NASCAR Chicago returns, but will it pay off for the city?

Downtown will host NASCAR racing next month for a second straight year, as evidenced by the street closures that began Monday to make ready for the event.

As was the case with last summer’s spectacle, we’re not convinced that hosting the races translates into a true financial victory for Chicago and its taxpayers.

Behind the boosterish and hard-to-verify claims that the race would contribute $100 million to the region’s economy is the hard math that Chicago shelled out $3.5 million to stage last July’s races, only to pocket a paltry $620,000 in direct cash to the municipality’s coffers in return.

Last year’s race was negatively impacted by big rains and storm-related darkness, which cut crowds and revenue. But even with perfect weather and better revenue, the city was getting the short end of the financial stick.

To his credit, Mayor Brandon Johnson, who inherited the NASCAR deal from his predecessor, was able to get the pot sweetened a little better this year with a pledge from the race organization to kick in $2 million for the July 6-7 event.

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An improvement for sure, but is that really enough for granting NASCAR the privilege of taking over two miles of downtown streets — during peak summer season, right on the lakefront and in Chicago’s signature Grant Park — while earning revenue from sponsorships and television broadcast rights?

Residents who live in the area were divided over the race’s return, according to surveys conducted after last year’s race. Meanwhile, they and the rest of Chicago have to get ready for major road shutdowns: Ida B. Wells Drive will be closed between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive until July 18 or so, the city said Monday. Then on June 27, Jackson Boulevard will be shut down from Michigan Avenue to Columbus Drive.

The city said the course’s set-up and breakdown time this year will be cut from 25 days in 2023 to 19 days, which is good news for those who will be coming downtown for non-NASCAR reasons.

But when all is said and done, NASCAR has to prove that the major inconvenience is worth it financially.

While the skyline provides a stunning backdrop for the record NASCAR television and streaming audiences who watched the races last year, down here on the ground, the event could cheapen the image of historic Grant Park and the lakefront.

It’s great to show off the city, but its coffers have to reap tangible benefit. If the city is going to play host — and if the NASCAR deal gets extended beyond its third and final year in 2025 — what Chicago earns should be commensurate to the benefits the prime location offers.

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