On a rainy holiday weekend, the city of Chicago and the sport of NASCAR celebrated the most unlikely of weddings with a lakeside ceremony.
Chicago took care of the decor, with its soaring skyscrapers as a backdrop, as did the catering, with Vienna Beef hot dogs, Garrett Popcorn and Lou Malnati deep-dish wedges for sale.
NASCAR sent its drivers as a wedding party, roaring at up to 140 miles per hour toward the Field Museum before bursting onto Michigan Avenue, and booked music for the reception, even as summer monsoons meant the Chainsmokers and country singer Miranda Lambert were cancelled.
The year-long engagement had been rocky at times and there were many doubters. NASCAR’s premier league, after all, had never raced on city streets. And Chicagoans, many of whom care little about rides, have been busy locking down a huge section of downtown and snarling traffic for days. Still, for richer or poorer and through drenching downpours, Chicago has given its way to NASCAR for racing, if only for the weekend.
« I certainly was pessimistic when it was first announced, » said Denny Hamlin, a longtime racecar driver who said he warmed to the idea and was fastest in qualifying for the main race. on Sunday. « When you see the fans walking around here on Saturday, their excitement of seeing a NASCAR race car up close, taking pictures, I mean, it’s like that’s what we’re supposed to do. »
But the relentless rain, which hit Saturday night and intensified through Sunday, dampened the festivities. Tarra Laux, a resident of Chicago’s South Side and a first-time racer, said she enjoyed watching qualifying with her family on Saturday. But she was disappointed to see Mrs Lambert’s concert canceled and had hesitated whether to return for Sunday’s race as well.
« We were hoping to come here first thing this morning and come in and spend a full day, » Ms. Laux said. They decided to go to the race anyway, but said the rain « sort of dampens everything ».
The NASCAR-ification of downtown Chicago — where stacks of fresh Goodyear tires rested on the sidewalks, concrete barriers stood in front of bus stop shelters, and the famed Art Institute served as the site for pre-race interviews — was a calculated risk. .
NASCAR, which typically competes at tracks built for racing with straights and left-handers, wants to diversify its fan base and introduce its sport to urban dwellers. Chicago, whose downtown has struggled with the coronavirus pandemic, wants to attract new visitors and fill hotel rooms.
While the potential benefits were clear, so were the costs of the 12-turn, 2.2-mile loop along some of Chicago’s most iconic roads. Arterial roads were closed for days, disrupting commutes and turning the Loop into a maze of barricades and traffic jams. Large sections of the park have been closed to the public. Downtown residents were cheered, lap after lap, by the shaking scream of three dozen race cars.
« It’s not even race days, it’s the week before and the week after when everything is still closed, » said Mary McNally, who works in marketing and lives near Grant Park. « It’s really inconvenient and forces you to switch grocery stores and stuff like that. »
Several other Chicagoans decided the race was a miscalculation. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey declared last week that « we are not the people or the city » for this event.
« This is cultural, more than anything, » he wrote, suggesting that perhaps a Southern city with more racing history would be a better venue. « Maybe it’s a blue state/red state thing. »
Inside the course, where tickets start at $269, fans who attended their first race were in for the action alongside NASCAR diehards whose T-shirts paid homage to their favorite drivers.
Audrey Prince, who lives on Chicago’s West Side, said she’s followed NASCAR for years but has never entered a race. Even in the midst of the downpour, she said seeing stock cars zipping down DuSable Lake Shore Drive was too unique to pass up.
« They’re racing on the actual roads that I’ve driven and walked on, » he said, « so that’s just exciting there. »
The weekend included tragedy and setbacks. A contractor at the track was electrocuted and died on Friday while final race preparations were underway. On Saturday, the first of the weekend’s two races was postponed midway due to lightning, and then declared finished due to a continued downpour on Sunday which once again disrupted plans.
NASCAR’s visit to Chicago has been the subject of intense local debate since Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced it last summer without involving residents or city council members in the negotiations. The event’s future became more uncertain when Ms. Lightfoot was voted out of office this year. Although NASCAR’s contract with Chicago calls for three years of racing, the new mayor, Brandon Johnson, may decide to cancel the deal.
Whether the city files for divorce will depend in part on parameters that aren’t fully known yet. NASCAR officials said they expect up to 50,000 people a day at the event and believe about 80 percent of ticket buyers are first-time spectators. But the racing organization did not provide data on ticket sales and as of Saturday afternoon, tickets were still available for purchase.
Several NASCAR drivers said they were aware of the city stoppage, but hopeful the race would be seen as a victory. Racer Bubba Wallace, who hosted a free ride-themed party on the South Side last week, said he had a good time in Chicago.
« You can walk the streets a little bit and not be recognized, so I hear a lot of conversations, » said Mr. Wallace. “And a lot of people are on the fence about it. But you also feel a lot of excitement.
Robert Chiarito contributed report.