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What drivers, fans said on Chicago Street Course’s opening day

Photo by Jonathan Fjeld/TRE

CHICAGO —Drivers and fans entered the Chicago Street Course with a degree of varying excitement and jitters on its opening day Saturday.

For some, it panned out better than others but everyone left quelled of some concerns going into the weekend.

Some drivers expressed concern over the layout and the way the track would run. However, after a couple of track walks and practice time, drivers didn’t believe there was anything to change, save a few minor things.

“I was really impressed looking around this track. NASCAR has done a great job with this place,” Chase Elliott said.

“The big change was the brake markers, where we put some more orange tape to make them more visible. Really you have to wait until you race to see what to do. Xfinity looked decent, we’ll just have to make adjustments from there,” Kevin Harvick said.

Harvick is one of the few drivers in the field with experience on a street course. In 1999, he ran a West Series race on a course around the L.A. Coliseum. He said the Chicago course and sightlines around it are better than the L.A. course.

Throughout Harvick’s Cup Series career, spanning 23 seasons capped off by this season, the series never added a new track for 19 of those seasons.

“With the evolution of NASCAR doing things differently, with street courses, racing in stadiums, dirt, all things, raced in the rain, I would’ve thought you were crazy for. It’s a constant evolution of trying to make things different and it’s a much different world we live in [than my rookie year in 2001]. We gotta look at what moves the needle,” Harvick said.

Chase Elliott, being the son of a Cup Series champion, noted, “NASCAR has tried more in my time in Cup [2016-now] than the previous 15 years [2001-15].”

On one of the experiments, the L.A. Coliseum, Elliott said the event has run its course. However, he said the Chicago Street Course has greater potential.

“Anytime you can get in the city limits is valuable. You’ve got the [Nashville] Fairgrounds but this offers something unique that could be replicated elsewhere,” he said.

After winning the pole, Denny Hamlin, who often isn’t afraid to offer criticism of NASCAR, was direct in his regard for the street course.

“This has been the best day I’ve ever had at the track in my racing career,” he said.

While drivers expressed excitement for the course, the challenges are apparent. Hamlin’s driver, Tyler Reddick, said it felt like they were flying down the fast straightaway toward turn four.

A challenge may be the heat. Temperatures reached around 83° with 83% humidity but more heat was generated by the mufflers, added to the cars to reduce the sound going out to the city.

Justin Haley felt that, especially.

“The cars way too hot. Big miss there with the mufflers and the exhaust. A lot of drivers are really struggling, it’s gonna be a tough race tomorrow. I have everything to cool me off, especially after A.J.’s incident at Indy one here [in Xfinity]. It’s just restricting the exhaust airflow and a lot more metal to heat up, blocking the airflow and more hot air doesn’t go out of the exhaust pipe,” Haley said.

Australian import and Supercars champion Shane Van Gisbergen said he forgot his coolsuit and regretted it, as he was constantly sweating after practice and qualifying.

William Byron even said his car reached around 130-150°.

The heat may cause aggression. Elliott pointed out that from a fan perspective while watching the COTA race in March.

“I’ll be honest, sitting at home with my NAPA hat off and as a fan, I thought COTA was embarassing. We don’t need to be having 15 cautions at the end of our races and people running over each other. I think it’s up to the drivers, though. We need to find a balance [between hard racing and wrecking],” Elliott said.

The drivers agreed, if there is a generally good atmosphere and engagement, the race will be a success.

“I was a pessimist at first but I started warming up to it. You see the fans excited to get so close to a NASCAR race car and it’s really what we’re here to do,” Hamlin said.

Despite lightning postponing the Xfinity Series’ final 30 laps and canceling The Chainsmokers’ concert, fans were excited with the event Saturday.

Fans roared with cheers and phones raised, even as the cars even paced by under caution. The DJs spun tracks under caution, encouraging fans to dance and party.

NASCAR reported 70% of the ticketholders are first-time attendees. On Saturday, every group we talked to had a first-time attendee among them.

“It’s a beautiful day, beautiful experience in Chicago, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We love the enthusiasm and the sound,” attendee Chris said.

His friend, who visited Chicagoland Speedway for 12 races, added it felt like “a music festival but less crowded.”

Another first-time attendee, Dylan, wore a Ford Mustang shirt to sport his love for cars that brought him to the course.

“I love the sound of the V8s, the growl in general. I heard about the Camaro they brought in [Garage 56]. So, I heard the freedom screaming so I had to come down and see the cars.” Dylan said, noting he was a Jeff Gordon back in the day.

Still just years away from pandemic restrictions and less than three months removed from a brutal winter, one first-time attendee was grateful. His wife, who has been to Daytona, encouraged him to attend too.

“When my wife said we’re going to a race, I said ‘absolutely.’ Anytime you get to be outside in Chicago, as many days as we have great weather, I’m all in. Couple that with the race, some hydration [points to beer], it’s a good time,” Vince said, adding it was his first race. “After a couple of years of COVID, everything going on, hybrid workplace, it’s great to be out.”

The NASCAR Xfinity Series’ The Loop 121 race resumes at around 11 a.m. ET Sunday. The NASCAR Cup Series’ Grant Park 220 race kicks off at around 4 p.m. ET Sunday.


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