NASCAR’s era of experimentation and experimentation delivers an entirely new experience to Chicago. At the Monroe subway station, the journey to NASCAR’s Chicago street course begins. Up the stairs onto S Dearborn Street and around the corner, turn left onto W Monroe Street. From there, it’s a four-block walk in a straight line, and on this day at this hour, the majority of people emerging on the sidewalk are NASCAR drivers in street clothes and team members identifiable by their logoed crew shirts.
We form a small herd en route to The Art Institute of Chicago, which contains the weekend media center, and S Columbus Dr at the next intersection. This is the beginning of the Cup Series garage. The course is located down S Columbus further.
The scene and novelty of industry members gathering on foot, some with coffee shop beverages in hand, is just one moment of a historic weekend. One instance that served as a reminder of how unique the event and experience were, as well as how amazing it felt. In addition to walking, there are numerous tall structures, intermittent traffic honking, parks, and notable landmarks.
Chicago was unique and entertaining. Chicago was the exact reverse of the typical itinerary of airport, rental car, hotel, familiar restaurants, and familiar route to a racetrack that was likely not surrounded by much. It was either local conveyance or an in-course hotel. It was renters searching for their rented scooters.
I had never covered or participated in a street race before, so I had no basis for comparison and no notion what to expect in Chicago. Logistically, it was going to be different, and as Kyle Larson mentioned during his media availability, the majority of us recorded more steps on our Apple Watch in three days than ever before.
Everywhere there were masses of people. When viewed from the third-floor windows of the Art Institute, W Monroe Street was always filled with moving fans. When race vehicles were roaring through the course, people could be seen in the windows and balconies of the surrounding buildings.
It is difficult to convey the weekend’s intensity to those who were not present to experience it firsthand. Imagine a major sporting event or festival that is loud, energetic, and full of positive feelings.
The parks were crowded with people. Products shot off the shelves.
During a morning subway journey with a coworker, a vendor from one of the merchandise shops informed us that they were selling out of product after product. Given the opportunity to enter the Pit Shop (an official NASCAR merchandise tent that traverses the circuit), I was astounded by how little stock remained. It is accurate to say that vacant shelf after empty shelf exists.
The morning of the 7 a.m. trek to the track, autograph-seeking fans gathered outside the garage entrance. Some spectators who were not NASCAR aficionados but were intrigued by the spectacle asked crew members, “Are you a NASCAR driver?”
Fun. It was simply enjoyable to see and experience something new.
The course itself is quite impressive. In the same manner as the drivers and teams, I walked 2.2 miles after the event was concluded. The elevation variations, the number of grandstands throughout the course, and the proximity of the cars to spectators and buildings stood out.
The images from the Chicago street race stand on their own. It’s not something we see every week, whether it’s race spectators climbing on any solid surface to get a better view, tearing through privacy screens on fences, or a race car roaring past a downtown Chicago building or statue.
I experienced goosebumps while standing on pit road during the final few laps of the Cup Series race. Shane van Gisbergen’s improbable but enthralling victory provided even more post-race headlines, I believe, due to the combination of a fantastic weekend coming to a close, the excitement generated by the fans’ vocal support, and the weekend’s conclusion.
NASCAR, Julie Giese and her crew, as well as the city of Chicago, put on a fantastic event. It seemed to go off without a hitch, but I’m confident that in their post-event review, NASCAR officials will identify areas where they can improve for the future.
Although I’m sure not everyone in Chicago was delighted that NASCAR was in town, I felt welcome. Chicago, overall, felt like a huge deal. And the process of covering a novel and unusual event was pleasurable and straightforward.
During the weekend, during a conversation with a coworker about how things were going and how much we were enjoying ourselves, they informed me that NASCAR’s schedule was in a “mess around and discover” phase. It made me chuckle, but it is undoubtedly accurate. Some initiatives will fail, but it’s better than the industry’s copy-and-paste schedule for so long.
So, I suppose we all experimented in Chicago and discovered that it could work. And that something so novel and unique can be extremely entertaining.