Chicago’s NASCAR deal: Fast, furious and full of unanswered questions

Critics want to know who will pay for security and physical damage to downtown. But the bigger question is: Is anyone clamoring for this?

NASCAR and Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said gains from the city's first NASCAR street race will exist largely outside the event, from the tourist draw to construction revenues to set up the event. Illustration by Andjela Padejski/WBEZ. Lightfoot photo by Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
NASCAR and Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said gains from the city's first NASCAR street race will exist largely outside the event, from the tourist draw to construction revenues to set up the event. Illustration by Andjela Padejski/WBEZ. Lightfoot photo by Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Chicago’s NASCAR deal: Fast, furious and full of unanswered questions

Critics want to know who will pay for security and physical damage to downtown. But the bigger question is: Is anyone clamoring for this?

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Race cars zooming through downtown Chicago next July will undoubtedly make Grant Park look like a scene from the next installment of the Fast and Furious franchise.

Except in this movie, “the fast” refers to the speed at which the city agreed to host a NASCAR street racing weekend and “the furious” are city council members who say the entire deal lacks transparency or sound economic sense.

Controversy surrounding next July’s race weekend — a first for NASCAR and for Chicago — started last summer. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she had signed a three-year deal that, on July 1 and 2 will turn the streets around Grant Park, the museum campus and even Michigan Avenue into a 2.2-mile racecourse.

Lightfoot NASCAR
NASCAR CEO Jim France, left, and Executive Vice President Lesa Kennedy, right, give Mayor Lori Lightfoot a Chicago-themed racing helmet after the announcement that NASCAR will hold a race in the city each year for three years, starting in 2023, on July 19, 2022. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Interviews with aldermen, experts, and a WBEZ analysis of the contract show minimal financial benefit to the city and few specifics about who will pay for substantial related costs, from police to secure the event to cleanup crews to put downtown back together again. Such questions about who could be left with the tab and whether Lightfoot overreached with the hasty deal could likely become a flashpoint in the mayoral race that’s heating up, as opponents look for openings to criticize Lightfoot’s record.

The mayor’s office said in an emailed response to questions that the most tangible benefits of the weekend NASCAR event will be in the “positive impact” to area businesses from all those race fans dining in restaurants and staying in hotels. In the statement, a spokesperson likened it to “premier events” such as Lollapalooza and NBA All-Star weekends that “reflect the mayor’s commitment” to bring in economic wins for downtown. The city denied repeated interview requests made over the course of three weeks.

But the lack of details, the speed at which the deal was reached and whether the city could get stuck with part of the tab continue to draw ire among City Council members.

“I’m all for economic development, but the issue I have with it is lack of communication and transparency around how this project came to fruition,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas of the 36th Ward, which stretches west along Fullerton Avenue. Villegas said the mayor’s office has refused to meet with city council members, give them the contract, or even provide an “in-depth briefing” on the race.

FOX Sports NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass said it is likely details were scarce to help NASCAR avoid having to “navigate the politics of it.” “NASCAR prefers the way they did it, keeping things between as few parties as possible to get the deal done,” he said.

A closer look at the contract

The contract, obtained by WBEZ via a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that NASCAR is required to pay the city a $500,000 permit fee per year and a guarantee of 15% of the net commissions on concession and merchandise, plus $2 per admission ticket. (The permit fee increases to $550,000 in 2024 and to $605,000 in 2025.)

The contract promises NASCAR its racecar weekend through 2025 with an option of a two-year extension and guarantees NASCAR total broadcast, sponsorship, and signage rights. The Daytona Beach, Florida-based racing organization is only required to pay a $50,000 security deposit for damages to Grant Park. (Scroll to the bottom of the story to view the contract.)

In an email, NASCAR spokesperson Brent Gambill said “NASCAR will be responsible for security” but would not specify details. The contract does not specify security costs by either the city or NASCAR, nor does it indicate how much the organization must pay the park district to restore the park beyond the $50,000 deposit. Instead, the contract says a third-party landscape contractor will survey the site before and after the race and provide “a damage assessment and restoration estimate” for all parties “to review and agree upon.” NASCAR, the contract says, is ultimately on the hook for that.

