With a cluster of high-rises as his backdrop, in the heart of downtown Chicago, Bubba Wallace sat on a stage in a panel among the biggest decision-makers NASCAR and the city of Chicago had to offer.
And he helped sell what his sport could one day be.
NASCAR announced Tuesday that the stock car racing’s first street race was coming to Chicago in July 2023. For the first time, drivers will soon maneuver through the most iconic parts of the third-largest market in the US — making the sport more accessible to city -dwellers than ever before and doing something it’s never done.
“NASCAR’s trending upward, right?” Wallace said with a smile on Tuesday. “(I’ve talked) with NASCAR, and they’re happy with the results from the Clash and excited to do bigger and better things.”
He added that bringing the sport to bigger markets is always a plus for the sport. “And this is a great way for the sport to keep trending upwards,” Wallace said.
The announcement is an innovative notch in NASCAR’s belt — one of many in recent years, from social justice initiatives, to new scheduling and more. NASCAR leaders mentioned that a lot on Tuesday.
But Tuesday’s announcement was different, and it was different in a way that appeared to acknowledge a different motorsport that has been rapidly growing in popularity in the US
Formula 1 racing is among the fastest growing sports in the US Per Yahoo!. ESPN’s networks averaged 930,000 viewers for F1 races in 2021 after scoring an average audience of 608,000 viewers in 2020. Its audiences are young and international, and the sport has grown in the US by taking over metropolises for weekends, showing off its open-wheeled cars on the streets.
Austin and Miami have hosted F1 races in the past year, with the United State Grand Prix returning to Circuit of The Americas in Texas in October.
Is this what NASCAR is trying to emulate in Chicago?
“We’re continuing to be innovative in a ton of different areas,” NASCAR vice president of racing and development Ben Kennedy said, “whether it’s the Next Gen cars sitting over there, the schedule, what we’re doing for the DEI perspective , the list really goes on and on. It’s great to see the success that Formula 1 has. But we have our own goals and initiatives in continuing to grow the sport.”
NASCAR President Steve Phelps echoed Kennedy’s sentiment.
“This has been in the works for a long time,” Phelps said. “We have never done a street course, and we thought as part of, again, really trying to think differently about our sport and where it’s been and where it’s going, that a street course is something we should try.”
He added: “I wouldn’t say it’s a response to F1, more of just continuing to try to be bold and innovative and push our sport forward.”
It’s worth saying that NASCAR has made several scheduling changes like this in recent years. Among the most successful was the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which moved its popular preseason Cup Series race in February from Daytona to Southern California.
It’s also worth noting that NASCAR will be putting out a much different product in Chicago than it ever has, and something different than what F1 looks like.
During the F1 Miami Grand Prix in May, the 19-turn course was designed to average speeds of 136 mph. The 17-turn Charlotte Motor Speedway road course (aka the “Roval”) averaged speeds of 77.8 mph during its NASCAR Cup Series playoff race in October.
How fast NASCAR’s Next Gen cars will be packaged to go around 12 turns in Chicago is yet to be seen and may not reach F1 speeds, but Wallace offhandedly mentioned that he expects cars to still go 180 mph (presumably a top speed).
But if previous successes are any indication, in F1 or NASCAR, this Chicago experiment will probably work, leaders say.
“If the LA Coliseum didn’t work, if St. Louis didn’t work, and a lot of changes to the schedule: If they didn’t work, then we reserve the judgment to change something back or try something different,” Phelps said. “And I think that’s really what the promise to the fans is. By and large, the fans have been thrilled with the schedule changes that we’ve made.”
This story was originally published July 20, 2022 6:00 AM.