The Chicago Way

JOLIET, Ill. - Before Chicagoland Speedway opened its gates to NASCAR racing in 2001, the last time the sanctioning body held a race 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, oh 100 years or so, but NASCAR is back – and in a big way.

Since Chicagoland became part of the NASCAR schedule, more than 80,000 seats have been sold for both the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series races have been sold every year. Joliet has been the home to Chicago’s largest sporting event seven years running with racing at Chicagoland Speedway easily outdrawing the Bears at Soldier Field or any capacity crowd either the Cubs or White Sox could draw at Wrigley Field and US Cellular Field. The support disproves the myth that Chicago is a stick and ball sport town with no interest in racing.

In truth, Chicago has a long and fairly significant racing heritage. In fact, the world’s first auto race was held at the turn of the 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.

Chicago Speedway was a high-banked, two-mile track built of wood that hosted racing from 1917 to 1919. In those early days of racing, board-surfaced speedways were the norm, and the lightning-fast track was built as a rival to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Unfortunately, the facility didn’t survive past its third season and was torn down to make way for commercial development.

Auto racing was a major attraction at Soldier Field right after World War II. A paved, half-mile oval track built inside the historic stadium hosted a variety of motorsports events, including open-wheel and stock car racing.

Midget racing was a big draw in those days and the open-cockpit machines competed at Soldier Field for some of the largest purses in the country. Drivers from across the United States took part in the events, which generated national attention.

Soldier Field in fact, 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 Sprint 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 “Tiger” Tom Pistone treating the hometown to a win.

But aside from the short track scene which included noteworthy 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.

That was before Chicagoland Speedway came on to the scene.

Now with night racing on the horizon for the third time, there is a resurgence of excitement around the track and the event.

The addition of prime time racing to Joliet was welcomed in a big way by both fans and competitors. The exciting finish between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson a couple of years ago was one of the best in recent years. With the "Boys Have at It" trend of 2010, there's a good chance Saturday night's race will have its share of fireworks.

Attendance may be off this season as it's been at most every stop of the schedule. The economic problems have not let up and the Chicago area hasn't been immune.

Hopefully that will improve soon and entertainment dollars will again be a bit more in reach for hundreds and thousands of fans around the area.

But even in a city that is plentiful in sports and entertainment options, Chicagoland Speedway has made its mark, which is an impressive story anyway you look at it.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2010

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