Bob Richards, one of America’s most popular athletes in the 1950s, pole vaults in the heart of the Loop to promote the 1959 Pan American Games. That’s the old Federal Building in the background.

Bob Richards, one of America’s most popular athletes in the 1950s, pole vaults in the heart of the Loop to promote the 1959 Pan American Games. That’s the old Federal Building in the background.

Sun-Times file

NASCAR’s not the first to use Chicago as a sports arena, venue

As the NASCAR drivers take to Chicago’s streets, we remember other times this city has opened its roadways to provide a venue for national and local sports events.

Chicago has always been a sports town.

And it’s not unusual to have the city’s streets used for an arena.

It’s also been a venue for competition since the 1800s, when city streets were closed for high-wheel bicycle races. In 1901, a year after the first auto race was held in the United States, organizers cordoned off a 40-mile path from Chicago to Joliet. Beaches are regularly closed for volleyball tournaments, public pools for swim events and sections of Lake Michigan for regattas.

75th with 1st edition
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To mark the 75th anniversary of the daily Chicago Sun-Times, we are exploring the history of Chicago — and ours — in stories throughout the year. Click here to read the entire first edition of the paper from Feb. 2, 1948.

So it’s not unusual for the city to close roadways and parks for an event like the NASCAR Cup Series Street Race this weekend.

During the past 75 years, Sun-Times photographers and reporters have covered sports that take up city streets and waterways. Here are a few.

Pan American Games

The 1959 Pan American Games is the closest that Chicago has ever come to hosting the Olympics. At least 20 sections of the city and suburbs shut down streets over two weeks in the middle of the summer. Rowing was in the Cal-Sag Channel, yachting in Jackson Park Outer Harbor, tennis at the Lincoln Park Waveband Courts and baseball at Wrigley Field.

Front page of the Chicago Sun-Times on opening day for the Pan American Games, Friday, Aug. 28, 1959.

Front page of the Chicago Sun-Times on opening day for the Pan American Games, Friday, Aug. 28, 1959.

Opening ceremony at Portage Park of the 1959 Pan American Games. Photograph by Dave Mann of the Sun-Times

Opening ceremony at Portage Park of the 1959 Pan American Games.

Dave Mann/Sun-Times

Riders take on the challenge of a gravel quarry just north of Libertyville in the Pan American Games modern pentathlon. Twenty-five countries sent 2,200 athletes to Chicago. Photo taken by Bob Kotalik of the Sun-Times  

Riders take on the challenge of a gravel quarry just north of Libertyville in the Pan American Games modern pentathlon. Twenty-five countries sent 2,200 athletes to Chicago.

Bob Kotalik/Sun-Times

Mayor Richard J. Daley closed off only one traffic lane for the Game’s marathon. U.S. runners Alfred Confalone (left) and James Green make the big turn on Lake Shore Drive’s former S-curve. Green, who finished second, was still running in the Boston Marathon in 2017 at age 84. The 1959 race stretched from Foster Avenue to 47th Street and ended in Soldier Field. Photo by Bob Kotalik of the Sun-Times 

Mayor Richard J. Daley closed off only one traffic lane for the Game’s marathon. U.S. runners Alfred Confalone (left) and James Green make the big turn on Lake Shore Drive’s former S-curve. Green, who finished second, was still running in the Boston Marathon in 2017 at age 84. The 1959 race stretched from Foster Avenue to 47th Street and ended in Soldier Field.

Bob Kotalik/Sun-Times

During the Pan American Games, bikers head down Lake Shore Drive’s Foster Avenue exit ramp. 

During the Pan American Games, bikers head down Lake Shore Drive’s Foster Avenue exit ramp.

Chicago Marathon

Since the early 1900s, the city has shut down roads for marathons. An estimated 500,000 people lined the route from Ravinia Park in Highland Park to downtown Chicago to watch the 1905 marathon (only 25 miles in those days). The current Chicago Marathon was started in 1977 by Mayor Michael Bilandic, a runner.

Front page the day after the first Chicago Marathon.

Front page the day after the first Chicago Marathon.

Thousands race east down Randolph Street during the 1978 Chicago Marathon. The Marshall Field and Company (now Macy’s) clock is on the left.

