The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is likely to be unlike any other.
That also could be said of the just-finished 2022 season, of course. NASCAR raced at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, competed with a new car model that drew both praise and complaints, saw a desperate, playoff-clinching move by upstart driver Ross Chastain and announced a scheduled return to venerable North Wilkesboro Speedway.
The new season will include a summertime extravaganza guaranteed to be a focal point. NASCAR will race on the streets of Chicago over the July 4th weekend.
As with many other NASCAR races these days, the Chicago race will be about much more than the competition. NASCAR and, for that matter, other leading motorsports groups, continue to transform their races into Events. And that’s with a capital E.
Go to a NASCAR weekend and you might have a chance to ride a Ferris wheel, watch a human cannonball fly through the air, enjoy a concert by a superstar musician or watch pigs race.
Or, in the latest version of this concept, enjoy a light dinner 150 feet above the track at a table hoisted by a crane.
That was Dinner in the Sky, an attraction that made its NASCAR debut over the Phoenix Raceway season finale weekend. Operated by a Canadian organization, Dinner in the Sky is a platform with 22 seats. A crane lifts the unit into the sky, and guests are provided with dinner during their 30-minute stay.
The attraction was open only to VIP guests at Phoenix, but it received a wealth of television and other media exposure and was a weekend-long curiosity for fans at the track. And that exposure is the point, said track president Julie Giese.
“I would deem it a success just from an exposure perspective,” she told NBC Sports. “There was a lot of interest and intrigue. The people who had the opportunity to take the ride and enjoy the views had nothing but really positive things to say about it. The photos from there that I’ve seen were absolutely tremendous.”
Julie Connolly, Dinner in the Sky’s chief operating officer, said the Phoenix appearance generated significant publicity for the attraction.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook since the NASCAR activation,” she said. “There has been a lot of interest from different organizations, from NASCAR and other sporting events.”
Connolly said she anticipates interest from other NASCAR tracks. although no other dates are currently scheduled.
Speedways have a lot of possible entertainment to choose from in planning ancillary attractions, and those extras have become almost an expectation for many fans. Concerts featuring “big names” are an attraction in some markets.
The July 21-23 IndyCar weekend at Iowa Speedway, for example, will include concerts by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, the Zac Brown Band and Ed Sheeran. Last year, the Iowa IndyCar weekend included concerts by Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line.
“At the end of the day, the fan is really coming for the race,” said Scott Cooper, senior vice president of communications for Speedway Motorsports, which operates Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and several other tracks.
“The race is always like the main course of the meal, but, at the same time, when people come to race tracks they’re looking for a big event. It’s not just a game when you compare us to other sports. People are looking for added attractions. They’re always looking for fun, cool stuff to do.”
At Speedway Motorsports tracks in recent years, the extras have included pig races, sword fighting by men dressed like medieval knights, dogs performing acrobatics and that old fair midway reliable, the Ferris wheel.
“Our fans have changed,” said Clay Campbell, long-time Martinsville Speedway president who also is responsible for leadership at Richmond Raceway and Darlington Raceway. “Their desires and needs have changed. They want it to be an event, and that’s what we provide now – a total event.
“We had so many things going on at Martinsville for the last race that I couldn’t begin to tell you everything we had. To entertain our fans all day and into the night is important. It’s a different environment than we had 20 years ago. It’s something that’s just part of our DNA now.”
Of course, some tracks have been known for “extras” for years. Charlotte Motor Speedway has a long history of sideshows, including massive military demonstrations and daredevils jumping vehicles over various other vehicles.
But the enhance-the-entertainment environment has never been this big or this widespread.
“First and foremost, they’re coming to a race, and the race is always going to be the centerpiece of that experience, but there’s so much more that goes into coming to a track,” said Giese, who is moving on from the Phoenix track to lead NASCAR’s planning for next summer’s race in Chicago.
“Continuing to reinvent yourself is incredibly important – making sure you have something for everyone.”