It’s no secret in recent years that NASCAR has made many bold changes, from shifting its schedule with new venues to introducing the next generation car in the Trophy Series.
NASCAR has also championed efforts to improve inclusion and diversity within the sport, and the addition of a street course in downtown Chicago is seen as an opportunity to embrace those ideals while also exposing its product to a potential new audience.
Even in the brief glimpse shown on Tuesday with Trophy Series driver Bubba Wallace driving his #23 Toyota through Grant Park and past the famous Buckingham Fountain – areas that will be included in the course planning – there was a sense of something new and different.
Yes, NASCAR has had races for years at Soldier Field and about an hour away in the suburb of Joliet, Illinois, but cars stocked on the streets of a major city are definitely on top of NASCAR’s efforts to be “bold and innovative.”
“The 75th anniversary will be a special occasion and there will be different activities that we do throughout the year. Part of that will go back to our history, our roots and our traditions, where we came as a sport,” said Ben Kennedy, Senior Vice President of Racing Development and Strategy at NASCAR.
“But, also, part of it, where are we going as far as the future? I think it’s important for us in the 2023 schedule to have a very big change and that’s a big change. We’ve probably already been the most diverse motorsport in scheduling the different types of tracks that we go on.” We have high-speed trails, we have intermediates, we have short trails, we have LA Coliseum, road courses, dirt track in Bristol.
“It’s an exclamation point for our drivers not only being the best drivers in the world but also the most versatile drivers in the world.”
With any change, there are those who wish things would remain the same, or another choice would be made. Some might like the idea of a street track but not at the cost of Road America losing the stream, for example.
But NASCAR has also confirmed its desire to think outside the box and not miss the opportunity in Chicago.
“There is a band that will say NASCAR should never race on a street track. I don’t agree with that,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps. “If this is a failure – like everything we’ve said – we’ll try something; If it doesn’t work, we won’t go back.
“I think it will be great. I think the race will be good. I think the atmosphere around this race will be extraordinary and it will not be like any other NASCAR race maybe at all.”
NASCAR has never shied away from its desire to attract new fans, and the Chicago Street Trail offers an excellent opportunity.
“If you think about parts of the country – take St. Louis. Going to St. Louis was important. Having the event at the LA Coliseum was important. I think geography and bringing our great sport to the racing fans is important,” Phelps said.
“If I think about this race next year, I think it will mimic some of the things I saw at the Colosseum in that 70 percent of people who bought a ticket have never gone to a NASCAR race. It’s a brand new fan of the sport.
“We’ll get this here in Chicago.”
Still, there is a tightrope that NASCAR has to walk as it tries to retain old fans while also enticing new fans into the sport.
Diversity efforts and movements such as banning the Confederate flag at NASCAR events have infuriated some fans.
It’s clear, however, that NASCAR’s direction isn’t going to change anytime soon.
“I think we’re all changing,” said Mike Hilton, NASCAR’s senior advisor and former president of the sport. “If you look at your personal life, you change over time. Your family members change over time, and you adapt.
“We have some of the best hardcore fans, some of them from a long time. As we move forward, they understand the moves we’re making and then we choose new fans to join them to support NASCAR. I think it’s natural and it’s human nature, especially in today’s word, to look at change on the It’s a positive thing.”