It’s a little before 7 a.m. local time on Saturday, and the streets of downtown Chicago are still relatively quiet and empty.
Off the subway at the Monroe stop, the walk to NASCAR’s Chicago street course begins. It’s up the stairs onto S Dearborn St and a walk to the corner to take a left onto W Monroe St. From there, it’s a straight four-block walk, and on this day at this hour, most of the other people who start emerging on the sidewalk are NASCAR drivers in street clothes and team members recognizable by their logoed crew shirts.
We become a small herd headed toward The Art Institute of Chicago, which houses the media center for the weekend, and S Columbus Dr at the next corner. That’s where the Cup Series garage begins. Further down S Columbus is the course.
The site and uniqueness of industry members coming together on foot, some clutching drinks of choice from coffee shops, is just one moment from a historic weekend. One moment that served as a reminder of just how different the event and experience were and, frankly, how cool it felt. Not only is there walking but tall buildings, intermittent honking from traffic, and parks and landmarks all around.
Chicago was different and fun. Instead of the usual itinerary of airport, rental car, hotel, familiar restaurants, and familiar route to a racetrack likely not surrounded by much, Chicago was the complete opposite. It was local transportation or a hotel right near the course. It was drivers looking for the scooter they’d rented.
I had never covered or experienced a street race before, so there was nothing to compare it to or any idea of what to expect in Chicago. Logistically, it was going to be different, and just as Kyle Larson noted during his media availability, most of us probably recorded the most steps on our Apple Watch in three days than ever before in our life.
There were crowds of people everywhere. Anytime you looked out the windows from the third floor of the Art Institute, fans were constantly moving up and down W Monroe St. When race cars were roar ing through the course, people could be seen in windows in the surrounding buildings or shoulder to shoulder on balconies.
It’s hard to describe the weekend’s energy to those who weren’t there to experience it for themselves. But just imagine a significant sporting event or festival where it’s noisy, energetic and full of good vibes.
The parks were packed. Merchandise flew off the shelf.
During a subway ride one morning with a colleague, one of the vendors from one of the merchandise shops told us they were selling out of product after product. Given a chance to head into the Pit Shop (an official NASCAR merchandise tent that travels the circuit), my jaw dropped at how little inventory was left. It is not an exaggeration – empty shelf after empty shelf.
On the morning of the 7 a.m. walk to the track, fans gathered outside the garage entrance looking for autographs. Some weren’t NASCAR fans but were interested in the spectacle as they asked crew members, “Are you a NASCAR driver?”
Fun. It was just fun to see and experience something different.
As for the course itself, truly impressive. I walked 2.2 miles just as drivers and teams did after it was fully set up and closed. Among the things that stood out were the elevation changes, the number of grandstands throughout the course, and how close the cars were to fans and buildings.
The imagery alone from the Chicago street race stands alone. Whether it was race fans finding any solid surface to climb on to catch a view, ripping through privacy screens on fences, or a race car roaring past a downtown Chicago building or statue, it’s not something we see every week.
Standing on pit road for the final few laps of the Cup Series race, I got goosebumps. I believe it was from the combination of a great weekend coming to a close, the buzz from the fans loudly showing their support, and Shane van Gisbergen pulling off an unlikely but enthralling victory that provided even more new post-race headlines.
NASCAR, Julie Giese and her team, and the city of Chicago put on a tremendous event. It seemingly went off without significant issues, although I’m sure in their post-event review, NASCAR officials will find things to learn from and do better the next time.
While I’m sure not everyone in Chicago was pleased NASCAR was there, I felt welcomed. Chicago, overall, felt like a big deal. And when it came to covering a new and unique event, it was an enjoyable and easy process.
At one point during the weekend, during a conversation with a colleague about how things were going and how we were enjoying it, they told me this was NASCAR’s “mess around and find out era” with its schedule. It made me laugh, but it certainly feels true. Some experiments won’t work, but it’s better than the same copy-and-paste schedule the industry had for so long.
So, I guess we all messed around in Chicago and found out it could work. And that something so new and different can be a lot of fun.