NASCAR in Chicago gives fans thrills until the threat of lightning puts the brakes on fun

“We were walking up and heard the noise of the cars,” said Jessie Mitchel, 42, who came with her friend Casar Ybarra. “We got goosebumps, and we’re not even into it.”

SHARE NASCAR in Chicago gives fans thrills until the threat of lightning puts the brakes on fun
Attendees watch Saturday as NASCAR driver Kyle Weatherman takes the course during practice before The Loop 121 race at the Chicago Street Race.

Attendees watch Saturday as NASCAR driver Kyle Weatherman takes the course during practice before The Loop 121 race at the Chicago Street Race.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The roar of engines, the smell of hot rubber and the novelty of stock cars flying by at average speeds of 90 miles an hour through downtown Chicago streets drew throngs of fans Saturday for the inaugural Chicago Street Race.

If only the weather would have cooperated for a while longer.

Still, diehard fans and first-timers alike came to satisfy their curiosity and experience the thrill of a NASCAR race.

“We were walking up and heard the noise of the cars,” said Jessie Mitchel, 42, who came with her friend Casar Ybarra. “We got goosebumps, and we’re not even into it.”

Plenty of others felt similar thrills — until the potential threat from nearby lightning stopped the day’s second race short of the finish line.

Casar Ybarra and Jessie Mitchel.

Casar Ybarra and Jessie Mitchel.

David Struett/Sun-Times

Two hours after the threatening weather prompted a stop in the Xfinity Series The Loop 121 race, race officials made the call to shut things down for the day and pick it up again at 10 a.m. Sunday, an hour after gates will open to spectators.

The 55-lap race was stopped on the 26th lap, with Cole Custer, who drives the No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, in the lead for all 25 laps before the red flag.

Kathy and Mark Robinson, of Romeoville, left the track to seek shelter at about 5 p.m., when spectators were warned of lightning and drivers were ushered onto Pit Road and out of their cars.

“It’s a bummer but not the first rain delay at a NASCAR race I’ve been to,” Robinson said.

The two said they’re impressed at how NASCAR has organized the weekend.

“It just sucks that, after 45 days of no weather in Chicago, and then this happens today of all days,” Kathy Robinson said.

Brett Martino, who traveled from Guam for the race, questioned the need for the postponement call, given the lack of any rain at the time, but said he was looking forward to Sunday, when he plans to root for his favorite driver, Kevin Harvick.

“I don’t think I’d call this severe weather,” Martino said, holding his dry hand out toward the sky. “I was in a typhoon in Taiwan last week. Now, that’s severe weather. But, hey, two races in one day is definitely better than one race.”

A Ford roots for Toyota?

Joi Ford has been a serious Formula One fan most of her life. Her grandfather loved the sport, and she’s followed suit.

But F1 races are too expensive, she said, so she was excited when she heard NASCAR was trying a street race — the sort of race F1 has dominated.

Joi Ford and Olivia Pulphus.

Joi Ford and Olivia Pulphus.

David Struett/Sun-Times

“So depending on how this race goes will determine if I become a true NASCAR fan,” said Ford, 35, of Rogers Park.

Despite her name, Ford said she’s rooting for Toyota.

She came to Saturday’s Xfinity Series race with Olivia Pulphus, a friend since childhood who was happy to give NASCAR a try since it was close to her Bronzeville home.

“To experience the same thing [elsewhere], I’d have to pay for hotel and transportation. For it to be so close, I didn’t want to miss it,” Pulphus said, though she griped about the cost of tickets.

The pair went for the cheapest tickets that guaranteed a seat. But that still set them each back more than $400.

“Seats are worth it,” Ford said.

Dude, where’s my seat?

Some fans were surprised to find their tickets didn’t guarantee them a seat.

Shon George and Urina Idohl spent nearly $400 each for “general admission plus” tickets that they thought would seat them near Columbus Avenue.

The Bronzeville couple said that, when they got to Grant Park Saturday, a track employee told them they’d have to find a space to stand along the track. They said others in line were surprised, too.

“A lot of people are disappointed about this,” Idohl said.

Shon George and Urina Idohl.

Shon George and Urina Idohl.

David Struett/Sun-Times

With a couple hours before the green starting flag, they still hadn’t decided where they were going to stand to watch the race. A spot they found in front of the Fountain Club seemed promising because a big screen broadcasting the race there had sound.

Despite not having seats, George, a NASCAR fan, said the ticket price was worth it. This was the second NASCAR race he’s seen in two years.

“I think they should come every year,” George said. “This is better than the Taste.”

Southwest Siders’ first NASCAR race

Salvador Duenas and his son Ricardo had never seen a NASCAR race — not even on TV. That didn’t keep them from getting tickets to the weekend races.

They took the CTA Orange Line from their home near Midway Airport.

“This is the first NASCAR race” in Chicago, said Ricardo, 18. “So I was, like, yeah, I want to watch it — for the experience.”

He bought two general admission tickets for himself and his dad — a present for Father’s Day.

His father said they avoided watching any NASCAR races on TV, wanting their race-day experience to be a surprise.

Salvador Duenas and his son, Ricardo, attended their first NASCAR race Saturday.

Salvador Duenas and his son, Ricardo, attended their first NASCAR race Saturday.

David Struett/Sun-Times

City pride on your ride

One tent set up for fans at the race featured Chicago artists spray-painting a Ford Mustang with emblems representing city pride.

The artists were part of Paint the City, a nonprofit that supports minority artists and businesses.

Blake Lenoir, who paints murals under the name B-Len, said six artists are painting the car, which NASCAR will then donate to the Museum of Science and Industry.

He said going to a NASCAR event brought him “full circle” because, growing up, he’d watch NASCAR with his grandfather.

“My grandfather was watching Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt duke it out,” Lenoir said. “And now getting reintroduced to the sport with Bubba Wallace, it’s been beautiful.”

Blake Lenoir wears a mask while painting at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Saturday, July 1, 2023 in Chicago.

Blake Lenoir wears a mask while painting at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Saturday, July 1, 2023 in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

From optimistic to crashing

In the lead-up to the inaugural Grant Park 220 race, NASCAR drivers expressed skepticism about the logistics of the infinity-sign-shaped track on city streets.

Saturday gave a preview for what could come on Sunday for the NASCAR Cup Series.

Saturday morning, racers Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick said they were cautiously optimistic about the race and complimented organizers on the construction of the track.

Harvick told reporters he considered the unorthodox race a necessary move to “grow the sport” and said he was keeping an open mind.

Shortly after, during the qualifying round for Sunday’s race, Elliott and Harvick both crashed into the walls of the track.

Which Elliott had said was the sort of thing drivers have to be prepared for.

“It may go great, and it may not,” Elliott said before his qualifying-round crash. “And that’s totally fine. I’m good with that either way.”

The Latest
The seniors took advantage of the two weekends in June and elevated the class.
Don’t let passing political theater make you forget the awesomeness of America.
Donald Trump told the Washington Examiner that he had rewritten his acceptance speech in the wake of the Saturday shooting, emphasizing a call for national unity. “The speech I was going to give on Thursday was going to be a humdinger,” he said. “Honestly, it’s going to be a whole different speech now.”
Mr. Woo, who became a Chicago cop in 1969, is remembered as one of the department’s first Chinese American officers, and co-founder of the Asian American Law Enforcement Association.