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NASCAR Cup drivers curious about Chicago street race concept for the 2023 season

Chase Elliott converts pole position into his third NASCAR Cup Series win of the year in a dominant showing at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

HAMPTON, Georgia – Kurt Busch has a unique link to the brief past and the sudden future for a NASCAR street race.

According to a report in The Athletic, an announcement is imminent of the Cup Series adding a layout in downtown Chicago to its 2023 schedule. It would be a significant development for NASCAR, which has lacked a presence in the nation’s third-largest TV market since the 2019 race at Chicagoland Speedway and would be trying to add a major metropolitan city for the second consecutive year (after the debut of the Clash at the Coliseum short track last January).

But a Chicago street race would carry even more weight with Busch, whose parents grew up in the Windy City’s northwest suburbs while both attended Arlington Heights High School. Though he was raised in Las Vegas, Busch is a lifelong Cubs fan who still has many friends and family in Illinois.

Plus, there’s the matter of his No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing being co-owned by Michael Jordan, the NBA legend who won six championships with the Chicago Bulls.

“It would be awesome with people wanting to come and see and hang out with us,” Busch said. “It would be quite a hospitality weekend at 23XI. I think there’s a lot of excitement in all areas.

“The concept is as incredible as the Coliseum. If I can do things to help NASCAR with the track surface, some of the SAFER barriers and runoff areas, I’d raise my hand big with the driver council to try to help. The excitement, the different value, the different feel. It would be off the charts. I think that’s important for our sport on certain weekends to do that.”

The twist is Busch has done it before. The 2004 Cup Series champion made two starts in a NASCAR Southwest Tour race that ran through the streets of Los Angeles around the Coliseum in 1998-99.

“It was a blast,” Busch said. “The parking lot area had a sealant on it, then we crossed over this drainage ditch onto Figueroa, and that’s regular asphalt. And then we’d jump in by the Coliseum and run around it, and it had concrete like Dover and Nashville-style seams. So it had everything.

“That’s what I’m expecting with a street race that you’re going to have different surfaces, different bumps that hopefully will not upset the cars too much. But just the overall vibe of getting people there and the location, as picturesque as it’s going to be, will be an incredible sight to see and an incredible energy to be part of.”

The news of a possible Chicago race had many drivers buzzing – and some fretting about its potential impact for Road America – at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past weekend.

Chase Elliott, who has been campaigning to bring NASCAR to the Nashville Fairgrounds short track in part because of its proximity to the big city, applied the same logic to racing on the streets of Chicago.

“We need to make sure it’s a good event,” he said. “The drivers might not like the track and it might not be ideal for us. But when you’re in the middle of the city and have the ability to draw that kind of a crowd out to your race, we better make sure it’s put on well. Done at a very high level, people have a good spot to watch the race from, things to go do and make it an event. That’s what it needs to be. And I think as long as it’s that and it’s done well, it will be a success whether the drivers like the track or not.”

But like Busch and Kevin Harvick, who also raced on the streets of L.A., some drivers have insight to offer through their street course experiences (albeit in other series).

Austin Cindric counts the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, as among the favorite layouts he has raced in sports cars and USF2000 (a single-seater open-cockpit ladder series for IndyCar).

“I love street course racing; it’s fun to bring the party to the people,” the Team Penske driver said. “I feel like it’s a similar effect that an L.A. Coliseum-type event would have. So I think it’d be really cool to add. I think we have the cars, the fan base that would embrace an event like that.”

Michael McDowell, who has raced on street courses around the world in sports cars and open wheel (including a 2005 Champ Car debut on the famed Surfers Paradise circuit in Australia), said the Next Gen car should fit street courses better with its enhanced braking and turning capability.

“In our previous generation of car, it’d be tough just (with) the turning radius to even do a Coliseum let alone a street race,” McDowell said. “But with the Next Gen car, this car is capable of putting on a good show. So I think it would be fun. The bodies are a little bit tougher, and the clearance to the tires is better, which would be good. Because if you’re brushing up against concrete walls, you don’t want to cut a tire and get a flat.

“What’s probably most important is getting enough practice. Just because those racetracks are so challenging on their own, just having visual references and braking markers and all that is going to be really important. Just minimizing mistakes, I think practice can do that. … With street courses being so narrow in general, you’ve got to have a decent long straightaway and a good braking zone to be able to make moves and get through traffic.”

Cindric said the biggest challenges for NASCAR would be ensuring a spacious pit area to accommodate 40 cars, as well as having proper restart/runoff areas and minimizing sharp corner radiuses and angles. The Athletic report had no details on the proposed Chicago layout, but it’s expected to be based on an iRacing course that was unveiled for a 2021 wreckfest involving Cup drivers.

“Hopefully it goes way better than the iRacing deal did because that was an absolute disaster,” Alex Bowman said.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron said he’d be “very skeptical” about the proposed Chicago race if it’s based off the iRacing track. “I drove it on iRacing and iRacing does a great job with the tracks,” Byron said. “If it’s anything like that, it’s very, very narrow. So we’re going to have some work to do to create a passing lane. I don’t think it’s a matter of just making the track super wide so there’s room for error, but there has to be a passing lane. We have to be able to get inside of somebody under braking and not just hit the wall.”

Said Kyle Busch: “Street racing typically is pretty tight and pretty narrow with 90 degree corners. I’d hate to see one of us miss a corner, go into a tire barrier, and then it blocks the track.”

After watching the inaugural IndyCar race through the streets of downtown Nashville, Tennessee, Ryan Blaney said a street course width should be a high priority for NASCAR.

“I think it’s great they’re wanting to do something different and go to a good market,” the Team Penske driver said. “Your circuit has got to be wide enough to make it work. It can’t be 15 or 20 feet wide. It’s got to be wide enough to where you can actually race. And if there’s a wreck, you’re just not piling into it. So that’s my only concern is you’ve got to make it wide enough. To find streets that you can do that is tough.”

NASCAR already might have a good test case with the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, whose tight corners have been compared to a street course.

“The idea of a street course has been really exciting,” Tyler Reddick said. “I really enjoyed the Roval because of some of the corners you have there. You make a mistake in Turn 1, and there’s a barrier. You overstep it a little bit in (Turn) 2, and there’s another barrier. I think the thought of that could be really exciting.

“It seems like Chicago could work, so I’m excited for it. I just hope we don’t lose a track that is also really good for us, too.”

That’s a reference to Road America, where Reddick just became a first-time winner in the Cup Series. The Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, road course has been viewed as the most likely candidate for losing a race with the addition of Chicago (which likely would slot into the same July 4 race weekend).

“I’m excited about there being a possibility of a street race, but I’m not excited about it replacing Road America,” McDowell said. “Just because Road America is probably one of the coolest places we go to, great fan turnout, awesome venue. I could think of five or six (tracks) that I would like to replace other than Road America, but they didn’t ask me for my opinion.

Cindric is hoping that NASCAR would keep Road America (which he considers the best of six road courses on the Cup schedule) while also adding the Chicago street race.

“There’s a big short track following in (Wisconsin), and I don’t think the Chicago area necessarily makes up for that,” Cindric said. “We’ve raced in Chicagoland, that’s pretty close, but I don’t think it’s close enough. We get a ton of race fans that really enjoy (Road America), and I had a lot of people come up to me that have been watching me race there for a lot of years in Xfinity, talking about how they’re not looking forward to hearing (Chicago replace Road America). I’m optimistic that won’t happen.”