Illinois has had a rich history of auto racing

The first auto race ever held in the United States was flagged off on Nov. 28, 1895, from Jackson Park, near the site of the now Museum of Science and Industry.

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Soldier Field hosted three NASCAR races in 1956 and one in 1957.

Soldier Field hosted three NASCAR races in 1956 and one in 1957.

Sun-Times

NASCAR vehicles are coming to Chicago. Is it the first time? Nope — sorry, been here, done that.

The July 1-2 NASCAR doubleheader has become the talk of the town — with opinions stretching to both extremes. Drivers and their cars will be cruising a 2.2-mile course through Grant Park, with Jackson Drive on the north, Michigan Avenue to the west, Roosevelt Road to the south, a stretch of DuSable Lake Shore Drive to the east and stretches of Balbo Drive and Columbus Drive mixed between.

A big event, yes. But NASCAR isn’t new to Chicago.

In 1956, NASCAR held three races in Chicago.

The events were held at Soldier Field. A half-mile paved oval surrounded the then-turf field. The first race was held June 30 with Chicago favorite ‘‘Tiger’’ Tom Pistone taking the trophy in his convertible, a separate series from the traditional hardtops. Then on July 21, a hardtop Cup race was captured by Fireball Roberts. On Sept. 9, Curtis Turner won in his convertible.

NASCAR returned one last time to Soldier Field the following year, with Glen Wood taking the checkered flag on June 29 in his convertible.

But Soldier Field wasn’t the only Illinois track to host a NASCAR race. On July 10, 1954, Dick Rathmann won a 200-lap race on Santa Fe Speedway’s dirt oval in Willow Springs.

Auto racing has had a long history not only in Chicago but throughout Illinois.

In fact, the first auto race ever held in the United States was held on Nov. 28, 1895, from Jackson Park, near the site of the Museum of Science and Industry, with six cars charging through slushy streets to Evanston and back — about 54 miles. Promoted by the Chicago Times-Herald, only two cars finished, with J. Frank Duryea capturing the $5,000 first-prize at a “blazing” speed of about 7 mph.

Through the years, starting with that first race, Illinois has seen many racetracks come and go. Every type — from drag strips to ⅛-mile dirt ovals; ½-mile paved tracks to road courses; superspeedways to 1-mile state-fair dirt ovals. There even have been indoor racing sites.

These tracks (now closed) were within easy drives from Chicago: Waukegan Speedway; O’Hare Stadium; Raceway Park in Blue Island; Santa Fe Speedway; Oswego Dragway; Joliet Memorial Stadium; Meadowdale Raceway (a road course) in Carpentersville; Chicago Motor Speedway (on the site of the former Sportsman’s Park) in Cicero; and Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.

Plus Soldier Field, which held races before and after the NASCAR events. Early on, the Soldier Field races were promoted by Chicago’s Andy Granatelli, who went on to greater racing feats with help from STP. Rockford Speedway opened in 1948 and will close at the end of the current season.

Before it became the Edward J. Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Maywood, the site was a two-mile oval built of wood, with racing taking place from 1915 to 1917. It has been rumored that most of the wood was used in constructing the original hospital.

Some of the more unique “ghost” Illinois racetracks were indoors, like at the former Chicago International Amphitheatre, which saw midget cars running in the main hall; a one-time, one-mile road course running through three of the other buildings; and from 1962 to 1964, several drag races were held on a 400-foot track.

Other local indoor tracks included the Chicago Armory at 52nd and Cottage Grove, the old Chicago Stadium, the long-gone Chicago Coliseum, and the Chicago Riding Club at 333 E. Erie St., which later became the home of WBBM TV and Radio.

While downstate still has many tracks in operation, including the one-mile dirt ovals at the Springfield and DuQuoin fairgrounds, a few are still operating near Chicago, including the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet (which has a drag strip, a dirt oval and a road course), the Blackhawk Farms road course in South Beloit, Grundy County Speedway, Byron Dragway, Sycamore Speedway, Kankakee County Speedway and LaSalle Speedway, all small dirt ovals, and the Autobahn Country Club, a private road course in Joliet.

As there is a three-year contractual agreement, Chicago fans who may not be able to make this year’s NASCAR event will have at least two additional chances to see the racers and their cars power through Grant Park in 2024 and 2025.

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