Businesses hope Chicago NASCAR street race revs up sales

Whether a sporting event or an “endurance contest,” NASCAR’s first ever street race could showcase the city at its best and provide a long-term payoff.

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Michelle Durpetti managing partner Gene & Georgetti steakhouse

Michelle Durpetti, managing partner of Gene & Georgetti at 500 N. Franklin St., said she hoped NASCAR would encourage more people to visit Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For Chicago-area residents, NASCAR’s takeover of parts of downtown is something to be anticipated, tolerated or avoided.

There’s little doubt that the street races planned for Saturday and Sunday will yield an economic payoff.

NASCAR estimates 100,000 people will show up for the races, and data from Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism agency, and CSL International suggests the economic impact to the city will be $113.8 million. In comparison, Lollapalooza — taking place Aug. 3-6 — generated $335.4 million in direct and indirect economic revenue for the city last year.

But those figures on NASCAR’s potential impact have to be balanced against ordinary business that might be lost on what could be considered an extra-long holiday weekend, with Fourth of July on Tuesday. Street closures required for the NASCAR race have caused talk of gridlock, with some people avoiding downtown as a result.

Michelle Durpetti, managing partner of Gene & Georgetti steakhouse, said she expected a busy weekend, but wouldn’t know how to assess the event until it’s over. “It will be an opportunity to remind people we live in a beautiful city,” she said.

Durpetti added that “most likely, the locals won’t be out in droves.”

Even without NASCAR closing DuSable Lake Shore Drive and other streets, reconstruction of the Kennedy Expressway has kept some customers away, she said.

For residents of the central area, it’ll be “more of an endurance contest,” said Deborah Gershbein, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents.

She said getting around downtown and the Near North Side was already tough and that few of her neighbors had any interest in NASCAR.

“Everybody says that if they’re here in town, they’re not going anywhere, at least by car,” Gershbein said.

Businesses have to consider whether regular customers staying away will negate the benefits from NASCAR visitors with disposable income.

It’s not known how many big spenders will attend. A NASCAR spokesperson on Tuesday could not provide the number of ticket sales. The attendance estimate of 100,000 could include many who confine themselves to free events at Grant Park’s Butler Field.

General admission prices start at $269 for both days. Premium seating goes up to $3,015 a ticket.

Business owners and leaders are cautious in their outlook for the weekend and are focused on its long-term benefits for Chicago.

This weekend’s races will be broadcast on USA Network or NBC, with cameras placed to take full advantage of the skyline.

“Marquee events like these are critical to our ongoing efforts to attract visitors now and into the future,” Choose Chicago said in a statement.

Viewed that way, year one of the city’s three-year NASCAR deal could be a tuneup for the 2024 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which will have a larger media swarm.

Durpetti said restaurants in general were eager for the chance to show off.

Summer has brought the return of outdoor seating to eligible restaurants, and the gradual comeback of the convention trade after the pandemic has helped everybody in the hospitality business.

“Chicago is a summer city and July Fourth is the peak of summer,” said Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. He said he’s optimistic about NASCAR because of what it appears to be doing for hotels.

“Whenever you put people in hotel beds, you put diners in seats,” he said.

Still, many in the business community steer clear of grandiose predictions for a NASCAR lift. The event is weather-dependent and is being held for the first time. There’s no telling how well it might come off.

NASCAR’s spokesperson said ticket buyers were from all U.S. states and 14 countries, with 80% being first-time customers. NASCAR has estimated that 39% of attendees will stay overnight.

Traffic may be a headache, but downtown has in its favor public transit connections that should ensure a smooth event, said Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the business group Chicago Loop Alliance.

“This is just too interesting for people not to check it out,” he said.

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