Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The NASCAR Chicago Street Race is about to begin

Race fans braved rain and thunderstorms Sunday, with some sheltering under a tent at the Jack Daniels Balboa Club, waiting to hear when the NASCAR Chicago Street Race would begin. While many were in good spirits, some who showed up earlier in the day were critical of NASCAR’s communication.

Shortly after 5 p.m., NASCAR officials announced that the race would begin soon.

Driver Joey Logano said his crew put on rain tires when he went back to his car for the delayed start.

“It’s pretty cool on the street track in the rain, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I would say it’s not the safest thing we’ve ever done.”

Officials told the Tribune they plan to start the NASCAR Cup Series Grand Park 220 race by 3 p.m.

It rained as the drivers walked onto a stage for introductions.

“We need to slow it down so they can get some water off the track,” said driver Martin Truex Jr. as he walked to his car. “We can’t see into it, so it’s impossible. I think there were a lot of big puddles on the track and we would fly off the road into obstacles.

Another driver told the Tribune that it was “really unsafe” to race as he headed toward his stock car after introductions.

“We shouldn’t,” he said. “I hope it’s a formality.”

Star sprinter Kyle Busch turned away from the Grand Park track and passed fans who were still stumbling through the puddles toward the Sodan stands. A few minutes later, a choir sang the National Anthem in the indoor media arena.

Fans who arrived on Sunday morning were frustrated as they were not allowed into the venue when the gates were scheduled to open.

“Even when it’s raining, they let you in, take shelter under the bleachers,” said Matthew McGivney of Indiana, who said he was surprised at the lack of attention shown to waiting fans compared to other NASCAR events. “It’s like there’s no coordination here. I know it’s the first year. Look, I’ve been in a lot of races. Unorganized.”

The storms that postponed the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday carried over to Sunday, causing further delays and uncertainty as staff struggled to communicate with fans about the future of the historic street race.

The morning should begin with a restart of the Xfinity race that was cut short Saturday due to lightning. The start of that race was quickly pushed back as Sunday’s downpour kept race technicians in their trailers and fans waiting in coffee shops along Michigan Avenue. Some parts of the route are waterlogged.

On Sunday afternoon, NASCAR declared the final laps of the Xfinity race incomplete and declared Cole Custer the winner.

“It’s definitely one of the weirdest victories I’ve ever been a part of, for sure, but we’ll take it,” said Custer, who led 25 laps before the race was abandoned before the halfway point. “They said it’s a crime to jump in the (Buckingham) fountain. So we’re not going to do that, I guess.”

In a statement released Sunday, NASCAR spokesman Brent S. Campbell said standing water and significant flooding prevented the race from finishing Sunday. “Having two laps to turn around to finish Monday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series event was an option we chose not to use,” Campbell said.

Earlier in the week, at a news conference with the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications, NASCAR Chicago Street Course President Julie Keys said the cars had a “wet weather package” that allowed the race to continue in the rain. Cars cannot run during lightning or floods.

“I’m more optimistic about the second race. I think this first one will be a wash,” said Chris Howard from Olathe, Kansas, who noted that he spent about $400 in cash for his hotel stay to see the race plus points.

Northeast Cook County remains under a flash flood warning until 6:30 p.m. Officials have advised non-essential travel to be avoided until the water recedes. Some parts of the district received 3 to 5 inches of rain and roads and streets could be flooded, officials said. Heavy rain fell in the morning and afternoon, reducing visibility on highways. A few strong and severe thunderstorms are possible south of I-80, with the risk of hail and damaging winds.

NASCAR Racecourse seen from Michigan Avenue on Sunday, July 2, 2023, as the gates open for NASCAR street racing events at Grand Park.

Ed Samson, a retired business owner from Northbrook, has volunteered to help organize events like the NASCAR race for the past 12 years.

After volunteering on Saturday, Samson said it was one of the most disorganized events he’s ever worked on.

Samson said he was not given a map of the grounds and could not direct those with questions. Exit signs were few and far between, and other volunteer workers were similarly confused, he said.

“I’m not going back,” he said.

Samson has worked in several Chicago Marathons and other Chicago Park District events.

Samson pointed out that the pedestrian bridge — one of the only ways to cross the park — was often congested, with groups of people queuing to cross.

“People were orderly, but if there was some sort of panic-inducing event, it would have been chaos,” he said.

Many race fans said they were frustrated by the lack of clarity from race organizers, as gates were closed two hours after they were originally supposed to open and umbrellas were not allowed inside.

“They’re doing everything they can to connect with the fans,” said Atlanta native Jack Brinson as he waited in the rain under a cellophane poncho. “At this point I wish they’d let us all in … and stay there until we’re safe.”

He asked if someone was giving out phone calls. The answer was no.

The delays have some wondering about the financial implications of the next few hours.

“I hope it doesn’t get canceled,” Chicago lefty Jain said after posing for a photo with his sister and mom. At the same time, she sees the positive in the alternative. “If the race is cancelled, I think we’ll pay back. But if it’s not, we won’t.”

Chicago native Michael Bagus and his son both sported matching animal umbrellas as they left the line.

Bagus bought VIP passes for the weekend to celebrate his son’s 11th birthday — his favorite racer is Denny Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“When things were running smoothly, it was incredibly well done,” Bagus said. “So you know this, you can’t control the weather, it’s a disappointment.”

Bagus said this weekend was “one of the most expensive things we’ve done,” but they’re hopeful the race will still go ahead this afternoon. Aside from the rain, the positives outweighed the negatives this weekend, they said.

“Today is kind of null and void. You can’t really judge it because you haven’t done anything,” she said.

Bacus said the communication from NASCAR needs to be better. He said the park district, the Chicago Police Department and multiple jurisdictions of NASCAR officials made the day frustrating.

“There were all these different levels of people, and no one was getting a message,” Bagus said. “So everybody tells you different things.”

NASCAR needs the park district to postpone Monday. The park district could not immediately be reached for comment.

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