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Chicago: Making NASCAR work in the big city

Winter is coming in Chicago. Julie Giese knows this. Might be time to shop for a big winter coat, she says.

This will be the oddest of racing offseasons for Giese, a veteran NASCAR executive who’s been handed the formidable task of overseeing the preparations for and the execution of next summer’s Chicago Street Race, a NASCAR adventure into the unknown.

Giese is trading the Desert Southwest for Chicago, a dramatic move in more ways than one. She has been president of Phoenix Raceway, which hosts the championship races of NASCAR’s top three series, and now assumes responsibility for a major auto racing experiment.

The Chicago Cup and Xfinity races are scheduled July 1-2 next year on a 2.2-mile, 12-turn street layout that will carry the cars past Buckingham Fountain and Grant Park and along Lake Shore Drive, providing unusual visuals of NASCAR racing on a landscape that includes the Lake Michigan shoreline and the famous architecture of downtown Chicago.

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To get to that first street race green flag, however, there is much work to be done.

“I think the most fun for me is that this is a blank sheet of paper,” Giese told NBC Sports. “We’re building this from the start. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity, getting to create something as we’re doing it.

“Street races have been done, but this is the first time NASCAR has done it. We’re pushing ourselves to think outside the box, to be creative, to create something our fans and the city of Chicago haven’t seen before.”

Chase Briscoe Chicago

Chase Brisoce’s car at Chicago on July 19, 2022 (Photo: Dustin Long)

NASCAR is treating the race weekend as a blend of competition and festival, with concerts by “A-list” artists and other sideline/sideshow activities scheduled within the track layout area. Temporary suite viewing areas will be constructed along the race course, and food and drink will be plentiful.

NASCAR has hired Four Leaf Productions to handle many of the logistical challenges related to such a huge event. Four Leaf has produced many large spectator events, including the Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits music festivals, and has experience working with city officials in Chicago.

Tickets to the races will include admission to the concerts on-site.

“We want Chicago to be a very different experience,” Giese said. “It’s going to be a two-day festival. This will be one of the first times we’re having full music concerts as part of the experience. When we fold in concerts, it’s usually an abbreviated show as part of the pre- or post-race. In Chicago, we’re changing that strategy to where you have races each day and full concerts with ‘A-list’ talent each night. It’s a great opportunity for us to test that in a market that’s very used to doing events like that.

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“We’re putting it together piece by piece. We’ve surrounded ourselves with individuals from Four Leaf Productions who have tremendous knowledge of Chicago and putting on events in Chicago. And we have a really great team in-house that has built tracks and worked on the operations side, and we’re getting started putting all that together.”

There will be numerous hurdles over the next six months. Closing streets in one of the nation’s busiest cities for a week, more or less, is a challenge in itself, and the announcement of the race soon created opposition from some local officials and residents and businesses near the race area. Giese will be the point person in dealing with both excitement and dissent.

“I’m familiar enough with the city, but I’m learning about it every day,” she said. “Residents and business community members have been really welcoming and super helpful to me as I continue to learn and find my way around and network. It’s been positive.”

Giese has walked the race course with a television production team and has seen the promise of what can be.

“It’s the potential,” she said. “We knew what it could be with the skyline, the lake, the fountain. It’s going to be stunning.”