Chicago: What’s old is new — very new — again for NASCAR


Will Chicago be NASCAR’s kind of town?

It was Frank Sinatra’s. His 1964 tune — “My Kind of Town” — underlined Chicago’s long pursuit of New York City in the race to be America’s Big City. Chicago always would be the runner-up in that chase, having gained the nickname “The Windy City” not because of its weather but because of its eternal hometown boosterism.

Now NASCAR steps in. Or drives in.

For longtime fans who might consider Rockingham or North Wilkesboro or Darlington more their kind of town, the Tuesday announcement that NASCAR will bring its Cup Series to the streets of Chicago next summer is the latest confirmation that the sport is much more concerned with its future posture than some of its past wanderings across American backroads. There likely always will be a Daytona 500 and a throwback race at Darlington and fenders (and tempers) flaring at places such as Bristol and Martinsville, but there is little doubt that NASCAR’s future is on a track more like the Jetsons than the Flintstones.

Years of stubborn inertia have given way to somewhat risky experimentation, and next year’s Chicago event — if it comes off as planned — is the latest example. It follows NASCAR’s successful Clash preseason race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February, but this is a much bolder enterprise, tinged with a certain amount of bravado.

However, it won’t be NASCAR’s first brush with deep-dish pizza, the Cubs, the Bears and internationally recognized architecture along both sides of the Chicago River.

What now is the NASCAR Cup Series raced inside Soldier Field in Chicago on July 21, 1956 on an almost-half-mile track wrapped around the stadium’s football field. Although that race, won by rising star Fireball Roberts, was the only Cup race run at the stadium that would become iconic as the home of the National Football League’s Bears, NASCAR also ran three races there with its old convertible series.

NASCAR Hall of Fame mechanic/crew chief Leonard Wood remembers towing the Wood Brothers Racing convertible from Virginia to Soldier Field in September 1956. Leonard’s older brother, Glen, also now a Hall of Famer, drove the car.

“We pitted the cars under the grandstand,” Wood said. “I was just a young kid, but I remember it was kind of rewarding just to be there. It was a place we were kind of excited to be. I remember Tom Pistone blowing an engine in front of us and putting Glen out of the race. We kidded Tom for years about that.”

Leonard missed the next year’s convertible race at Soldier Field because he had joined the Army. Glen won the race. Leonard didn’t return to downtown Chicago until 1973, when he picked up an award for Mechanic of the Year.

Perhaps more memorable for racing fans in the city and the surrounding region than the visits by NASCAR were Soldier Field’s weekly Late Model races. Many of these events — and they were “shows” as much as they were races — were promoted by colorful auto racing entrepreneur Andy Granatelli, who also made his name as a team owner in the Indianapolis 500 and with sponsor tie-ins with Richard Petty and STP.

On a good night, tens of thousands of fans would attend Granatelli’s Soldier Field races. With admission typically $1 per person, it was cheap — and practically guaranteed — entertainment. Drivers who raced then and there remember Granatelli paying what he called “booger” drivers to intentionally wreck faster drivers to improve the show and spike interest for the next week’s event. Posters sprinkled around the city advertised “DANGER! THRILLS CHILLS SPILLS.”

The last Late Model race at Soldier Field was held June 9, 1968. Perhaps appropriately, it was won by Sal Tovella, a longtime racer at the Chicago track and owner of a local used car lot (where other local racers shopped for parts for their wounded race cars).

Fifty-five years later, the sound of racing engines will bounce off the walls of Soldier Field again, this time as Cup cars race nearby on the 2.2-mile course that will be constructed along city streets.

Obviously, the scene next summer will be radically different. Flags and banners will fly in Chicago’s reliable breeze. The city and NASCAR will select prime viewing areas and build temporary suites. Beer and wine will flow. Musical stages will be constructed. Vehicles will be diverted from busy city streets, including Lakeshore Drive, which carries traffic past the city and the parks alongside Lake Michigan.

Between now and then, there will be many hurdles to cross. Already, according to Chicago newspaper reports, there is controversy surrounding the location of the course and how it might impact people who live and work along those streets. Although the race is scheduled for a holiday weekend, there is no escaping the fact that blocking several busy streets in a major American city for several days will present a raft of problems (although it’s fair to point out that Chicago has staged numerous festivals and other events in the same area and thus has experience with the many issues that might arise).

NASCAR representatives will be on the ground in Chicago months in advance of the race, working on race-course particulars, the logistical challenges of running and scoring a race in a metropolitan environment, securing a space for the garage area, working with vendors and a myriad other issues.

It might be more of a party than a race, but the same generally is true for the Monaco Formula 1 race, the Long Beach Grand Prix IndyCar race and similar events.

If NASCAR is looking for “events,” this should qualify.