NASCAR set to run Chicago street course in iRacing with eye on possible live event
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
NASCAR drivers will get a glimpse of the future when they compete Wednesday in a virtual racing event on the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track.
If they think that's a neat way to prepare for an unknown, just wait until they see what’s on tap for them June 2.
NASCAR and iRacing will unveil a Chicago street course that runs through Grant Park and just north of Soldier Field for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race on June 2 on FS1. The course will run on some of Chicago’s most famous streets, including Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and Columbus Avenue.
The addition of the Chicago street course to iRacing leads to the next question: Is this in preparation for a street course on the actual NASCAR Cup Series schedule?
"The impetus right now is solely that virtual event and bringing that to life on June 2," said NASCAR Vice President Ben Kennedy, who handles NASCAR’s scheduling initiatives. "That’s been our focus in the near-term.
"If there is an opportunity to explore different types of venues or new markets in the future, I think there are certainly a ton of options out there, whether it’s Chicago or other markets."
NASCAR is working with The Specialized Marketing Group Inc. in Chicago on its potential street race, and TSMGI helped with the development of this course. They worked with the city to momentarily shut down streets on the circuit last fall to allow for a moving scanning truck that collected data for iRacing, which NASCAR has used to create prototypes of tracks to determine what works best.
For instance, iRacing created the half-mile track that NASCAR will convert Auto Club Speedway into after the 2022 Cup race. It also created the chicane coming out of Turn 4 on the Daytona road course.
In a similar fashion, iRacing will have its top drivers – the NASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series drivers – test the Chicago street course once it is finalized. All of the plans being unveiled now are currently tentative, with the proposed course being 2.19 miles.
In initial testing, iRacing showed NASCAR that it couldn’t have the cars on Lake Shore Drive as long as originally hoped because they were going too fast, and there was not enough room to put a chicane. That is how they determined that the Lake Shore Drive portion would run between Balbo and East Roosevelt.
"We were able to essentially shortcut NASCAR’s timeline being able to evaluate it as a real race course significantly because we could highlight a checklist of issues for a site visit," iRacing founder Steve Myers said.
Kennedy was in Chicago earlier this month for a site visit, and he said the iRacing version from the scans included bumps that are in the actual roadway that he could feel while driving.
"We were able to test out different configurations on what a potential street course might look like [through iRacing]," Kennedy said. "It’s been a unique opportunity for us to play with the layout a little bit, play with where pit road might be and a few other things."
It would seem that all this work has to be for more than an iRacing event. It should give NASCAR and TSMGI a foundation for additional talks with city leaders about a potential race. This shows that NASCAR has done its homework from a competition standpoint and shows why it would want to use certain streets. The imagery and research certainly could help convince skeptical government officials of what the event could look like.
"On behalf of the City of Chicago, I am thrilled to work with NASCAR and iRacing to showcase our great city to NASCAR fans who will be watching this cutting-edge event from around the country," Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said in a statement.
"Through this exciting and innovative exhibition, fans will be able to see and experience Chicago's iconic downtown in a way that has never been done before. I am excited to partner with NASCAR and iRacing to produce this event and look forward to providing a new, uniquely Chicago experience to those near and far."
The Chicago Sports Commission also was involved in working with NASCAR and TSMGI. CSC Executive Director Kara Bachman said in a statement that the virtual race is a "huge milestone" for the group.
"CSC and its partners, such as TSMGI who has been integral in securing this event, have long awaited the opportunity to collaborate with NASCAR," Bachman said. "The iRacing Pro Invitational Series is the perfect virtual launching pad and a testament to NASCAR’s innovation."
Kennedy was noncommittal on whether a Cup race on the streets of Chicago could be a reality in 2022.
"Still a ton of work to do on the 2022 schedule," Kennedy said. "It will be a while before we start announcing anything there. We are in the preliminary stages of that, but more to come sometime this summer."
The goal of the schedule remains to be able to go into new markets and engage new and existing fans. NASCAR owns Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile race track south of the city in Joliet, but it is not conducting any races there this season.
Kennedy said NASCAR is still determining plans for Chicagoland.
"We’re not running there in 2021, but we obviously have the track out there in good condition," Kennedy said.
Nothing against an oval track, but a race on a street course through iconic Chicago neighborhoods would be more of a spectacle.
"Chicago is a critically important market to us," Kennedy said. "It is one of the larger markets we have in the United States right now in terms of size of fan base ... This [iRacing event] will be a way to continue to engage a lot of our fans in the Chicago area in a unique and exciting way."
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!