My Kind Of Town

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JOLIET, ILL. - The last time NASCAR raced in Chicago, the Cubs hadn’t been in a World Series in a very long time. Well things haven’t changed much around Wrigley Field for the past 45 years, but at least NASCAR is back. The brand new Chicagoland Speedway welcomes the Winston Cup and Busch tours this weekend, the latest addition to the ever-expanding NASCAR schedule.

Calling this glistening new facility Chicagoland Speedway is a bit of a stretch as it’s located in Joliet, Ill., about 60 miles southwest of the Chicago skyline. But despite its distance from the city limits, there’s little doubt this weekend’s events will be a success.

Nearly 75,000 seats have been sold for both races, which would make this weekend’s attendance nearly greater than what the White Sox have drawn all season (unless the fans at Comiskey Park have been coming disguised as empty seats during the first half of the season). The support disproves the myth that Chicago is a stick and ball sport town with no interest in auto racing.

In truth, Chicago has a long and fairly significant auto racing heritage. In fact, the world’s first auto race was held at the turn of the century (as in 20th century) in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Over the years some of the greatest names in motorsports have competed in the area at a variety of speedways.

Soldier Field was the site of weekly stock car racing programs in the 1950’s, where crowds in excess of 35-40,000 gathered at the storied lakefront stadium to watch promoter Andy Granatelli’s “Hurricane Racing Association” compete. A combination short track race and thrill show, the events were as popular as any other professional sport in town and generated regular media coverage by both the print and radio press.

NASCAR took note of this enthusiasm and fan support and booked several sanctioned shows into Soldier Field including a Grand National (now Winston Cup) race in 1956, won by Fireball Roberts before a crowd of more than 45,000. The NASCAR convertible circuit also came to Chicago twice with local favorite (and this reporter’s uncle) “Tiger” Tom Pistone treating the hometown (and the entire family) to a win.

But aside from the short track scene which included tracks like Santa Fe Speedway, Illiana Motor Speedway, Grundy County Speedway and Waukegan Speedway, big-time racing had been absent from Chicago for nearly 50 years.

But now, ironically, there are two major league speedways in town. Chicago Motor Speedway, a one-mile oval built in conjunction with a horse racing track in suburban Cicero, brought CART racing to the city three years ago with the Target Grand Prix. One of the best promoted events in the circuit's history, the race has quickly become one of the premiere stops on the FedEx Championship Series with 65,000 fans in attendance each of the first two years.

And this weekend the brand spanking new Chicagoland Speedway opens its gates. Suddenly a town where the only racing being done was on the expressway system is home to a pair of impressive tracks. But can the market support both facilities? I think it can.

Heck, we’ve had two baseball teams in Chicago forever, why can’t two race tracks co-exist? Neither depends purely on drawing from the Chicago metropolitan area, although with about eleven million residents, that’s not a bad market to attract. There are millions more race fans in the surrounding vicinity including Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri. With the right scheduling mix and date selection there’s no reason why Chicago Motor Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway can’t both prosper.

As a native Chicagoan, I couldn’t be happier. I can cover eight major racing weekends this season while still sleeping in my own bed. I never thought I’d live to see the day. And to top it all off, the Cubs are in first place. Boy are things changing around the Windy City.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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