With one year left on NASCAR deal, will the city finally come up a winner?

The NASCAR Chicago Street Race — particularly the broadcast — was no doubt a spectacle with its colorful high-powered cars roaring around the eastern edge of downtown last weekend.

But for the city, was hosting the event for the second year in the row worth all the trouble and inconvenience?

While the race’s economic numbers won’t be released for several weeks, it’s clear that heavy rainfall and the threat of lightning that both hung over the July 6-7 event helped to keep away paying potential patrons.

And most importantly, scheduling the event, which requires a sizable police presence, across the July Fourth weekend — a holiday that’s historically among the city’s most violent — was a disservice to Chicago.

Editorial

Editorial

Next summer’s race is the final one scheduled under NASCAR’s current contract with the city.

We hope it’s the last.

A money pit?

The true benefit to Chicago for hosting NASCAR has been unclear to this editorial board from the start.

We easily see how the racing organization and broadcast entities would do well by positioning the event and product advertising against Chicago’s stunning, globally-recognized skyline as opposed to an anonymous asphalt oval.

But what did taxpayers get for handing over to NASCAR a 2.2 mile loop within Grant Park, particularly during the July Fourth holiday, which was already a popular time for the historic downtown green space?

In an arrangement hatched under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago wound up forking over $3.5 million to set-up and police last year’s races. NASCAR paid $620,000 — a comparative pittance — to the Chicago Park District in return.

Mayor Brandon Johnson got NASCAR to kick in $2 million this year, which seems like an improvement, but the amount still doesn’t approach what the city spent last year.

And we wonder how that figure will balance out against this year’s costs, especially if there turns out that fewer people attended than in 2023. The Sun-Times reported top notch musical acts who performed at NASCAR this year drew sparse crowds.

No doubt the city and its tourism arm will say Chicago made millions more in assorted sales, restaurant and hotel taxes from the event, just as they claimed the race contributed $100 million to the region’s economy in 2023.

But these figures are tough to prove. As we see it, the only amount that really matters for a financially struggling city is how much NASCAR directly paid Chicago for the privilege of setting up shop on such a premiere site — smack in the middle of summer.

Deciding if NASCAR will be a Chicago tradition

In addition to revenue, the Johnson administration has much to weigh in deciding whether NASCAR races become Chicago tradition or not.

For instance, environmental advocates raise a compelling point that hosting the races runs afoul of Johnson’s promises to improve Chicago’s air quality.

“We are in a climate crisis,” Katherine Tellock, co-founder and executive director of Chicago Environmentalists told WTTW this week.

“We see the effects of that every day on the news, we have record-breaking heat, we have severe storms that are happening more frequently than ever,” Tellock said. “So why is our city leadership choosing to reinforce a culture that says that burning fossil fuels for entertainment is acceptable?”

And while Chicago cops were guarding the NASCAR event — and police officials won’t say how many — out in the neighborhoods during the long holiday weekend, at least 105 people were shot, 21 fatally.

Flatly stated, those officers should have deployed in the communities that needed them.

“Obviously, those were dates that we inherited,” Johnson told reporters this week regarding the NASCAR schedule.

But nothing is etched in stone. Just as Johnson got NASCAR to increase its financial contribution to Chicago, the mayor should have pushed to reschedule the races or compelled the race organization to staff track security itself.

As Grant Park returns to normal, the Johnson administration must now work to make the event a better fit for Chicago in 2025 — and decide if NASCAR has a future here beyond then.

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