Ordinary Street Cars at High Speeds

Though we were in a braking zone, which meant we would get to see the cars for an extra second as they slowed into the turn, my view of their approach was mostly obstructed by bleachers draped in a Jack Daniels ad. Still, I found myself waiting with anticipation for the cars to scream by in a blur every minute and a half. A group of twentysomethings looking for the concert stage where the Chainsmokers were playing postrace ended up staying to watch. A couple of cops nodded along to P.O.D.’s “Boom” blasting from speakers nearby.

Dispatch from the NASCAR Chicago Street Race

Photo by the author.

I expected the racing would be loud, but nothing could prepare me for the full-body assault of the cars roaring around the course. I later learned that the cars’ mufflers, known as “boom tubes,” had been outfitted with noise dampers just for the event: NASCAR’s inaugural Street Race in Chicago, which took place on Independence Day weekend. The bits of orange foam in my ears marked me as a novice. Tolerance of the noise—dedication to it, even—is a NASCAR shibboleth. The blare is part of the ethos, as is the exhaust. During the qualifying round on Saturday, I stood next to a man in a T-shirt with ripped-off sleeves that read, I’M SORRY I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF FREEDOM.

The smoke from long-burning wildfires in Canada that had smothered Chicago for days cleared just in time for NASCAR to descend on downtown. But torrential rain wasn’t far behind. On Saturday evening, just as the first of the weekend’s two races was underway and despite months of severe drought, the sky opened and the lawns of Grant Park, a verdant expanse of public space beneath the city skyline, began to flood. As the deluge continued Sunday afternoon, it was unclear if the NASCAR Cup Series race, the weekend’s main event, would be canceled. Spectators streamed in anyway to a sort of fairgrounds encircled by the track.

The two-day event promised something new to NASCAR fans: a racecourse through the main streets of one of America’s largest cities, something more like Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix than the banked oval tracks characteristic of stock car auto racing. But the Street Race is less a departure than one might think. According to the company’s own origin story, NASCAR’s mystique has always been the familiarity of its race cars to average Americans on their daily commutes, what it calls “ordinary street cars competing at high speeds.” If you own a Ford Mustang or even a Toyota Camry, you’re driving nearly the same car as the professionals. Theirs might be much faster and louder, covered in logos, and produce four times the pollution, but now you can see them racing down the same streets you drive on every day. I heard more than a few jokes of the kind made by a color commentator on seeing a multicar pileup during the Cup Series race. “It’s like rush hour in Chicago,” he said. “Nowhere to go.”

Why Chicago? When people ask why Chicago, of course, they mean why bring the stereotypical pastime of red-state Americans to right-wing media’s favorite object of fearmongering about crime-ridden urban hellscapes. Despite NASCAR’s efforts to shake its popular associations—even teasing plans to electrify its race cars eventually—the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed the event “the epitome of a culture clash.” The city government, for its part, pointed to the promise of tax revenue and tourism—a projected $113 million for the city. In reality, almost every surface of Grant Park was covered in ad copy. Spectators were greeted at one entrance by a souped-up Camry shrink-wrapped in a promotion for the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde.” The car sported giant daubs of blue, green, and orange paint and, on the driver’s side, a re-creation of the artist’s 1887 self-portrait. Next to Buckingham Fountain, the park’s centerpiece, a two-story outdoor club had been erected, sponsored by Cuervo Tradicional tequila; a margarita from one of its three bars cost $28 but was 32 ounces and came in a 100 percent recycled agave cup. Throughout the grounds there were promotional tents with games, giveaways, and merch from the likes of the Air Force, WWE, a fintech startup called Olliv, and Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza.

I mostly watched the racing from the north side of Balbo Avenue just before Turn 2, behind a metal barrier some yards behind the high fencing and concrete walls that lined the track. Though we were in a braking zone, which meant we would get to see the cars for an extra second as they slowed into the turn, my view of their approach was mostly obstructed by bleachers draped in a Jack Daniels ad. Still, I found myself waiting with anticipation for the cars to scream by in a blur every minute and a half. A group of twentysomethings looking for the concert stage where the Chainsmokers were playing postrace ended up staying to watch. A couple of cops nodded along to P.O.D.’s “Boom” blasting from speakers nearby.

A sign affixed to a fence just inside the general admission area noted that “4.25 miles of racetrack catch fence have been installed along the Chicago Street Race course.” There must have been miles more used to divide and cordon the grounds of Grant Park, to privatize what’s usually public space. The course and grounds took several weeks to set up; road closures began mid-June and are expected to continue until mid-July, when everything is finally broken down.

