NASCAR adds Chicago street course race to 2023 Cup Series schedule

NASCAR is back in the Chicago area.

The sanctioning body and the city of Chicago announced Tuesday that the Cup Series will have a street race in downtown Chicago around Grant Park on July 2, 2023. The race will be the first street course race in modern NASCAR history and will be the first race in the Chicago metro area since the closure of Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet after the 2019 season.

“Chicago’s streets are as iconic as our skyline and our reputation as a world-class sports city is indisputable,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in an announcement. “I am thrilled to welcome our partners at NASCAR to Chicago for an event that will attract thousands of people to our city. Chicago’s world-class entertainment and hospitality industries, coupled with our city’s history as a conduit for sports talent, make us the perfect hosts for this unique event.”

The addition of the street race comes as the Cup Series is in its first season with an entirely new car version. The spec car was partially designed to handle better at tracks with both left and right turns, though it hasn’t delivered on its road course potential so far. The new car has produced largely pedestrian races at three road courses so far outside of a contact-filled final lap at Circuit of the Americas in March.

The lack of overall entertainment at road courses in 2022 isn’t an argument against the Chicago idea, however. NASCAR is also struggling with the new car’s ability to produce compelling racing at short tracks and changes to its aerodynamic features are relatively simple ways to improve the product. There are always things to work on during a car’s first year of implementation.

The track is also another test of NASCAR’s reliance on iRacing, an online racing simulation. The Chicago track layout has been available for users of the video game to try out for the past year. Its implementation appears similar to that of the reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. NASCAR redesigned Atlanta to make it a mini-Daytona via iRacing simulations.

Goodbye Road America

Chicago’s presence in 2023 comes at the cost of another date on the Cup Series schedule as NASCAR isn’t expanding the already-packed schedule beyond 36 points races. And NASCAR confirmed Tuesday that Road America would lose its Cup race to make room for Chicago.

The historic Wisconsin road course is one of the most iconic in North America. It has hosted Cup Series races for the past two seasons and was billed as NASCAR’s new July 4 weekend tradition less than two years ago. NASCAR itself didn’t shy away from the glowing hyperbole after Road America’s first Cup race in 2021 as the track saw massive crowds.

The hyperbole and fan attendance doesn’t appear enough to keep the Cup Series at Road America, however. And that’s a shame. The idea of a Chicago street race is a worth exploration. Just like its Clash experiment at the Los Angeles Coliseum, NASCAR needs to get out of its comfort zone and try different things to attract and keep younger fans as roughly 80% of its television audience is age 50 or older.

But adding the Chicago street race at the expense of Road America is a mistake. Road America was a natural fit for the Cup Series after years of second-tier Xfinity Series races at the track and the fans in and around Wisconsin clearly supported it.

The move away from Road America and the addition of a second race at Atlanta despite longstanding attendance issues there are clear signs that at-track attendance isn’t a primary focus for NASCAR. With a new television contract looming in 2025, NASCAR appears singularly focused on how it can follow the 10-year, $4.4 billion deal it signed with Fox and NBC with another comparable agreement. And keeping its overall TV audience stable while growing the share of viewers under 50 is pivotal to its new deal.

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 17: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Interstate Batteries Toyota, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2022 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
NASCAR's Cup Series will race in downtown Chicago in 2023. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

4 tracks in 5 years for July 4 weekend

The arrival of the Chicago street course and its official date means NASCAR will be at a fourth different track over the last five July 4 weekends.

Daytona had long been the traditional July 4 host but NASCAR decided to move the second Cup Series race at the track to the final regular season race of the season after the 2019 season. Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Brickyard 400 got the spot for 2020, but a move away from the historic Indianapolis oval quashed that idea after just one season.

That’s where Road America came in. The 4-mile track is known for having thousands of fans camp out for race weekends and the relatively cool summer weather made for a seemingly perfect July 4 marriage with NASCAR.

Alas, Chicago came along. Again. NASCAR started construction on the Chicagoland Speedway in the late 1990s and opened the track in 2001. The 1.5-mile oval produced some pretty compelling racing as its pavement wore out but didn't even make it two decades on the calendar before NASCAR had other ideas. It's now the site of warehouses.

Will the Chicago street race make it half as long as Chicagoland Speedway did? We'll find out over the rest of the 2020s.