When Separate Equals Hungry

A 2-part feature exploring food insecurity.

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Photo Credit:
Photo courtesy of NASCAR


The deal for Nascar to come to Chicago and transform its Michigan Avenue into a racetrack was made under the leadership of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot. NASCAR CEO Jim France joined her at the announcement in July of  2022, of a three-year deal, starting this year 2023, to hold a stock car race on the lakefront.

The idea naturally sounded crazy to most who had little vision to see the how  but more importantly the why? How would Chicago make money?

The very idea of race cars zooming through downtown Chicago was thought about as crazy and not feasible. There was much skepticism and more skeptics. The fear of the unknown and the how, was rampart amongst Chicago City Council members who said the entire deal lacked transparency and sound economic sense.
Amongst the many questions were the concerns  of City Council members, experts and a WBEZ analysis of the contract concluding that there was indication that there is a minimal financial benefit to the city and too few specifics about who pays for related costs, such as security and cleanup. Questions about who’s left with the bill and of course whether the female Mayor had overreached with the deal which became a discussion about its detriment to her then future  2023 mayoral race. So here we are she’s out, but NASCAR is in.

n her defense, Lightfoot’s office grounded the decision stating that the most tangible benefits of the NASCAR weekend event would be the “positive impact” to area businesses from thousands of race fans. The race was compared to “premier events,” such as Lollapalooza and NBA All-Star weekends, each of which experience growth every year after.

The former mayor’s spokesperson cited a report commissioned by NASCAR that promised $100 million in related tourism and construction revenue to Chicago, which included people hired to set up the event as well as money spent by attendees — on shopping, hotels, restaurants, transportation, and entertainment. Not bad.
And though it seemed very far fetched then, for a city thawing from the effects of COVID; a few weeks ago, when Taylor Swift came to town, doubters renewed their faith in a sure thing-- possibility. People had traveled from far and near to see Taylor and hotels were buzzing again. Stores ran out of glitter, and there was the bustle of movement on the ground. Hope was in the air.  As the track-construction unfolded and Chicago’s lakefront took on the vision suddenly the racetrack was real.


Suddenly, Saturday, July 2, 2023, was finally here and folks were slow to move to the bleachers that framed the track  that used to be Michigan avenue. The preparation was well thought out and executed from start to finish.

NASCAR’s inaugural Chicago Street Race was many things, but dull was not one of them. They came ready to win the city over. With all the feedback about the traffic, the difficulty in navigating  ‘to and fro’ NASCAR made  a concerted effort to keep downtown roads open as long as possible to minimize disruption, so construction of the course and grandstands weren’t completed until the eve of the race.
Controversy surrounding the race weekend that has now come to pass and is behind us did manage to turn the streets around Grant Park, the Museum Campus and even Michigan Avenue into a 2.2-mile racecourse. And it was magnificent.

But let’s dial it back for the hood. Days before the race, Bubba Wallace — driver No. 23 of Michael Jordan co-owned 23XI Racing hosted “Bubba’s Block Party,” a nationwide community initiative at The Du Sable Black History Museum and Education Center, located at 59th and Cottage Grove Wednesday before the race-
For the community folk, the Block Party kicked off the NASCAR weekend. The gates were set to open at 5pm and at 4:30 fans stood in a line down the block waiting. The block party — the first of its kind in Chicago — was held on the Museum’s front lawn of as part an effort by NASCAR and Bubba Wallace (CNW’s last Cover) to grow the sport.

Before folks got their party on, Wallace was clear, “It’s not just Black and brown, it’s all races. It’s to the people who are kind of on the fence about NASCAR. This gives them a chance to come out and just enjoy their time to experience some of what NASCAR is about, hang around me and see my pit crew perform. Learn more about the sport and see how inclusive it is.”