The contract also specifies that park district officials will receive, “at no charge, NASCAR credential passes and general admission tickets.”

NASCAR
The Chicago NASCAR event would be the first city street course race in the racing organization’s 75-year history. It celebrated last July by sending Bubba Wallace in a car to iconic downtown spots, including Navy Pier and to visit with members of the Boys and Girls Club. All photos by Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
The gains, according to the mayor, exist largely outside the event. A spokesperson for the mayor referenced a report commissioned by NASCAR that promises $100 million in related tourism and construction revenues to Chicago — everything from building scaffolding and setting up the event to residual spending for hotels, restaurants, transportation, retail and entertainment.

As for how the event came to captivate the mayor’s office, it apparently started with a video simulation.

In July 2021, NASCAR partnered with iRacing, an online video simulation company, to launch a one-day street race set in a virtually scanned downtown Chicago that pitted professional drivers against one another. “It was almost a feasibility study of how it can be done” in the real world, said NASCAR’s Street Course President Julie Giese. By the end, “both NASCAR and the city of Chicago looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to make that a reality’,” Giese said.

The Chicago race is an outgrowth of a steady push by NASCAR to broaden its audience.

That push includes the move of the Busch Light Clash, a race with a 32-year history at the Daytona International Speedway until it was shifted into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last February. Giese said 70% of attendees at that event had never attended a NASCAR event, a finding the organization found “staggering.”

“Chicago is the next step” of “introducing our sport to a whole new audience,” she said.

NASCAR map
The proposed course layout for the 2023 NASCAR Chicago Street Race extends 2.2 miles around Grant Park and the museum campus.

Giese said she expects 100,000 people to attend the two-day event, which will be structured like a destination festival. Eventgoers will purchase a two-day pass that will keep them inside a footprint that will include an “A-list” concert each night in Hutchinson Field and “different activations” around Buckingham Fountain that will include food, vehicle displays by sponsors like Toyota, and interactive games.

Ticket prices — $269 for general admission and $465-plus for reserved seating — are higher than typical speedway races and are more comparable to music festival price points, she said.

The nature of the race on a street grid means a greater challenge for drivers, said Pockrass of FOX Sports. Turns will be tighter, there won’t be run-offs, and drivers will have minimal time to test-drive the route before the race itself.

“The unknown is not something many drivers relish,” he said, “but I think the event is something that they are all excited about.”

Questions about who’s paying for parks, police

Still, the moment Lightfoot announced the race in July, it became a lightning rod for criticism from City Council members, park advocates and community groups that the mayor’s office had overreached and struck a deal that is fiscally irresponsible.

According to several aldermen who were interviewed both on and off the record for this article, Lightfoot worked on the deal privately without notifying the city council it was in the works.

Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward overlaps with the downtown course, said he was among a few City Council members summoned to meet NASCAR officials less than 24 hours before the announcement. The meeting “was a whopping 15 minutes and certainly didn’t go into any detail” about what Lightfoot would soon announce alongside NASCAR CEO Jim France and driver Bubba Wallace.

“There was absolutely no transparency, whatsoever,” Reilly said. The meeting, he said, “was done simply so the mayor could check a box to say, ‘Well, the aldermen were aware.’” (When asked by reporters in August, Lightfoot said “all of [the aldermen] were briefed ahead of time.”)

NASCAR
Mayor Lori Lightfoot participates in a panel discussion with Chicago and NASCAR officials in July after the announcement that NASCAR will hold a race in the city each year for three years, starting in 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza of the 10th Ward, which spans several Far South Side neighborhoods, described the contract as “horrible,” not just because of the lopsided gains but because it doesn’t include a community benefits agreement that would help preserve the area and keep revenue local.

“There are so many things missing from that contract. We’re getting the short end of the stick,” she said.

