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

It’s no secret that in recent years NASCAR has made some bold changes, from shaking up its schedule in new areas to introducing a 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 an opportunity to embrace those ideals while also exposing its product to a potential that new audience.

Even in the brief glimpse shown Tuesday with Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace driving his No. 23 Toyota through Grant Park and past the iconic Buckingham Fountain – places to be incorporated into the course layout – had a sense of the new and different.

Yes, NASCAR had races a few years ago at Soldier Field and about an hour away in the suburbs of Joliet, Ill., but stock cars on the streets of a major metropolitan city are definitely ahead of the curve. NASCAR’s effort to be “bold and innovative.”

“Our 75th anniversary will be a special one and there will be various activations that we will do throughout the year. Part of it will lean on our history, our roots and our tradition, where we’ve come 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 a big change and this is the big change. We’re probably the most diverse motorsports out there in terms of scheduling the different types of tracks we go to. We have superspeedways, we have intermediates, we have short tracks, we have the LA Coliseum, road courses, the dirt track at Bristol.

“This is an exclamation mark on our drivers as not only 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 want things to stay the same, or make a different choice. Some may like the idea of ​​a street course but not at the expense of losing Road America from the schedule, for example.

But NASCAR has also emphasized its willingness to think outside the box and it won’t pass up an opportunity in Chicago.

“There’s a contingent that will say that NASCAR shouldn’t be racing on a street course. I don’t agree with that,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps. “If it’s a failure – like everything else we’ve said – we’ll try something else; if it doesn’t work, we won’t come back.

“I believe it’s going to be incredible. I believe it’s going to be a great race. I believe the atmosphere around this race is going to be extraordinary and unlike any other NASCAR race ever.”

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

“If you’re thinking of parts of the country – take St. Louis. Going to St. Louis is important. Having the event at the LA Coliseum is 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’s going to replicate some of the things you saw at the Coliseum that 70 percent of the people who bought tickets have never been to a NASCAR race. New fans in this sport.

“We’ll have that here in Chicago.”

A difficult balance

However, there is a tightrope NASCAR must walk as it tries to retain longtime fans while also attracting newcomers to the sport.

Diversity efforts and moves like banning the Confederate flag from NASCAR events have raised the ire of some fans.

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

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

“We have some of the best hard-core fans, some from a long time ago. As we go along, they understand the steps we’re taking and then we get new fans who join them in supporting NASCAR. I think it’s natural and human nature, especially in today’s word, to see change as a positive thing.”

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