When the gates opened, fans fell-in and suddenly people on the lawn-grounds sported T-shirts with “Bubba’s Block Party” printed  on front that were available. There was much to do. Attendees were able to participate in race and flight simulators. Some were more interested in observing Wallace’s pit crew complete a tire change in less than 10 seconds. The opportunity  to  purchase from Black-owned vendors was a huge deal both customer and vendor.  All this was going on simultaneously.  At some point a DJ hosted a dance competition among some of the children present. It was a celebration of Black Music month whether intentional or not as house, hip-hop and R&B music blasted from the speakers, and it was festive as the folk got their party on. Of course, that was just the foreplay before a live musical performance from Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco.

Driver Kevin Harvick said, “They told us that over 80% of the fans here this weekend will be people who have never watched a NASCAR race. If you’re going to grow the sport, you’re going to have to do stuff like this.”
Bubba chimed in, “A lot of people (have been) saying that they don’t feel welcomed to be a part of our sport. I’ve always enjoyed my time, except when I lose. But from the stories that I’ve heard and people’s comments, we got to be better.”

The block party initiative, which began last year, has been held in Richmond, Va., and Birmingham, Ala. — both cities with majority Black and minority communities. They are intended to be a fun atmosphere where Wallace can connect with fans of all ages.
Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant, said, “NASCAR needs to up their game, and the Chicago Street Race is one example of doing that.”


The grand phenomenon of racing in downtown Chicago was exactly what NASCAR wanted to create when it announced the event a year ago.
Saturday,  July1 NASCAR made good on its promise of  a separate Xfinity Series race and concerts. Sunday Chicago awoke to darkened skies that never cleared until late evening. Attendees stayed amidst the pouring rain because they had come in good faith that the rain would clear. Good thing most came dressed in the summer light plastic raincoats. At approximately 5 pm the streets began to buzz with that racecar hum and  the crowd roared quietly with great joy. The rain stopped. Ready-to-go, the Grant Park 220, delivered a televised Cup Series race featuring a 12-turn, 2.2-mile course, with NASCAR drivers navigating closed-off streets lined with temporary fences, grandstands, and hospitality suites.


NASCAR projected that the Chicago Street Race would draw some 100,000 attendees during July Fourth weekend, which would give Chicago’s economy a much needed boost after the pandemic. Great hope rested on a the highly anticipated potential tourism boon and an opportunity to expand the fan base for NASCAR.  NASCAR seeking a fresh audience, sought out Chicago the city that is known to have the most loyal die heart sports  fans  to help spark its declining ratings and attendance in recent years. Tickets ranged from $269 for two-day general admission to more than $3,000 for the premium Paddock Club.

The totals aren’t in but NASCAR, but six sections of reserved seats were sold out, according to a NASCAR spokesperson on Wednesday. There were 20,000 reserved seats and 30,000 general admission tickets for the two-day event.

There were also  a limited number of single-day tickets available for Chicago residents in partnership with the Chicago Sports Commission.
*Number of tickets or attendees were not disclosed at the time of this printing

The elaborate  hospitality tent,  the Paddock Club featured panoramic views, air conditioning, a pasta station from RPM Italian, an open-air roof deck and perhaps most importantly for a long afternoon in the park, access to premium bathrooms.
The German Custom-built Paddock Club was rented by NASCAR along with all the reserved seating from In Production, which bills itself as the largest temporary event seating company in the U.S. The frames of all but two of the grandstands and suites have been started as of Wednesday, a NASCAR spokesperson said. It really was quite something for a temporary structure.


The challenge was beyond technology, but rather acts of God that played out in full force. But finally, after air quality issues and a record-setting amount of rain for this time of year, and three canceled concerts, a stray unauthorized driver on the track,  the day burdened by hours of uncertainty, Wallace, who became just the second Black driver to win a race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series level in 2021 and in the last four races has finished in the top 5. But this go round, he crashed with just 5 laps to go. His team was so close to taking 2nd place landing  the three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen  in first place won the inaugural 2023 Chicago Street Race. But the real winner is the Chicago fans who withstood the bad air, heavy downpours,  no entertainment   and stayed the course, proving that NASCAR made good on its assessment of Chicago fans.

We’ll see them next year!

Photo Credit:
Photo by Darnell Pulphus - CNW Media

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