By Rachel Koning Beals
Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, has agreed to let NASCAR run a race through its downtown streets, a three-year deal that starts with a July 2023 event.
The addition of a street race in a large market would be an important move for NASCAR as it fights to grow fan interest against the increasingly popular Formula 1 (NAS:FWONK) and Penske Corp.-owned IndyCar auto-racing series. Both already have multiple street races on their schedules.
Street races can take the action directly to the fans, and encourage more spending in a downtown, compared with the oval tracks typically located well away from city centers. The 2.2-mile, 12-turn Chicago course will include Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive.
The Athletic’s Jordan Bianchi reported earlier this month that the city had endorsed the plan and that a deal was nearing completion.
The Athletic obtained a letter from Erin Harkey, commissioner of the city’s special events agency, endorsing what was then a pending agreement.
“I am thrilled about the potential opportunity to host the NASCAR Street Course events here in Chicago,” Harkey wrote in the letter, according to The Athletic. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events “is dedicated to enriching Chicago’s artistic vitality and cultural vibrancy, and our strong partnership with the Chicago Sports Commission ensures that NASCAR fans would be treated to a diverse and unforgettable experience.”
A Netflix (NAS:NFLX) special has revved up more U.S. interest in Europe-anchored Formula 1, which enjoys over 400 million viewers worldwide — arguably one of the most popular sports in the world.
The streamer’s series “Drive to Survive”, which debuted in 2019, features behind-the-scenes footage of the usually-secretive racing teams and the sometimes contentious relationships between drivers and team executives. It has drawn die-hard and casual racing fans alike.
Netflix doesn’t publicize viewer data, but the audience for ESPN’s (NYS:DIS) coverage of Formula 1 races has nearly doubled — up to 1.5 million views per race — since the show premiered, the New York Post reported .
According to a recent Nielsen study, Formula 1 is on track to top a billion worldwide fans this year, with 77% of those new fans under 35 years old.
NASCAR’s sanctioning body has also added a new exhibition race at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 2022 and now 2023 , so a larger presence in major markets appears to be a priority, racing enthusiast site Beyond the Flag wr ote. Formula 1 will also race in Las Vegas next year for the first time in 40 years .
“Like the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, we seized an incredible opportunity to add an unprecedented element to our schedule and take center stage in the heart of another major metropolitan market,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy, in a release.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the excitement around NASCAR races in Chicago is “off the charts.”
But as buzz was building that a NASCAR deal was nearing the finish line, cycling and pedestrian groups expressed worry that the event further contradicts what they feel are already slow-moving efforts by city officials to make the metro more two-wheel and foot-traffic friendly.
Citizens are still reeling from the tragic recent death of a toddler , who was pinned in her bike seat under a semi after her mother tried to navigate between a utility truck in the marked bike lane and the 18-wheeler in the nearby traffic lane. She was the second toddler to die in a bike-related incident in June, along with the cycling deaths of an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old, local news site Block Club Chicago reports.
While a NASCAR race on a marked course is much different than regular traffic, the city officials’ excitement around the event still ruffled cycling advocates who want full attention from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists — especially since traffic-related deaths and injuries are at their highest point in years .
They also say that a fossil fuel-focused (NYM:RB00) event contradicts a stronger stance the city should be taking on cleaner driving, as gas-price volatility continues and as cycling popularity is projected to grow .