Fans go with the flow as record rainfall dampens Chicago’s NASCAR weekend

Before the Chicago Street Race, fans fled for shelter in garages and coffee shops as it rained buckets on the course.

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A person walks through a large puddle south of Buckingham Fountain at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

A downpour left large puddles south of Buckingham Fountain at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023, in Chicago. But fans’ spirits weren’t dampened.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

The checkered flag gave way to the plastic poncho on a dreary Sunday in Grant Park as NASCAR officials kept fans waiting to see if the engines would be fired up as planned.

As record-setting precipitation rained all over Chicago’s much-ballyhooed stock car parade, some of the spectators fled for cover in coffee shops and parking garages while others held out hope and hunkered down trackside with rain gear and umbrellas.

NASCAR officials called off the remainder of the Xfinity Series race that had been postponed due to shoddy weather a day earlier — a controversial decision for what’s essentially NASCAR’s minor league circuit — but proceeded with the Cup Series main event after a 90-minute delay.

That wasn’t much consolation for spectators who snagged pricy tickets for the downtown festival to see country artists Charley Crockett and Miranda Lambert, whose performances were called off due to flooding in Grant Park.

A gull flies by the Mobil 1 Stage at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

A gull flies by the Mobil 1 Stage at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

The National Weather Service recorded 3.35 inches of rain Sunday, shattering Chicago’s previous record for July 2 of 2.06 inches set in 1982. NASCAR called them “unprecedented circumstances” for an unprecedented event.

“I don’t even want to sit through a race right now,” Margaret Sula said on her way out of the course Sunday afternoon, as she and her husband, Dave Sula, retreated to their Loop hotel room for dry clothes.

People walk through large puddles to reach the North Entrance of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

People walk through large puddles to reach the North Entrance of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Like most race fans who talked to the Sun-Times — from among a crowd that, at least early in the day, was noticeably thinned out compared to Saturday’s attendance — the Kankakee-area couple took the water and the waiting in stride. But they wished NASCAR had communicated the situation more clearly.

‘Ain’t the first rain we’ve had,’ diehards say

Unlike at other races they’ve been to, there was hardly anywhere to take shelter, Margaret Sula said. Gate workers weren’t allowing fans to bring in umbrellas, either. The couple said they wished they could’ve been alerted by loudspeaker about the Xfinity Series race being called off — before they ventured into the downpour.

Tyler Dove, 31, of Gary, Indiana, said race organizers could have been clearer about certain policies, like the one that ended with his bag being confiscated at the gate.

And a dodgy forecast should have prompted organizers to install more tents, Dove said. “Honestly, they should have places for people to sit down and eat,” he said.

Others faced the rain with a stiff upper lip.

“It happens. It ain’t the first rain we’ve had in NASCAR,” upstate New Yorker Margaret Kanakos said, decked out in a green poncho while walking to the main gate.

People walk on wood pallets to avoid stepping in mud at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

People walk on wood pallets to avoid stepping in mud at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Other fans waited out the unrelenting rain huddled under awnings at the Millennium Park garage, while more crowded into businesses along Michigan Avenue.

Ronald Jackson and his 14-year-old son, Josiah, drove from Portage, Indiana — “playing hooky” to experience their first-ever NASCAR event — and waited it out under scaffolding outside a Starbucks, with the teen passing the time by practicing photography and keeping his eyes peeled for Lamborghinis.

Ronald Jackson (left) and Josiah Jackson.

Ronald Jackson (left) and Josiah Jackson.

Ambar Colón/Sun-Times

“Whatever my son likes to do, I’m gonna support him,” Ronald Jackson said.

Waiting it out trackside

Other fans with tickets whiled away the rain delay inside the course grounds, watching specialized trucks try to vacuum away the pools of water that overtook sections of the course.

Pickup trucks with dryers attached make laps on the course to remove the water at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

Pickup trucks with dryers attached make laps on the course to remove the water at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023, in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Brothers Timothy and Cody Alguire, from the Quad Cities, took shelter in a merch tent while waiting for officials to announce when the race would start. Accustomed to NASCAR rain delays, they came prepared with ponchos.

“It seems to not be NASCAR unless it rains,” said Timothy, 31.

Holding out hope

Others wandered the muddy festival grounds in anticipation of the Grant Park 220 race.

“I would’ve liked for [the Xfinity Series drivers] to keep racing,” said Justin Berg, who’s been to at least four other NASCAR events. “At least switch tires and see, but I understand with the ... lightning that they had to call it” Saturday.

Erica Prince and 10-year-old Zion were tempted to leave during the worst of the rain but were too excited. They had gotten a free pair of VIP tickets from Zion’s elementary school and “loved every bit” of their first NASCAR race, Erica said.

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Zion Prince, 10, received free VIP tickets from her school and brought her mom to the Grant Park 220.

Ambar Colón/Sun-Times

”Instead of watching on TV I got a chance to see it in person and meet some of the drivers,” said Erica, who did regret bringing no lawn chairs.

Dan Nipple and his son, Jared, drove in from Madison, Wisconsin, to attend the event. Dan’s kids gave him tickets for Christmas.

“We’ve gone to other NASCAR events and they usually get rained out,” Dan said. “But, it’s Mother Nature.”

People seek shelter under the Paddock Club at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

People seek shelter under the Paddock Club at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race on Sunday, July 2, 2023 in Chicago.

Owen Ziliak/Sun-Times

Eric Helton and his 12-year-old daughter, Alana, took shelter at a Michigan Avenue Starbucks during the rain delay. They came from Romeoville for the race and watched along the DuSable Lake Shore Drive stretch, the fastest section on the course.

“I just like everything about racing. The sound, the fans, everything,” said Alana, who got into the sport because of her dad. Her favorite driver is Tyler Reddick.

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Alana Helton, 12, and dad Eric watched the race from the fastest section of the course along DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Kaitlin Washburn/Sun-Times

The two have traveled around to different races throughout the season. “I’m kind of upset they went from 100 laps to 75 laps [after the delayed start]. It’s not fair to the fans, but I understand it,” Eric Helton said.

The Chicago race was “great for the sport,” he said. “I’ve been following since the ’80s. This sport is changing, and it has to change.”

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Sandi Potter (right) and husband Bob are on a mission to go to every NASCAR racetrack.

Kaitlin Washburn/Sun-Times

Despite the weekend’s hiccups, Bob and Sandi Potter, were impressed by the event overall. The couple from Muscatine, Iowa, watched from the section on Columbus Drive just before Michigan Avenue.

“This is really a very cool course. I couldn’t even imagine it until we got here. I kinda wish they raced on Lower Wacker,” Sandi Potter said. “I like watching them go by fast, you can’t tell that on TV. When they go, I like the feel of it, the smell of the tires. Just some good energy. I love it.”

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