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NASCAR is taking deposits for a 2024 Chicago race. But will the city have it back?

Some Chicago officials and businesses wave a caution flag on bringing back NASCAR, saying a thorough evaluation comes first.

Days after a rainy street race in Chicago, and as closures still block roads downtown, NASCAR fans can already drop a $250 deposit to secure their spot for a potential race next year, as the company expresses confidence it will be back in Chicago in 2024.

But the city is not as married to the idea just yet.

“We’re very grateful that, despite the extreme weather, that NASCAR was able to deliver with very minimal disruption,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said Monday, pausing as he chose his words — the extent of his public evaluation of the race thus far.

Johnson, who had no hand in bringing the event here but now will decide its fate, said he will “assess [the event] and grade it,” stopping short of inviting the company back for another round. Record-setting, torrential downpour caused delays and cancellations that could make it more difficult to assess the inaugural street race’s impact. And the event was marred by a contractor’s death after he was electrocuted during race set-up.

Now the city has a decision to make about whether weeks of street closures before and after the race, as well as the cost of staffing it with traffic aides and police officers, is worth the to-be-determined revenue and publicity. NASCAR’s contract gives both sides the option to walk away.

“Despite the weather, I thought it was an impressive event,” said. Ald. Bill Conway, whose 34th Ward encompasses parts of downtown. “Chicago shined on the world stage as it always does. And now we’re going to do the in-depth cost benefit analysis to see if it’s something that we should do again.”

Assessing the benefits

It terms of what Chicago might make from the event, according to the Chicago Park District’s contract with NASCAR, the city will be guaranteed a $500,000 permit fee (with that fee increasing to $605,000 by 2025), and an additional $2 per ticket sale and 15% of net food and beverage concessions and merchandise sold at the event.

NASCAR declined to share numbers on ticket sales Monday, but previously said it expected the race to generate more than $113 million in new spending and more than $3 million in tax revenue for Chicago in 2023 alone.

While final tallies were not yet available, Michele Lemons, a Park District spokeswoman, said Monday the contract “reflects a substantial guaranteed fee with additional upside for the Park District to the extent the event does well.”

But Robert Baade, a Lake Forest College economics professor who studies the intersection of major sporting events and municipalities, said he feels the city ultimately left money on the table.

“$500,000 to put on an event like this, is truly light. Embarrassingly so,” Baade said of the permit fee the city is bringing in this year. “I think that the city of Chicago needs to be a little bit more aggressive with regard to the negotiation. It’s not as if Chicago doesn’t have something to sell.”

Johnson did not give a timeline for assessing the event’s economic impact. The city has until 180 days, or six months, before the next race to decide whether it wants to bring NASCAR back. Baade said he’s skeptical economic benefits estimated by NASCAR will pan out.

“If you look at let’s say a booster’s claim with regard to how much this is going to do for the community,” Baade said, “move that decimal point one place to the left and you’re more likely to arrive at a meaningful statistic with regard to what the economic impact really is.”

In addition to weighing the costs versus the benefits, Baade said an audit of the event’s economic impact needs to take into account where fans are traveling from. If attendees were largely from the Chicago metro area, and skipped eating at a restaurant to instead eat at the NASCAR race, for example, “you haven’t really increased spending in the city overall. All you’ve done is redistribute that spending.”

Cars race down South Michigan Avenue during the second day of NASCAR's first street race in downtown Chicago on Sunday, July 2, 2023
Mustafa Hussain
For the Chicago Sun-Times
Cars race down South Michigan Avenue during the second day of NASCAR's first street race in downtown Chicago on Sunday, July 2, 2023

Perhaps harder to calculate is the publicity the event brings and how that translates to tangible economic benefits for the city. A broadcast of the race offered views of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive and the city’s skyline to a national, perhaps even global, audience as New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen won his NASCAR Cup Series debut. The broadcasters also referred repeatedly to the city’s tourist-friendly highlights, particularly as they waited out the rain delay, from deep dish pizza to its many professional sports teams.

In a statement, the city’s tourism arm — Choose Chicago — highlighted those benefits, going so far as to say the group looks forward to welcoming NASCAR back next year.

“Despite challenging weather conditions, thousands of people turned out for this first-ever event,” said Lynn Osmond, President and CEO of Choose Chicago. “The global coverage of this event showcased the beauty of Chicago to millions of people, breaking broadcast and streaming records for NASCAR.”

Attending in person on Saturday, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who inked the three-year deal, called the event a “love letter” to Chicago.

“What I experienced seemed like a well-constructed and well-run event, in which veteran fans and newcomers alike were excited to see street racing brought to Chicago,” she said in an emailed response to WBEZ’s questions. “It was a multi-day love letter to the city of Chicago, broadcast across the world.”

