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NASCAR, NBC deliver at the rainy Chicago Street Course. Now, what is next?

CHICAGO — A weekend that was anyone’s guess offered tens of thousands of enthusiastic guests a rain-soaked taste of NASCAR with a New Zealander leading the way.

Electric cheers surrounded the frontstretch of the Chicago Street Course after Shane van Gisbergen took the checkered flag.

Shane van Gisbergen celebrates after winning the Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course with the Project91 Trackhouse Racing team. Photo by Jonathan Fjeld/TRE

NBC Sports said the race delivered a total audience delivery of 4.795 million viewers. According to them, it was the most-watched NBC race since Indianapolis in 2017.

The Kiwi’s debut win put an exclamation point on a weekend with plenty of questions even after it started.

Everything up until lap 25 of the Xfinity Series race went off without a hitch. Fans donned patriotic and Talladega Nights-themed gear Saturday in Grant Park to match the occasion.

The crowd never let up through the four on-track sessions from the two concerts to the roaring Xfinity cars under green. Awestruck fans cheered, took pictures and danced to DJs’ mixes under caution.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot championed this as part of the event’s potential, backlash ensued. Alderpeople notably called it a “scheduling nightmare.”

The lightning delay-turned-record rainfall nearly thrust NASCAR into that.

All three concerts Saturday night and Sunday didn’t happen. The rescheduled finish of the Xfinity Series didn’t happen Sunday.

Phones buzzed twice Sunday with alerts about flash floods. The second alert even buzzed an hour before NASCAR called drivers to their cars.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said the sanctioning body had meetings every half-hour at least throughout Sunday. He said they set aside egos and made tough decisions, such as calling the Xfinity race three laps shy of halfway.

NASCAR’s agreement with the city stipulated they’d have to pay extra fees to postpone the race to another day. According to reports, the sanctioning body was 15 minutes away from that.

Mother Nature finally pitched NASCAR a home run Sunday evening. The race began in treacherous but manageable wet conditions. Then, it evolved into a widely-favored affair that put check marks on NASCAR’s future hopes.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Development and Strategy, and Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Chief Operating Officer, discuss the Chicago Street Course weekend after the conclusion of the July 2, 2023 Grant Park 220 NASCAR Cup Series race. Photo by Jonathan Fjeld/TRE

“I think it played out really well if you look at today. A lot of people started to file in once we got the cars started today. Going through the scheduling process, it’s a journey. We announced a lot of things with our 2021 schedule. This is the next iteration of that. As we go forward, we’re by no means saying everything will be perfect from day one. Still, you don’t know if you don’t try. We did a good effort today,” Ben Kennedy said Sunday.

“I’m fairly confident we can take the Cup Series anywhere we want. I don’t think, I know the race we put on today would be embraced globally.” Steve O’Donnell said.

In Chicago, the buzz from the media coverage, advertising and word-of-mouth publicity paid off. Nielsen estimates 9.3% of households in the No. 3-nationally-ranked TV market in the country watched the race.

With 3,463,060 households in the market, that means at least 322,064 Chicago market households tuned into the race.

To sustain the event’s future, locals’ continued engagement will be important.

With tickets starting at $269 for general admission and $465 for reserved seating for two days, some locals believed they were priced out of the event. Rideshare drivers and some business owners also didn’t see the business they anticipated.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, alderpersons from the adjacent Wards 2 and 34 want to see an outside review of the event. They also want to hear public comment but did say the city showed well on the world stage NASCAR provided.

Kennedy agreed the city showed well on TV. He also said attendee surveys will be going out to get people’s thoughts on the event.

Photo by Jonathan Fjeld/TRE

Mayor Brandon Johnson praised NASCAR’s work with a local teen recreational center. However, he said he will assess all options with the city’s three-year deal with NASCAR before 2024. The contract reportedly gives the city an out if they wish.

If the event returns, it’s slated to happen July 6-7, 2024. If it does, a reportedly strong relationship with the Johnson administration could be to thank.

“Julie and the team were the first to speak with the mayor and certainly that was early into him taking office. We had the opportunity to spend some time with him this week and he was super gracious, welcomed us to the city with open arms and has been fantastic ever since. He came to the race today and spoke at the drivers’ meeting,” Kennedy said.

For year one, NASCAR and NBC handled everything in their control. NASCAR left attendees in awestruck wonder and delivered a hands-on experience not possible at other tracks.

For instance, when Kyle Busch stuffed his No. 8 Chevrolet into the turn-six tire barrier, the crowd yelled Kyle’s name and waited as crews pulled his car out. Then, when they did, the crowd roared – and roared again when Busch passed by turn one on the other side of six.

Photo by Jonathan Fjeld/TRE

On the outer, open streets, people were drawn in as close as they could to get a glimpse of the course without paying to get in.

So many street course races come and go from the racing world. The success of the Chicago event may be immediate but long-term success and a possible return will rely on continued positive feedback and interest.

So far, NASCAR has a head-start but time will tell what the future holds.

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