Had I spent the baseline $3,015 price of entry to the “President’s Paddock Club,” I would have been treated to an “unforgettable experience” of “unparalleled luxury” that, in addition to other perks, granted members exclusive access to a full third of the space occupied by the event. Those content to mix with the masses but still wanting a more premium experience could spend about a third of the “President’s” price for entry into other clubs—less exclusive but nevertheless enclosed within climate-controlled tents. The very cheapest tickets, general admission with no access to bleacher seats, cost $269.

A page on NASCAR’s website declares that its “diversity and inclusion efforts continue to create an inclusive environment in all facets of the industry, from drivers, team owners, fans and beyond as the sport continues to race into the future.” Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson gave 450 free tickets to kids at a community event and 7,000 more were given away at a block party hosted by McDonald’s car driver Bubba Wallace. The giveaways targeted predominantly black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides. (The prospective fans might not know about the time in June 2020 when Wallace, the only full-time black driver in NASCAR’s history, found a noose in his team garage at the Talladega Superspeedway.)

A few of the cars on course featured the names of health insurance companies and health-care providers, like Enhance Health and UChicago Medicine, that barely serve these communities. Standing in line to purchase an Italian Beef sandwich ($16, “giardiniera upon request”), I heard a woman at the next tent calling out Jeopardy-style questions about various health symptoms to people seated in folding chairs. The tent was for Blue Door Neighborhood Center, an organization run by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. “We serve the entire community, whether or not you have health insurance,” the woman exclaimed, though the Center’s website explains, “We do not provide health services.” As I was handed my sandwich, leaden and dripping through its foil wrapper, I heard her say, “Nausea, dizziness, and irritability are symptoms of this common condition—high blood pressure, that’s right!”

After more rain, I ended up inside the Blue Door Center tent, alongside about a hundred soaked guests who were waiting to hear whether the race would go on. A family from Gary, Indiana wondered if they should leave and see the Bean instead. Two teenagers wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag they had brought. An older couple in thin blue line trucker hats offered their folding chairs to an exhausted toddler and his dad. “The corporations have abandoned us to a drowning world with no contingency plan,” I texted my wife, but under the tent we were cheerful and bemused, chatting and laughing until the rain stopped.

Once Sunday’s race finally started, the only way to see the action, really, was to watch the NBC Sports feed streaming on jumbotrons along the course. Craning up at a screen to watch the cars haltingly circle the same winding 2.2-mile course a hundred times for close to three hours was tedious, but that’s what crashing is for. Videos of crashes played on loops between times when the cars were on course, and there were plenty more during the race—yet they seemed to hit different, as it were, on the streets. Because the course had to be walled with concrete to protect spectators and historic buildings, damage to the cars was more serious, more dramatic. There was an unanticipated pathos to watching Austin Dillon’s Camaro try to take the lead around a turn only to clip the apex and careen into the outside wall, tearing off the car’s left front and sending shards of metal into the fencing. Each crash forced the cars to stop while crews cleared the debris, and the time was occasionally filled with on-course interviews. “Thank you, Chicago, for letting us do this,” one driver said.

The truth is that experiencing “ordinary street cars at high speeds” simply is the experience of being on America’s streets today. For pedestrians and cyclists it’s an especially lethal one. As public transportation ridership continues to decline, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 42,795 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2022. Those numbers are down slightly year-over-year for drivers and passengers but up by 2 percent for pedestrians and 9 percent for cyclists. When I think of the near-misses that have become a regular feature of biking and walking around the city, all the drivers I see speeding, too rushed to signal, running red lights and stop signs, it seems clear that the Street Race concept emblematizes the crisis of civic life and public safety that’s captured in the statistics. It seems to give ordinary Americans license to treat their daily drive as their own private street race.

Why Chicago? Looking west down Balbo toward Michigan Avenue, I could see the old Conrad Hilton Hotel, where protestors had demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention before being beaten by police and kettled in Grant Park. The brick complex presiding over the course imposed the city’s invisible history on a corporation concerned only with growing its market. Maybe there was desire by some in city government to forget rather than reckon with history, with climate, with statistics about deaths (1,363 gun deaths and 1,280 traffic fatalities in Illinois in 2022)—to race recklessly into the future. The weekend resounded with celebrations of corporate profit and personal consumption, a freedom only from collective responsibility. Demands for a government more accountable to its people, better public infrastructure, and the right to public space are hard to hear above the sound of that freedom.

In 2020 Chicagoans again took to Grant Park and to the streets, this time in protest of the murder of George Floyd, chanting the era’s most famous question about the future of our public spaces and collective lives: Whose streets? The Street Race offered one very loud answer.

I left before the race was finished. I’d remembered there was a ghost bike memorial in honor of Geraldo Marciales, who was killed by a driver on February 28, 2022, at what was now Turn 2, the intersection of Balbo and Lake Shore Drive. I wanted to see if the bike was still there. It was, hidden just behind the barriers, twisted around the light post it was chained to. It looked like it had been hit by a car.

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