Take, for example, the destination music festival Lollapalooza, which descends on downtown every August. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison since each event contract is structured differently, Lollapalooza’s commitment to the city for its weekend is far more extensive than the deal Lightfoot worked out with NASCAR.

In its new contract, which extends the festival in Grant Park through 2032, Lollapalooza pays the city a guarantee of $2 million for the four-day festival and even $750,000 if the festival is not held. (NASCAR pays the city nothing if the race is canceled.)

But the big money comes from revenue. The Chicago Park District earns an attractive percentage of festival revenue — from 5% of the first $30 million to 20% of revenue generated between $50 million to $70 million, according to the city. On top of that, Lollapalooza producers have committed $2.2 million to the Chicago Public Schools with additional, although unspecified, funding for the Chicago Park District and Grant Park Tennis Court renovation.

In July, Lightfoot announced Lollapalooza generated $305 million to the city’s economy in 2021 alone, a figure that includes $7.8 million in fees to the Chicago Park District.

Robert Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College who is a national expert on the intersection between municipalities and professional sports, examined the NASCAR contract for WBEZ. He said he was “surprised” to see the minimal $500,000 financial commitment by NASCAR to the city. “Five hundred thousand dollars is not nearly enough to make up for what it is that the city will surely incur in costs to host the event,” Baade said, such as police overtime, cleanup and restoration costs to the parks and streets, and lost revenue from tourists expected downtown every Fourth of July weekend.

Lollapalooza police tower
Special events downtown require a heavy police presence. Pictured is a police tower overlooking the third day of Lollapalooza in Grant Park on July 30, 2022. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

As with any large-scale gathering downtown, the NASCAR event will require a heavy police presence, something that even Chicago Police Supt. David Brown suggested in October would create a manpower issue. Following the mayor’s announcement in July, Brown said an “explosion” of special events downtown is forcing his department’s overtime costs to skyrocket.

Advocates for the use of public parks in the city also say the race follows a disturbing trend. “I don’t know what the plan is for cleanup afterwards,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park, an advocacy group. She sees the race as part of a continuing trend by Lightfoot and past administrations to view parks as “largely about revenue generation” and not recreation or tranquility.

“The park district requires folks who use the parks for mega festivals to pay for damages, but oftentimes, even if they are paid, those areas are roped off for a long time because we must plant new grass,” Irizarry said. “Some people say, ‘What’s the big deal; it will be paid for,’ but actually, we all pay for it by not being able to access that space until the grass grows back.”

Giese said that NASCAR is committed to making sure the park “looks as great as it did as when we arrived.” While Buckingham Fountain will reopen to the public for July Fourth, just a day after the race, structures from the race — such as grandstands — will follow “a little bit longer of a removal timeline because of the scale of them and how many there are,” she said.

That continued presence of NASCAR, weeks before the race and following, could potentially impact the flow of museumgoers to the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and the Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute officials also had reportedly expressed concern about vibrations from the noisy street cars putting fragile art in peril.

Geise said the pedestrian tunnel to get to the Field and Shedd will remain open throughout the weekend, and the organization is working with the museums to address their concerns. Spokespersons for the Field and Shedd did not respond on the record to requests for comment. Katie Rahn, a spokesperson for the Art Institute, said the museum is “looking forward to welcoming visitors throughout the race weekend.”

Baade, the Lake Forest College professor, said most municipalities that turn to professional sports as easy cash spigots often fail to understand that residual revenue gains rarely equal or surpass the direct revenue gains enjoyed by the organizers, who are usually never local.

“The hope is that people will come to Chicago and be awestruck by the beauty of the city, and tourism will be spiked and induced well into the future as a consequence of the event. That sort of promise is something that we often see regarding mega sports events but seldom materializes,” Baade said.

Reilly and other aldermen said they have drafted ordinance legislation to limit the power of the mayor to approve special events without city council input. Lightfoot, he argued, is using the event to bolster her re-election to a second term but indicated that is backfiring.

“If there’s a new mayor, that mayor’s lawyers can undo the deal,” he said. “A lot of it will depend on the next election.”

Mark Guarino is a journalist based in Chicago.