The Chicago Street Race: Three things that were different about Nascar’s newest event

Sunday saw the very first street race in Nascar history, which meant organisers had an opportunity to embrace a new approach. Julie Giese, president of the Chicago Street Race, and Jeff Wohlschlaeger, Nascar’s head of sales, outline how the stock car racing series tackled the Grant Park 220 differently.

Nascar may be celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, but Sunday’s race in Chicago was a clear indication of how it is trying to marry its history with a forward-thinking approach – even if we were kept waiting by severe rain delays.

The Grant Park 220 was the very first street race that Nascar has held, but the streets of downtown Chicago were the modern lick of paint to the stock car racing series’ tried-and-tested walls.

Nascar first raced in Illinois back in 1956 and the series had an 18-year run at Chicagoland Speedway that was eventually broken in 2019, when the circuit dropped off the calendar. This may have been a new frontier for Nascar, but it was one supported by decades of history and tradition.

However, last weekend wasn’t the first time that Nascar drivers had competed on the streets of Chicago.

In July 2021, drivers competed on a virtual track through the iRacing simulation game. The Nascar team wanted to mix up where the drivers could race as it looked to bounce back from the pandemic, and the virtual arena provided the flexibility to create whatever it wanted.

So Nascar scanned the streets of Chicago and staged its very own fantasy race. That fantasy has now become a reality, as Supercars legend Shane van Gisbergen fittingly produced a stunning victory to win the first Nascar street race on his debut.

But how did Nascar approach the inaugural event? BlackBook Motorsport discovers three things that made this race stand out.

1. Adopting a founding partner model

Normally, Nascar races would have a single title sponsor – think the Geico 500 or the Coca-Cola 600.

But this didn’t fit with Nascar’s vision for its new race, and nor does it align with the commercial approach that the series takes itself. Nascar has not had a title sponsor since Monster Energy departed in 2019, when it opted to pursue a tiered partnership structure headlined by four premier partners: Busch Beer, Coca-Cola, Geico and Xfinity.

That model was mirrored for the inaugural Chicago Street Race, with a goal of raising around US$2 million annually from four founding partners, each of whom were given a dedicated section of the track. For context, a title sponsorship deal would normally cost more than US$500,000.

With Nascar investing handsomely in the event, securing meaningful sponsorship revenue was always going to be important. Nascar therefore wanted to go to market with a proposition that offered partners an opportunity to align with something different.

“This model really fit with the enormity of this weekend, and being able to have brands that are attached to the weekend versus entitlement partners that just have race rights,” says Julie Giese, president of the Chicago Street Race.

“We really wanted to build this as a festival weekend, a weekend experience – our tickets are two-day tickets. You have the concerts, you have the races, and all the activities that go with it.

“From a value perspective, being able to tie the partners to that full weekend knowing that’s how we were going to approach it, I think it made a lot of sense.”

In the end, the Chicago Street Race secured backing from two national brands in McDonald’s and Xfinity, but also landed a pair of deals with local businesses Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Illinois and the Chicago Sports Commission.

Each founding partner, including McDonald's, received a dedicated section of the track

“Philosophically, we wanted to go after brands that had a significant presence in Chicago or the surrounding area,” explains Jeff Wohlschlaeger, Nascar’s head of sales. “Two are regional and two are national, but they all have different interests and reasons for entering into a partnership.

“We have other tiers of partnerships further on down from the founding level, we have event partners that are more your typical Nascar partners. So, we’ve still retained some of the traditional Nascar partnership models, but at the very top level, we looked at it very differently.”

2.Tackling new logistical challenges

As with any new event, there are unforeseen obstacles around every corner. But those challenges were only heightened by the fact that this was Nascar’s first street race.

The race ended up costing a reported US$50 million, which far exceeded the original budget of between US$15 million and US$25 million. The hope is this proves to be a long-term investment in the race, with a three-year contract signed and the option for a further two if things go well.

“I don’t think we anticipated the level of work that would be required from various teams within the company,” Wohlschlaeger explains. “We’re going to debrief a significant amount and figure out ways we can do it more efficiently and more cost effectively. There’s a ton of learning.

“One of the goals of this was to determine whether this could be replicated in other markets, so I think the jury’s still out and we’ll see how it goes. But we’re all crazy excited.”

Ahead of the weekend, Nascar said it was expecting 50,000 fans per day, totalling around 100,000 spectators for the entire weekend. According to Wohlschlaeger, more than 80 per cent of fans that purchased tickets had never been to a Nascar race before.

Aside from cost, the prospect of racing on city streets, coupled with the size of the crowd expected, brings obvious logistical challenges that would not apply when Nascar races at an oval or a ready-made circuit.

“When you look at what we do at our other venues, you have as much time as you need to prepare for the event,” says Giese. “The only people you’re impacting when you’re setting up for the race weekend is yourself, because it’s your facility.

“In Chicago, we have worked really hard to be very good neighbours and good members of the community. We understand what we’re doing is unprecedented. We’ve tried to make sure that the window to get the event built is as tight as possible, as narrow as possible, minimise the disruption to local residents, businesses and organisations.

“I’d say that’s the biggest one, you have a short period of time to be able to get everything put up and ready to go. Then right after the event is over, it all needs to come back down again because we are in a public setting.”

3. Capitalising on the Garage 56 entry

The Chicago Street Race also came in the wake of Nascar’s Garage 56 entry to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which the series hopes will generate increased attention from overseas.

That will have been helped in Chicago by the involvement of former Formula One world champion Jenson Button, who was also part of the Garage 56 entry.

He ended up finishing 21st, but the fact he lined up on the grid is enough for the series. It was the second time the Briton has competed in Nascar, and his profile and experience across several motorsport series has proved to be a valuable asset.

“For [Button] to be able to share the Nascar story, share what it’s like to race in Nascar, I think it’s incredibly important knowing his background and what his expertise is,” Giese highlights. “I’ve appreciated what I’m learning from him, honestly.

“His comments about Chicago specifically, that street experience [that he has], what that means from a driver perspective. He has extensive experience in that space.”

Wohlschlaeger adds: “Our broadcast [audience] internationally is going to jump significantly anytime you have a driver who appeals to a certain demographic. You know that’s going to raise numbers in those areas.”

The international appeal of a driver like Button is also something that Nascar wants to maximise moving forward, and this could lay the foundations for international expansion in the future.

Jenson Button (fourth from left) formed part of Nascar’s hugely successful outing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

With international series running in Europe, Mexico, Canada and now Brazil, Nascar always has its eye on international developments.

“There’s absolutely interest in expanding overseas, how that looks and where it lands,” says Wohlschlaeger. “I think it’s still in the works.”

Does he think this interest in expanding internationally could include taking a Cup Series race abroad?

“I think we will see Cup Series races outside of the domestic US in the coming years,” he answers. “Whether it’s Europe in a year or two? I don’t know. But that would be exciting, I think there’s an audience for it.”


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