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Customers roam around Exile in Bookville in the Loop, Chicago.

Customers roam around Exile in Bookville in the Loop, which will be closed during NASCAR.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

NASCAR looks to ease disruptions during Chicago Street Race, but businesses have mixed feelings

Some small business owners said they plan to close during the two-day event, but others are excited about the race and the boost in pedestrian traffic that could bring more sales.

Race cars will once again zoom through downtown for the NASCAR Chicago Street Race, a two-day event that kicks off Saturday. And Chicago will be in the spotlight as tens of thousands attend the race with many more watching it on TV.

But there are mixed emotions from businesses about the massive event that will dramatically disrupt traffic and normal life in the heart of the city. Since June, some streets have already closed as infrastructure goes up to transform Michigan Avenue and areas around Grant Park into a high-speed race course and festival.

This year, organizers have worked to apply lessons learned from last year’s debut in Chicago, which was NASCAR’s first street race in its 75-year history.

Pedestrians cross East Ida B. Wells Drive near South Michigan Avenue. To their right is a "Road Closed" sign attached to blockades in preparation for the NASCAR Chicago Street Race in the Loop.

Roads are closed on East Ida B. Wells Drive near South Michigan Avenue ahead of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race, taking place Saturday and Sunday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

NASCAR and the city have trimmed course set-up and breakdown time to 19 days from last year’s 25 days, in an effort to minimize disruption to businesses and residents. Mufflers will again dampen noise on stock cars that can get up to speeds of 100 mph.

In addition to physical improvements, boosting the local economy is a big focus at this weekend’s event.

NASCAR is striving to “wrap as much Chicago into the event as possible,” Chicago Street Race President Julie Giese said.

For example, the company held a supplier summit earlier this year to encourage bids from diverse companies to provide event services such as security, printing, signage and more. It also expanded its free NASCAR Village at Butler Field in Grant Park, which will feature Chicago restaurants, retailers and partners. The village and its interactive NASCAR exhibitions and car simulators are public, in contrast to race tickets that range from $150 to $465.

The company is again offering an online Chicago Resource Guide in partnership with Canadian tech startup FanSaves, where businesses and attractions can sign up to be included in the guide and draw more customers before and during race weekend.

Giese said NASCAR aims to use the race “as a platform to showcase local restaurants, retailers and partners, and in doing so — help expand their exposure to a broader market.”

Last year, more than 47,000 “unique attendees” from 50 states and 15 countries attended the Chicago Street Race, according to an economic impact report commissioned by Choose Chicago with Temple University’s Sports Industry Research Center. The report said total attendance was 79,229, less than the projected 100,000. Heavy rain had dampened the race and Canadian wildfire smoke was also a problem.

The event generated $108.9 million in economic impact, below the estimate of $113 million. It also brought in more than $8.3 million in tax revenue for the city and drove nearly 30,000 hotel room bookings.

The report said media coverage of race cars whizzing past Chicago’s iconic cityscape was worth $23.6 million in “media value” for the city — the equivalent of more than three national Super Bowl ads.

Reviving downtown Chicago

The Chicago Loop Alliance is partnering with NASCAR to bring area businesses to NASCAR Village. It’s part of the alliance’s ongoing effort to revive downtown Chicago, which is still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Edwards, CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, said Chicago wouldn’t have hosted NASCAR before the pandemic. “Storefronts were full, life was pretty good,” he said.

But post-pandemic, downtowns across the U.S., including in Chicago, are struggling to bring pedestrians and business back. Edwards attended a national conference of downtown groups last year and recalled that other delegates were very interested in bringing NASCAR to their cities to spur a revival.

NASCAR has been in touch with nearly 1,500 Chicago businesses to prepare them for the race — hosting one-on-one meetings, calls and webinars; giving out “Open for Business” signs to hang in windows; and distributing 78,000 brochures with race maps detailing street closures and other information.

Some establishments along the race course welcome the NASCAR Chicago Street Race.

The Gage, 24 S. Michigan Ave., is offering a special NASCAR menu featuring drinks such as the “Pit Stop Rum Punch Bowl” and “Racing Fuel Revolver.”

“Last year, we saw a significant increase in foot traffic, which translated into a boost in sales and a vibrant atmosphere in our restaurant,” a spokesperson for The Gage said. “We anticipate an even greater crowd this year.”

Jackie Jackson, owner of the ice cream franchise Kilwins in Chicago, is feeling equally upbeat. Kilwins has a location in the Loop at 310 S. Michigan Ave.

“We feel anything to bring traffic and footsteps to downtown and the Loop is positive,” Jackson said.

Some businesses closing during NASCAR

For the second time, the bookstore Exile in Bookville will close during NASCAR weekend. It also stopped holding author events in the week ahead of the race because of construction noise and road closures.

The shop is located in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave., and it’s close to the NASCAR pit, so that part of Michigan Avenue is closed to the public.

Exile in Bookville co-owner Kristin Gilbert stands inside the bookstore while a view of NASCAR's bleachers for its Chicago Street Race is seen through the window behind her.

Exile in Bookville co-owner Kristin Gilbert inside the bookstore’s location in the Fine Arts Building. The store can see NASCAR’s bleachers from its upstairs location.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“With our street being closed and noise levels at such an extreme, a bookstore cannot operate,” Kristin Gilbert, co-owner of Exile in Bookville, said. “It’s not like we are a bar or a restaurant where extreme noise might be tolerated.”

Gilbert said that independent bookstores rely heavily on sales during the summer to carry them through the slower winter months. Closing during the busy summer season and especially the July Fourth holiday weekend is a blow.

“Every single day counts for independent bookstores,” she said.

Studebaker Theater, also in the Fine Arts Building, will not have any shows during NASCAR for the second year. The venue is often rented out for concerts and shows like NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”

“I wouldn’t want to stage a show that weekend either,” Taylor Hobart, Studebaker Theater’s assistant box office manager, said. “Of course, no one was here last year.”

Outside Osaka Sushi & Fresh Fruit Smoothies at 400 S. Michigan Ave. with pedestrians walking by and bleachers set up across the street for the NASCAR Chicago Street Race.

Osaka Sushi & Fresh Fruit Smoothies, located at 400 S. Michigan Ave., is closing during NASCAR’s two-day event.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Next door, Osaka Sushi & Fresh Fruit Smoothies will also shutter for the second year. Manager Barry Cheung said because of the road closures, UberEats and other delivery drivers are blocked from getting to Osaka Sushi, so the restaurant, at 400 S. Michigan Ave. will close.

Gilbert, of Exile in Bookville said, “If this race served the greater good of the city of Chicago, if it generated tons of money for the city that could be used to help serve it as a whole, we would not mind the sacrifice of closing.”

But that was not the case, according to media reports she read.

“When the city is not making the money they said they were going to make, when small businesses have to close or lose typical business as a result of the race, it is a decision I do not support,” she said.

A young customer reads a book at Exile in Bookville's shop, located inside the Fine Arts Building in the Loop. Bleachers for NASCAR's race can be seen through the window.

A young customer reads a book at Exile in Bookville’s shop, located inside the Fine Arts Building in the Loop. Bleachers for NASCAR’s race can be seen through the window.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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