to view the return of "The Machine Inside: Biomechanics," which was recently announced as a permanent exhibit, sponsored by NASCAR. For Shedd Aquarium, July Fourth weekend is typically one of the busiest of the year, with about 10,000 guests attending per day. The decision to close is expected to cost the Shedd Aquarium between $2 million and $3 million in revenue, but officials decided the accessibility issues warranted the move, according to a spokesperson.
Retailers and Restaurants
At Exile in Bookville, an independent bookstore fronting a closed section of South Michigan Avenue, co-owner Kristin Enola Gilbert said the street race is adversely affecting her business. Gilbert is closing her store for the weekend because of the lack of easy access and a concern that the roar of race cars will discourage customers who want to browse quietly for books. "The city sits here and tells us, "Well, what can we do to revitalize downtown? What can we do to bring businesses downtown?' and then they do something like this," Gilbert said. "We'll be able to survive because we're very conservative with our money, but it will hurt us very, very, very badly."
Gilbert said her store will not be compensated for the days it is closing because of its location outside Grant Park. As a part of the agreement with the Park District, NASCAR must compensate businesses in Grant Park that are identified as unable to operate during the event. A Tribune Freedom of Information Act request revealed seven disrupted businesses requesting a total of $133,565.
Smilin' Clyde's Hot Dogs, which has operated a cart at the corner of Columbus Drive and Monroe Street through an agreement with the Chicago Park District since 2020, is being shut down for seven days by the race. "I have no problem with NASCAR because they are reimbursing us for the time we are going to be missing," said owner Clyde Anhalt, who is seeking $3,461 from NASCAR for being displaced.
Several permanent restaurants near the racecourse expect to be busy this weekend, including Miller's Pub, the 88-year-old Loop institution on South Wabash Avenue. Andrew Gallios, co-owner of Miller's Pub, welcomed the disruption as an opportunity to lure new customers out of Grant Park and into his storied restaurant and bar. "I like noise," Gallios said. "All the quiet restaurants have "For Sale' signs in the windows. I want busy, loud. That's the kind of place we are. … I don't see any negative."
Logistics, Buildout and Breakdown
The logistics run through Worldwide Express, a Dallas-based company and NASCAR partner that has been busy delivering tire packs and 2,200 concrete barriers lining the perimeter of the racecourse. The first of the 9,500-pound barriers were dropped off in mid-June. The last were set to be delivered Friday night, after the Michigan Avenue section of the course is closed to traffic. "It should take three or four hours," said Daniel Pedowitz, a Chicago-based sales director with Worldwide Express. "We have the whole night to kind of deliver it though."
The Chicago gig included picking up 30 truckloads of Goodyear tires in Oklahoma and delivering them to the idled NASCAR-owned Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet. Installation of the finished tire packs began earlier this week. The 12-by-3 ½-foot concrete barriers were poured at Avan Precast Concrete, a 60-year-old family business in south suburban Lynwood. NASCAR placed the $2 million order in September, and the custom work began in late October, slowly at first and picking up speed as a 6-man crew got the hang of it, according to Brian VanderGenugten, who co-owns the shop with his brother.
From fall to spring, Avan churned out the barriers, completing more than 20 per day at the peak. Thousands of barriers accumulated on the 7-acre property by the time the last one was poured in May, VanderGenugten said. "It was a crazy eight months," said VanderGenugten, 56. "It took up a pretty good hunk of property."
On June 16, Worldwide Express began shuttling the barriers to the McCormick Place Truck Marshaling Yard and delivering them to the street course four at a time, a laborious process that kicked into high gear last week. The McCormick Place Truck Marshaling Yard, a 28-acre freight staging area at 31st Street and DuSable Lake Shore Drive, was one of five sites vying to become Chicago's first casino, but lost out last year to the Bally's proposal at the Freedom Center printing plant in River West.
