City Council members want to put the brakes on NASCAR’s Chicago street race

Alderpersons Pat Dowell (3rd), Sophia King (4th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) are upset NASCAR could occupy part of Grant Park for two weeks next summer.

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NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace poses for photos in front of Soldier Field as he drives a stock car around the city, Tuesday afternoon, July 19, 2022. Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday that there will be three years of NASCAR races along the lake in downtown Chicago, with the first set for July 2, 2023. The 2.2-mile showcase represents the first street course race in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

Some alderpersons are upset that NASCAR will occupy part of Grant Park for as long as two weeks next summer to make room for the event featuring Bubba Wallace and other drivers.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

City Council members want to put on the legislative brakes after learning that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to turn Chicago’s most iconic roadways into a 12-turn, 2.2-mile showcase for the first street course race in NASCAR’s 75-year history will tie up a portion of Grant Park for two weeks.

The mayor’s enthusiasm for the July 2023 event was not shared by downtown alderpersons whose constituents could be inconvenienced most even before details of the contract started trickling out.

Alderpersons Pat Dowell (3rd), Sophia King (4th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) all complained of being kept in the dark before the mayor’s marquee announcement. That’s even though Lightfoot flatly denied the charge.

But all three hardened their opposition after the Chicago Park District acknowledged that the permit agreement for “non-race event activities associated with the NASCAR Cup Series allows the organizer to occupy a portion of Grant Park for 14 days — from June 22 to July 5” of next year.

The Chicago Park District defined the “event footprint” as Roosevelt Road to Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue to DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Park District officials vowed to “work with the organizers to ensure that public access during the event is minimally impacted.”

Lightfoot has argued that her three-year agreement with NASCAR does not require City Council approval. But Reilly, Dowell and King are drafting legislation to “re-insert aldermen into the special event approval process in their respective wards.”

“When this privilege was granted to the executive branch by the City Council, nobody envisioned the mayor would use those powers to skirt transparency and exclude local aldermen and their constituents in key decision-making processes,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“This mayor has abused that privilege. … As such, it is now incumbent upon the City Council to take action, change the code and re-insert ourselves into the special event approval process.”

A contract that allows NASCAR to “occupy Chicago’s front yard for two weeks of our 16-week ‘summer season’ ” deserves to be publicly vetted, not hammered out and approved in secrecy, Reilly said.

He noted that Lollapalooza “pays $7.8 million every year to rent Grant Park from the taxpayers,” which makes the NASCAR terms look paltry.

The deal with NASCAR includes a permit fee of $500,000, 15% of net commissions on concession and merchandise, and $2 per admission ticket sold, according to Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons.

“How much will NASCAR pay beyond the insignificant $500,000 permit? How much is being budgeted for park and infrastructure restoration? How much is being paid to offset the public safety costs? What’s in it for the taxpayer?” Reilly wrote in an email.

“These are all questions that should have been answered publicly BEFORE a contract was signed. The fact that the three aldermen who represent wards impacted by this event were purposefully and specifically excluded from any discussion related to the NASCAR event is quite telling.”

Sarcastically repeating Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign slogan, Reilly wrote, “ ‘Bring in the light?’ That phrase has become a punchline at City Hall. And, if you’re a taxpayer, the ‘joke’ isn’t at all funny.”

Dowell argued that the permit fee and revenue-sharing with NASCAR “probably don’t even cover the cost of security and traffic workers.”

She branded NASCAR a “modern-day bread and circuses.” But, she said, “Chicago, however, is not Rome.”

“My constituents demand real public engagement to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of what’s being proposed before we tie up Grant Park and our public streets for a solid two weeks over the next three years,” said Dowell, Lightfoot’s chair of the City Council Budget Committee.

“We are already dealing with Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago, concerts at Northerly Island and Soldier Field and all their impacts: Noise, traffic, street closures, closure of the park and more. We need a public discussion now before the i’s and t’s are dotted and crossed.”

King said her constituents “deserve more transparency, input and consideration — especially when it comes to large events like NASCAR.”

“I will work with my colleagues to implement legislation that empowers the community. It’s shortsighted not to seek input from the very people you represent on the front end,” King, who is mulling a race for mayor against Lightfoot, wrote in a text message.

During a recent community meeting about Lollapalooza, King and her constituents were surprised to learn there is “no decibel limit” on the sound emanating from outdoor music festivals.

“We are now in discussions to provide a decibel limit like other big cities and states,” she said.

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