Former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot attended NASCAR's events, calling them a love letter to Chicago.
Provided by former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot attended NASCAR's events, calling them a love letter to Chicago.

Calculating the costs

But any potential benefits will need to be weighed with what it costs to hold the event here. That could include anything from overtime pay for officers, to additional traffic aides needed, to indirect economic costs of business or street closures.

Per the contract, NASCAR was required to put down $50,000 as a security deposit for potential damages, and the city and NASCAR will agree on restoration costs after a walk-through to assess any damage to the park grounds. The city’s transportation department on Wednesday said it wasn’t aware of any road repairs needed as a result of the race.

A further assessment will happen after the track wall, fence and risers are taken down by July 15, a transportation department spokesperson said.

A car circles the track during the Xfinity Loop Series
Manuel Martinez
A car circles the track during the Xfinity Loop Series

City officials previously said police officers’ days off would be canceled to help control traffic and staff the event. The Chicago Police Department declined to provide details on how much in overtime was logged by officers.

“Clearly this is a group of people that they don’t need any more days off canceled,” Conway said of police. “So that was a significant cost to having NASCAR in Chicago.”

And while many business owners were optimistic that an anticipated boost in visitors might mean more spending downtown, for some small stores and Chicago institutions, race weekend meant closing up shop — another impact the city will have to assess.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said he’s hoping to receive visitor numbers from Choose Chicago in the coming weeks, but that, anecdotally, restaurants downtown did not see the number of diners they typically would on a rainy, holiday weekend.

“Historically, rain makes restaurants busier,” Toia said. “When you get rain, people still want to do something for the holidays so they go to restaurants… But because of NASCAR, and streets being closed, [people] weren’t really coming downtown.”

“I’d like to see the data on NASCAR to see if we should keep moving forward with this,” he added. “We encourage the city to keep doing these great events, but I’m not sure closing all these streets is the right approach.”

The Shedd Aquarium closed Saturday and Sunday and the Field Museum adjusted its hours. The Field Museum still saw nearly 12,000 visitors which was “on track with attendance we’ve seen in recent years,” a museum spokeswoman said, but noted turnout was likely boosted by free admission offered to Illinois residents those days.

Exile in Bookville, an independent bookstore on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, also made the decision to close, shutting down for what’s typically the busiest days of the week.

Co-owner Kristin Enola Gilbert said the city occasionally shared timelines for race setup over email that often changed. Barricades put up on the sidewalk several days before race day that limited access came as a surprise.

“Everything was very vague and ambiguous,” Gilbert said, adding that when a public forum had been announced where business owners could share their opinions, they were only given a few hours’ notice. Concerns about safety, noise and reduced accessibility to the store ultimately led to the decision to close Saturday through Monday due to the race.

“I’d like them to not host the race in downtown Chicago,” Gilbert said. “Our city has been denied to us all for a two-day race weekend.”

Conversely, the Art Institute, which maintained its normal hours, said it welcomed over 13,000 visitors Friday through Monday — a similar turnout to previous 4th of July holiday weekends, with higher attendance in particular on Monday, a spokeswoman said.

Future races?

To answer that question, Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, wants to hear from her residents first.

Dowell on Wednesday sent a survey to constituents asking things such as: Do you think Chicago hosting a NASCAR race was good or bad for the City? Was your daily commute significantly affected by the NASCAR Street Race setup? What are some things the City can do to improve events like the NASCAR Street Race?

Alds. Conway and Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, both said they want to see an in-depth evaluation of the event before they make up their minds on whether the event should be held again next year. While they received complaints from residents on noise, traffic and lakefront access, they had praise for the caution and care NASCAR took to run the event in the face of hazardous weather.

Spectators take a photo at a welcome sign at the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race.
Manuel Martinez
Spectators take a photo at a welcome sign at the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race.

“I expected disruptive, I expected imperfect, but I also expected safe. And I think we achieved on that,” said La Spata, who chairs the City Council’s Pedestrian & Traffic Safety Committee. “Now the thinking, I think, will be, not only do we want to do this again next year, but how do we perfect our communication and our infrastructure around this? And how do we potentially reduce disruption while still maintaining that safety?”

When Lightfoot announced the NASCAR deal, alderpersons criticized the mayor for lack of transparency. La Spata said he fully expects Johnson’s administration will ensure alderpersons’ input is taken into account when deciding the future of the race.

“I don’t think anybody should have their mind made up just yet,” La Spata said.

Though alderpersons do not have a vote to cast on whether to bring NASCAR back, in a nod to those frustrations, Johnson said his analysis will include input from others in an “open process” to determine whether NASCAR racers will hit the streets of Chicago in 2024.

WBEZ's Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics.
WBEZ's Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics in Chicago.