Chicago – Ben Kennedy thinks big. As in big cities, big ideas and big plans.
This is how NASCAR and Chicago met.
Kennedy played an instrumental role in NASCAR bringing unprecedented street racing to downtown Chicago during its 75th season in another drastic change to its once-steady schedule.
“We want to be bold and innovative when we think about new places and new concepts we’re going to do,” said Kennedy, 30-year-old grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France. “This is number 1 on the list for us now, and it will definitely be the most anticipated event of our season and one of the biggest sporting events in our country in 2023.”
The Cup Series will race against the backdrop of Lake Michigan and Grant Park on July 2 as part of a three-year deal with the city of Chicago. It will be paired with the previous day’s IMSA sports car race, as well as music and entertainment options located along the 12-lap, 2.2-mile street track.
“The opportunity to bring something as unique as NASCAR to the city of Chicago, and I think it’s going to be one of the famous racing courses…we can’t miss this opportunity,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday during an outdoor session. Press conference to announce the event.
The course will include Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and South Columbus Drive, where the start/finish line and pit road will be directly in front of Buckingham Fountain. It will pass through Grant Park and approach the northern edge of Soldier Field – the site of the only other Cup Series race to be held in downtown Chicago, in 1956.
Kennedy said NASCAR will be the promoter, which usually means the party responsible for all race production costs. When asked about the city’s price, Lightfoot replied, “We’ll work out details on this with NASCAR. Once we have those details, we’ll be happy to share them with you.”
The Chicago announcement follows the successful January NASCAR Expo race inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that will return for a second time in 2023. Kennedy told The Associated Press that he began work on both the Colosseum and the Chicago Street Race in 2019.
It’s part of NASCAR’s sweeping changes to its oval-heavy schedule, first by adding dirt racing at Bristol Motor Speedway, additional road courses and now an entirely new concept. It seems as if she plans to continue, too.
“We want to keep exploring new markets,” Kennedy said. “We’ve talked a lot about the Pacific Northwest. We’ve talked a lot about the Northeast. It’s an important market for us, but even internationally as well.
“I don’t know they will be a day, at least in the short term, when we will necessarily go abroad. But there may be an opportunity for us at some point in the future to go north of the border as far as Canada or go to Mexico.”
NASCAR confirmed last month that the runway will return next January, but the rest of the 2023 schedule has yet to be announced. The Chicago Street Raceway will replace the Road Race of America on the Cup schedule.
Road America in Wisconsin has hosted the Cup Series for the past two seasons on the same weekend. By relocating to downtown Chicago, NASCAR is maintaining a race in the Midwest as it returns to the coveted market. NASCAR ran 19 Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, a 45-mile drive from downtown.
NASCAR tried to build up market interest and made Chicagoland the opening race in the playoffs in 2011. But the track was simply too far from downtown to attract a new audience and NASCAR withdrew after the 2019 season.
“This is the top three market for us, frankly all over the world, for NASCAR fans,” Kennedy said.
The decision to hold a race in downtown Chicago presents all kinds of logistical challenges for NASCAR, mostly centered around the safety of drivers and fans. Kennedy said NASCAR has design, development, competition and asphalt experts looking at the surface, and he felt the roads were in “really good shape” as he drove around Grant Park on Tuesday.
“It will be very interesting to see what it takes to be successful here,” said Bubba Wallace, who drives 23XI Racing, which is owned by former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan. “We’re going to turn left and right, past the famous landmarks, just the sounds of engines resounding and echoing the buildings here, it’s going to be so much fun.”