Thousands race east down Randolph Street during the 1978 Chicago Marathon. The Marshall Field and Company (now Macy’s) clock is on the left.

Kevin Horan/Sun-Times

Jose Alvarez uses his lunch break and watches out the window as runners stream past his apartment along 18th Street in his Pilsen neighborhood during the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Matt Marton/Sun-Times  

Jose Alvarez uses his lunch break to watch runners stream past his apartment as runners head along 18th Street in his Pilsen neighborhood during the 2012 Chicago Marathon.

Matt Marton/Sun-Times

Athletes run beneath Chinatown Gate Chicago on Wentworth Avenue during the 2013 Chicago Marathon. The race usually attracts more than 40,000 runners yearly. Photo by Michael Jarecki of the Chicago Sun-Times

Athletes run beneath Chinatown Gate Chicago on Wentworth Avenue during the 2013 Chicago Marathon. The race usually attracts more than 40,000 runners yearly.

Michael Jarecki/Sun-Times

Other sports, demonstrations

Former Chicago Bears star, the late George Blanda, tries to kick a football across the Chicago River in 1973 for a publicity stunt. Blanda plopped eight footballs into the middle of the 100-yards-wide river. “At midseason, 18 years ago, I could have done it,” said the old kicker. Photograph was taken by Jerry Tomaselli for the Sun-Times

Former Chicago Bears star, the late George Blanda, tries to kick a football across the Chicago River in 1973 for a publicity stunt. Blanda plopped eight footballs into the middle of the 100-yards-wide river. “At midseason, 18 years ago, I could have done it,” said the old kicker.

Jerry Tomaselli/Sun-Times

The Chicago River and Lake Michigan’s Chicago shoreline were home to the city’s Lakefront Festival for several days each summer, starting in 1958 with the first Venetian Night—an evening parade of decorated boats. Water and air shows soon followed. Here, the 1976 “Chicago All-star water ski team” performs simultaneous ski jumps on the river. Photograph taken by Jim Kleptisch of the Sun-Times. 

The Chicago River and Lake Michigan’s Chicago shoreline were home to the city’s Lakefront Festival for several days each summer, starting in 1958 with the first Venetian Night—an evening parade of decorated boats. Water and air shows soon followed. Here, the 1976 “Chicago All-star water ski team” performs simultaneous ski jumps on the river.

Jim Kleptisch/Sun-Times

Athletes bike along Lake Shore Drive in the 2013 Chicago Triathlon.

Athletes bike along Lake Shore Drive in the 2013 Chicago Triathlon. About 10,000 are expected to participate in this year’s triathlon. The swimming, biking and running events will be held in and near Lake Michigan south of the Chicago River down to 31st Street.

Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times files

Triathletes splash into Lake Michigan at the start of the 1988 Chicago Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series. The first triathlon held in Chicago was in 1983, following the popularity of Hawaii’s Ironman events on TV in the early 1980s. Photo taken by Tom Cruze of the Sun-Times. 

Triathletes splash into Lake Michigan at the start of the 1988 Chicago Bud Light U.S. Triathlon Series. The first triathlon held in Chicago was in 1983, following the popularity of Hawaii’s Ironman events on TV in the early 1980s. Tom Cruze/ Sun-Times

Tom Cruze/ Sun-Times

Bicyclists take over Lake Shore Drive at the 2006 Bike the Drive. The 30-mile loop runs from the Museum of Science and Industry to West Bryn Mawr Avenue. Starting points are at the museum, Grant Park, Bryn Mawr Avenue, Fullerton Avenue and Oakwood Boulevard.

Bicyclists take over Lake Shore Drive at the 2006 Bike the Drive. Sun-Times reporter Jim Ritter rode the 30-mile loop on his wife’s bike at the first event in 2002. “When I was a kid, I would have never ridden a girl’s bike,” he wrote. “But I’m not a kid. I’m 50. What difference does it make as long as it works.”

Tom Cruze / Sun-Times file

Richard Cahan and Michael Williams are journalists and owners of CityFiles Press, a media company that has published three books about the Chicago Sun-Times photo collection, including “Chicago Exposed: Defining Moments from the Chicago Sun-Times Photo Archives.”

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