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NASCAR brings its 75th season to Chicago for the first street race in Cup Series history

NASCAR Chicago Street Course NASCAR Chicago Street Course - The Canadian Press

CHICAGO (AP) — During the runup to NASCAR's first street race in downtown Chicago, Julie Giese walked through the site twice a day.

While making sure everything was on schedule, she also tried to carry along the moment.

“There’s a lot of moving parts and pieces and it’s easy to get lost and caught up in all of that,” said Giese, a longtime racing fan who was appointed track president for NASCAR's daring Chicago venture last August. “But what we need to remember is ultimately we’re putting on something that is the first time that this sport has ever done. And that’s incredibly special.”

That history arrives this weekend, when NASCAR holds a Cup Series street race for the first time as part of its 75th season. The Xfinity Series runs the The Loop 121 on Saturday, and the Cup Series takes over for the Grant Park 220 on Sunday.

It was quite an adventure to get to this point, especially when it comes to setting up for the event in the heart of a busy city in a relatively short period of time — causing some headaches for commuters and tourists with road closures and parking restrictions in the area.

The start-finish line for the 12-turn, 2.2-mile course is near Buckingham Fountain, and drivers will race by several downtown landmarks while Lake Michigan and Grant Park provide a picturesque backdrop for spectators and TV viewers on NBC.

The races are the centerpiece of a NASCAR festival that also includes music and other entertainment options right in the middle of what series leaders believe is one of their most important markets.

“I think everyone understands the magnitude of this event from our industry perspective,” Giese told the AP in a conference room at the race's office near the course.

NASCAR is hoping the high-profile event can accomplish what it was unable to create at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, a 45-mile drive from downtown. It ran 19 Cup races at the track, including the opening race of the 2011 playoffs, but it was too far from Chicago to attract a new audience and NASCAR pulled out after the 2019 season.

Two of NASCAR's biggest sponsors, Xfinity and McDonald’s, signed on as founding partners for the inaugural event downtown, along with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. The unique location has presented some challenges.

“We’re very used to a lot of transporters and haulers moving things around, and that becomes part of the setup,” Giese said. “Obviously, that’s not something we can do in and around the park. And so our partners, I think it’s given them an opportunity to kind of think differently a little bit about their activations, maybe lean into their festival teams a little bit more and really just kind of think about how you activate this event.”

The race weekend is part of a three-year deal with the city of Chicago — one that was finalized under previous Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But Giese said the city has been a great partner under Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new administration.

When it comes to the traffic around the event, Giese said they will learn from this year.

“When you look at it from a planning perspective, where we started to where we are now, we trimmed a week off of that schedule from the initial plan because of that,” she said. “I’m trying to be really mindful of where we’re racing and the impacts that it has to the community around it.”

The drivers also are going to have to learn a lot in a hurry. They will have precious little time on the course before each race, adding to the unpredictability with the weekend.

The simulators should get plenty of work before NASCAR arrives in Chicago.

“I’ve heard it’s really bumpy,” Kyle Larson said. "It looks narrow in one of the little overhead shots I think I saw. So, yeah, I don’t really know. I don’t really know anything about it until I get some laps.”


AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker contributed to this report.


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