Second City Ranks Number One With NASCAR

Alex Bowman

Young kids in race caps, groups of college-aged co-eds with colorful NASCAR t-shirts, families dressed in race gear taking in the sights and sounds. Big smiles and unmistakable enthusiasm were everywhere in Chicago’s famed Grant Park and all along the city’s famed downtown waterfront throughout the NASCAR race weekend.

Thousands showed up for “Bubba’s Block Party” hosted by NASCAR Cup Series star, 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace; so many in the crowd there enthusiastically attending their first race weekend.

The Mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, spoke at Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series pre-race drivers meeting and shared how much of a positive impact the two-year event has had on the city. He was so enthusiastic about the race he even wore a driver’s suit standing on the grid before the race – the towering, iconic skyline in the background.

All week, local Chicago newscasts led with weather reports specific to the race with the news anchors and reporters excitedly talking about sneaking over to Grant Park to watch the action themselves.

There’s a reason the Sports Business Journal proclaimed last year’s inaugural race the 2023 national sporting “Event of the Year” beating out the Super Bowl and the Las Vegas Formula One race among other big-ticket sports events.

Not even rain and a red flag delay mid-race Sunday could dampen the enthusiasm in Chicago for this weekend’s one-of-a-kind NASCAR doubleheader on the downtown streets.

Sure, Sunday’s mid-race rain delay was disappointing, but judging by the reception shown by this audience of largely new – and apparently loyal – NASCAR fans, the weekend was a win-win. Grandstands throughout the circuit were full once the race re-started.

Popular New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race and Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman dramatically took the lead – on wet weather tires no less – with eight laps remaining to claim his first win of the year and end an 80-race winless streak in Sunday’s Grant Park 165 NASCAR Cup Series race.

“From a fan perspective from where I was sitting in a dryer place, it makes for a great show,’’ Hendrick Motorsports executive and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon said.

“I thought other than just running out of time and not being able to get the full race in and having to stop, it’s a really entertaining event and I hope it does stay on the schedule. I think this is a very important race for us because as I’m walking around the city yesterday and today, I’m hearing people, say, ‘oh the NASCAR race is here.’ And you can just tell there are people that are here, even the hotels and restaurants, they know that NASCAR is here, they know a race is happening here and maybe a lot of those folks had never even watched NASCAR before.

“It’s a great way to show we are capable of racing at places like this, right here in the center of a major metropolitan city which is an important market in exposure but it’s also opening the door up to a lot of new fans. And I hope we continue to come back here and I hope we can try to experiment with some other places too.’’

It was a long but thrilling afternoon, the perfect punctuation to another weekend of well-received action. The NASCAR presence both in the city and on-track has been well-appreciated by fan and competitor.

“It’s nice to be back,’’ said reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, who finished 10th in the race. “I came up here a couple months ago promoting the race and the excitement level was through the roof. … I’m happy that you know, the city wanted us back and we decided to come back and put on even a better race than what we did last year. So it should be good.”

Blaney later said of the support shown from the city and specifically, Mayor Johnson, “He just spoke to us in the driver meeting and showed what he thinks of the event. He loves it.’’

Yes, there was some rain on Sunday but the atmosphere in the city and the racing on the track delivered all weekend.

Chicago sports stars, National Hockey League Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and former National Football League’s Chicago Bears superstar Matt Forte spent time at-track and were happy to serve as race grand marshals. And of course, longtime Chicago Bulls NBA legend Michael Jordan is co-owner of the 23XI Racing team.

Members of country music superstar Keith Urban’s band – one of four major musical acts that played trackside over the weekend – spent Sunday’s rain delay sitting on A.J. Allmendinger’s pit box.

“I came around yesterday and got to see all the behind-the-scenes on the track and a lot of work that goes into that to set that up in the middle of a city,’’ Forte said. “That’s a big production. So, to see everybody walk around and enjoying the event and all the other activations set up I think are great for the city.’’

The Chicago weekend was a must-see event for Wisconsin’s Mike and Rhonda Battuello, who can check off the Chicago track and have now proudly attended races at all but four NASCAR venues.

“The place is freaking awesome, unlike any other track we’ve ever been to, just a crazy experience downtown. It’s amazing,’’ Mike Battuello said.

The weather may not have been ideal all weekend, but judging by the fans who turned out – and stayed out, the Chicago Street Race has been a welcome addition to both the city and the sport.

“I’ve gone to a lot of races and this is so unique in so many ways,’’ said Jack Brinson, 29, who travelled from Atlanta to attend the Chicago race.

“The energy has been great. And it’s been nice seeing the interest in the sport, alone, and seeing it grow like it has. This weekend is an example of that.’’

TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!

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