When the Cup Series race is over Sunday night, the barriers will be taken down and relocated to The 78, the site of a 62-acre megadevelopment slated for long-vacant land in the South Loop. The 78, located south of Roosevelt Road by a rail yard and the Chicago River, also missed out on a bid to land the Chicago casino. The Discovery Partners Institute is slated to break ground on a 200,000-square-foot innovation hub at The 78 next year. The stored barriers, which are numbered to provide easier assembly next year, will not occupy the full site and will be available for use by the city during the interim, a NASCAR spokesperson said.
It's not included in the economic impact study, but one of the biggest value propositions for Chicago in the NASCAR race may be a weekend of national television exposure, culminating in a live four-hour broadcast of the Grant Park 220 beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday on NBC. Chicago will serve as a telegenic backdrop for the race, featuring the city's skyline, lakefront, Buckingham Fountain and other iconic vistas in a 100-lap loop. "The NASCAR event has the potential to do very good things for the brand of Chicago," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
Calkins said Chicago's image has been battered for several years by negative coverage around crime and other issues. If the street race goes well, it could help offset some of those negative stories, he said. Grant Park, a picturesque 300-acre urban landscape between Chicago's skyline and lakefront, will get a lot of attention. In addition to 50,000 daily racegoers, millions of viewers are expected to tune into the NBC broadcast, which will feature announcers stationed around the track for fast-paced commentary. "It's very hard to quantify exactly what that is worth," Calkins said. "But there's no way anyone related to the city could purchase that kind of airtime."
Last Sunday, NBC's coverage of the Ally 400 from Nashville, Tennessee — the network's first Cup Series race of the season — averaged more than 3.2 million viewers. Chicago was not among the top 10 rated markets for the Nashville broadcast, which took place on a traditional oval track, but the novelty factor of this weekend's urban street race is expected to make viewership inroads in the home city market and beyond.
At least one Chicago proprietor appreciates the value of the national TV time. Raynie Jackson, owner of Headrest Barbershop PC inside the Congress Plaza Hotel on South Michigan Avenue, said his excitement level was "at a 10" when he first heard about the race. But that went "down to a level two" when he learned about safety precautions that will add black gates and fences around the course, potentially obscuring the view of his business. "We were really looking forward to that, to be able to see the barbershop on the TV," Jackson said.
Net Economic Gain
Under the terms of the three-year deal totransform the Grant Park environs into a temporary racecourse, NASCAR will pay the Chicago Park District a $500,000 permit fee this year, $550,000 in 2024 and $605,000 in 2025, with an option to renew for two years. In addition, NASCAR will pay the Park District a $2 fee per admission ticket, and a 15% commission for food, beverage and merchandise concessions at the event. That includes food vendors such as Lou Malnati's, Vienna Beef and Garrett Popcorn, but excludes catering provided by Lettuce Entertain You at the premium enclosed suites. The three-year deal, however, is not written in stone.
Both NASCAR and the Park District have the option to terminate the agreement for convenience — with no penalty — by providing written notice at least 180 days before the next event. NASCAR can cancel up to 90 days before the race weekend, but would have to pay the Park District a $250,000 termination fee, according to the agreement. "We're committed to the contract terms and investing in Chicago," a NASCAR spokesperson said. "NASCAR already has invested $50 million in this debut event to put on a stellar show and put Chicago on an international stage."
While Sanderson questions forgone income — the revenue lost by the disruption — Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, touts the projected $114 million in NASCAR economic benefit as new money. She cited the Taste of Chicago, which returned to Grant Park last July as a downsized festival after a pandemic hiatus, but was bumped to a September weekend by the street race this year. Osmond said the most recent incarnation of Taste was "very modest in scale" and not a major revenue driver for the city.
"It was around Buckingham Fountain and had a very small footprint, not nearly as many vendors," Osmond said. "I don't think I saw one turkey leg." Sanderson remains skeptical, warning the risks of something going wrong at the street race — from terrorism to a couple of days of solid rain — outweigh the rewards. If Chicago "lucks out" and pulls off the event without a hitch, it will be a minor victory at best, he said. "We can smile and say we did well," Sanderson said. "I think that's as far as it goes."
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The photo included in this article was taken by Eileen T. Meslar for the Chicago Tribune.