By JAY COHEN
CHICAGO (AP) — NASCAR will celebrate its 75th season with an unprecedented street race through downtown Chicago in yet another radical change to the once staid schedule.
The Cup Series will race against the backdrop of Lake Michigan and Grant Park next July 2 in the debut race of a three-year deal with the city of Chicago. The venture was spearheaded by Ben Kennedy, the 30-year-old great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France.
It was Kennedy who successfully orchestrated the January exhibition race inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that will return for a second running in 2023. Kennedy told The Associated Press he began working on both the Coliseum and Chicago street race in 2019.
The new venues come as NASCAR has made sweeping changes to its oval-heavy schedule, first by adding both a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway and additional road courses and now a completely new concept.
The Chicago race will be paired with an IMSA sports car race the day before, as well as music and entertainment options located along the 12-turn, 2.2-mile street course.
“Historically we’ve always been short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways, eventually started getting more road courses and then came up with the Coliseum concept,” Kennedy told the AP.
“But the street course is something we haven’t explored a whole lot before, and the the ability for us to get a downtown setting like his and bring racing to our fans, a street course is a perfect opportunity for it.”
NASCAR last month confirmed the Coliseum would return next January, but the rest of the 2023 schedule has yet to be announced. Kennedy, however, confirmed to the AP that the Chicago street course will replace the road course race at Road America on the Cup schedule.
Road America in Wisconsin hosted the Cup Series the last two seasons on the same weekend. By moving into downtown Chicago, NASCAR keeps a race in the Midwest region while returning to a coveted market. NASCAR ran 19 Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, a 45-mile drive from downtown.
NASCAR had tried to build interest in the market and even made Chicagoland the opening race of the playoffs in 2011. But the track was simply too far from downtown to attract a new audience and NASCAR pulled out after the 2019 season.
The downtown course will include famed areas of Chicago, including Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and South Columbia Drive, where the start/finish line and pit road will be located directly in front of Buckingham Fountain. The course will pass through Grant Park and approach the northern edge of Soldier Field — site of the only other Cup Series race to take place in downtown Chicago, in 1956.
Kennedy said NASCAR will be the promoter, which typically means the party responsible for all costs of producing the race. He declined to discuss any agreements made with the city of Chicago or the Chicago Sports Commission.
“Chicago’s streets are as iconic as our skyline and our reputation as a world-class sports city is indisputable,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “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.”
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.
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