The Chicago Way

JOLIET, Ill. - The drive from downtown Chicago to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet is a little more than an hour give or take traffic and construction, which are as much a part of the city's landscape as deep dish pizza or a Cub fan's broken heart.

As you leave the city limits driving south on I-55, you can't help but notice the massive grandstands still standing from the area's first attempt at a major league motorsports facility on the horizon. The Chicago Motor Speedway, which was built on the grounds of the historic Sportsman's Park horse racing track, opened in 1999 to a capacity crowd of 67,000. Now less than five years later, the track is gone leaving behind a trail of red ink, lawsuits and of course a useless grandstand.

Chicago Motor Speedway tried to get the jump on capturing the Chicago racing market. But after its huge opening success, with a CART race no less, the track's fortunes quickly went down the drain. The first race was marketed as an event and interested not just race fans but the general public, who didn't know the difference between Paul Tracy or Dick Tracy. The inaugural Grand Prix of Chicago was a happening, a festival and the track's efforts paid off big time in a standing room only crowd.

Simply put, CMS was a one-hit wonder. Other races held at the track, including Craftsman Trucks, ASA and a disastrous local late model event that drew maybe 200 fans, were bombs. The next year's CART race drew an announced crowd of 50,000 and the track's last event in 2002 generated half that number.

While the Cicero speedway was self-destructing, 50 miles to the south the Chicagoland Speedway was rising in the cornfields. While CMS tried to pass itself off as the Wrigley Field of Chicago racing, completed with a neighborhood feeling, it was far from the case. No offense, but Cicero is not Wrigleyville, and the best part of being in that neighborhood was leaving it.

Joliet isn't in the shadows of the Chicago skyline, but Chicagoland Speedway is built on a spacious parcel of land with plenty of parking and relatively easy access. The facility is as modern and clean as they come and since it opened its gates in 2001, has been a hit with both fans and drivers.

Obviously the thing that has helped make Chicagoland a success story is NASCAR. There is no doubt the story would have been very different had Joliet been saddled with trying to market the current Champ Car product as its premier event rather than a Nextel Cup weekend.

But in a market the size of Chicago, with the thousands of options in the area for entertainment dollars to be spent, Chicagoland Speedway continues to excel. And if the track ever gets to expanding its seating capacity beyond the current 75,000, I know where to find some perfectly good, slightly used, grandstands.

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