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Repost from the Chicago Tribune: NASCAR faces tight schedule as ChicagoStreet Course takes shape

Article reprinted from the Chicago Tribute

BY: Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2023

Chicago — The Chicago Street Course is rising fast along the city’s lakefront, but NASCAR is racing the clock to get it done by the inaugural July Fourth weekend event. Temporary grandstands, concrete barriers and fencing have sprung up on parts of the course in and around Grant Park, facilitated by rolling street closures. But a concerted effort to keep roads open as long as possible to minimize disruption means construction won’t be completed until the eve of the race. “We’re not going to close southbound Michigan Avenue until 5 p.m. June 30, the day before the race,” said Jeremy Casperson, director of civil engineering at NASCAR. “So we will be working into the night, but we will have it finished.” Summer is always road construction season in Chicago. But a trip down DuSable Lake Shore Drive this week reveals a construction season unlike any other, with NASCAR building the first street course in its 75-year history.

The Grant Park 220, a televised Cup Series race July 2, will feature a 12-turn, 2.2-mile course, with NASCAR drivers navigating closed-off streets lined with temporary fences, grandstands and hospitality suites. A separate Xfinity Series race is set for July 1, with full-length concerts each day.

Construction of the Paddock Club, a premium two-level elevated deck overlooking the start/finish line at Buckingham Fountain, began June 2, enabled by adjacent parking restrictions on Columbus Drive between Jackson and Balbo drives. Road closures accelerated this week to allow for the track wall installation.

Forklifts and 18-wheelers plied closed off sections of Grant Park this week, erecting stands and beginning to place 2,000 concrete barriers on the perimeter of the race course, a process that will take until June 30 to complete. Each barrier is topped with tall curved fencing to catch any debris from the race cars before reaching the spectators.

The barriers, which were poured at an undisclosed Chicago-area facility, are 12 feet long, 3½ feet tall and weigh 10,000 pounds each. They are being stored at the McCormick Place Truck Marshaling Yard and driven in four at a time, a laborious process on a closed-off section of Balbo Drive.

The concrete barriers are essentially the only component of the pop-up street course owned by NASCAR. Everything else, from fencing to grandstands, is leased for the event.

NASCAR struck a three-year deal with the Chicago Park District to transform the Grant Park environs into a temporary racecourse. The stock car racing organization will pay the Chicago Park District a $500,000 permit fee this year, $550,000 in 2024 and $605,000 in 2025, with an option to renew for two years.

The Chicago Street Race is expected to draw 100,000 attendees during July Fourth weekend, a potential tourism boon for the city, and an opportunity to expand the fan base for NASCAR, which has struggled with declining ratings and attendance in recent years. Tickets range from $269 for two-day general admission to more than $3,000 for the premium Paddock Club.

While NASCAR does not disclose ticket sales, six sections of reserved seats are sold out, a NASCAR spokesperson said Wednesday. There are 20,000 reserved seats and 30,000 general admission tickets for the two-day event.

NASCAR also made available a limited number of single-day tickets for Chicago residents this week, in partnership with the Chicago Sports Commission.

This week, tourists still walked, rode bikes and skateboarded around the Buckingham Fountain plaza, traversing a giant rubber mat that will provide the flooring for a massive hospitality tent. Across Columbus Drive, cranes put the finishing touches on the skeleton of the Paddock Club.

Once completed, the Paddock Club will feature panoramic views, air conditioning, a pasta station from RPM Italian, an open-air roof deck and perhaps most importantly for a long afternoon in the park, access to premium bathrooms. While a number of sections are sold out, there are still two-day tickets available for the Paddock Club, the priciest seat at the Chicago Street Course.

Custom-built in Germany, the Paddock Club is rented by NASCAR along with all the reserved seating from InProduction, which bills itself as the largest temporary event seating company in the U.S. The frames of all but two of the grandstands and suites have been started as of Wednesday, a NASCAR spokesperson said.

“They’re building everything around the site,” said Julie Giese, president of the Chicago Street Race, during a walking tour.

Construction of the Fountain Club, premium suites in front of Buckingham Fountain, began Wednesday, the same day NASCAR announced it as the latest sold-out section of reserved seating.

There is still plenty to complete in the final days before the race including the pit road, where the race cars will pull in for quick fuel refills and tire changes across from Buckingham Fountain.

“Once we take over Columbus next week, then that will get built,” Giese said.

The roads themselves were patched up in spots by the Chicago Department of Transportation in advance of the race, but remain an authentic Chicago street course, with a melange of concrete, asphalt and varying surface integrity. The limited repair work was already on the city’s to-do list, and focused on Lake Shore Drive, Columbus and Jackson, Giese said.

Drivers should top 140 mph on straightaways such as Lake Shore Drive, but will need to slow down to about 40 mph on some turns, according to broadcaster and former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr, who test drove the course this month. He called the course “challenging,” with bottlenecks and “very imperfect” road surfaces.

“Part of the lore of street racing is running on the streets that you and I run on every day, versus a whole new repaved racetrack,” Giese said.

The roads should be none the worse after the race, Giese said, and like the rest of Grant Park, NASCAR is responsible for any needed repairs caused by the event.

The biggest challenge remains the tight schedule, Giese said, after cutting a week off the original course build plan to minimize disruption for residents, businesses and the adjacent Museum Campus. NASCAR wasn’t initially planning to install crash-absorbing tire packs, concrete barriers, signage and fences on Michigan Avenue the night before the race weekend, for example.

Breaking the street course down after the race will take a lot less time, with the last piece expected to be out of Grant Park by July 15. That includes the 2,000 concrete barriers, which NASCAR must store until next year’s race, preferably somewhere in the Chicago area.

“We’re working on that right now,” Giese said

Article reprinted from the Chicago Tribute

BY: Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2023


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