CHICAGO — NASCAR has named a veteran racing executive to oversee its first-ever street race in Chicago as it gears up for a Lollapalooza-like festival at Grant Park for next July Fourth weekend.
Julie Giese, who heads the Phoenix Raceway, will be moving to Chicago and opening a year-round office to create the pop-up Chicago Street Course, which will include a weekend of activities, weeks of on-site preparation and a lot of planning to pull off.
“My role starts immediately,” said Giese, 45. “Now that we’ve got the concept and we’re moving forward, it’s assembling the team, having the conversations with the city of Chicago and really working on our commitment back to the city.”
Job one is setting up a permanent office for NASCAR in Chicago. Giese is scouting space near the park and plans to hire about a dozen full-time employees devoted exclusively to the annual Chicago event, which NASCAR sees as a major opportunity to draw new fans to auto racing.
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The televised Cup Series event, set for July 2, will feature a 12-turn, 2.2-mile course, with top NASCAR drivers weaving in and around Grant Park on closed-off streets lined with temporary fences, grandstands, hospitality suites and what promoters hope will be upward of 100,000 fans during the weekend.
A separate sports car race is scheduled for July 1, and NASCAR plans to host a concert after both races to create a festival experience similar to other events held at Grant Park, such as Lollapalooza. But Giese acknowledges the Chicago Street Race Weekend is unlike anything NASCAR, or the city, has seen.
“This is the first time in NASCAR’s 75 years that we’ve done a street course, so it definitely is different,” she said.
Announced last month, NASCAR struck a three-year deal to transform the Grant Park environs into a racecourse. Under the terms of the agreement, NASCAR will pay the Chicago Park District a permit fee of $500,000 for next year, $550,000 in 2024 and $605,000 in 2025, with an option to renew for two years. In addition, NASCAR will pay the Park District a $2 fee per admission ticket, and an escalating commission starting at 15% for food, beverage and merchandise sold at the event.
The proposed course will start on Columbus Drive in front of Buckingham Fountain, an area that will also serve as the pit road. From there, drivers will go south to Balbo Drive and then jog east toward Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Heading south along the lake, drivers will turn west on Roosevelt Road, working back north on Columbus Drive in a rough figure eight that will take in a piece of South Michigan Avenue before reaching the start/finish line.
NASCAR has full access to the racecourse area for nine days prior to and three days after the event. But the total staging window — the process of building and breaking down the temporary facilities — runs a full month, starting three weeks before the race weekend, according to the agreement.
Rolling street closures will likely begin the week of June 26, Giese said, with the course reopening to traffic “as quickly as possible” following the race.
“The streets themselves really won’t be closed until race week,” she said.
Giese, who grew up on a family dairy farm in central Wisconsin, will be relocating to Chicago later this year from Arizona, where she led the $178 million modernization of Phoenix Raceway. The 21-year NASCAR veteran was previously at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, where she was involved in the $400 million redevelopment of that racetrack.
She declined to disclose the budget for the Chicago event but called it a “significant investment” for Florida-based NASCAR, which became a private company upon completion of its $2 billion merger with International Speedway Corp. in 2019.
“We don’t get into the financials, but it is a tremendous investment for us,” Giese said. “And one that we’re excited about. It’s a huge initiative for NASCAR.”
The event could be a boost for Chicago tourism, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. The city hosted 30.7 million visitors last year, up 86% over 2020 but still far below pre-pandemic years, when the city regularly welcomed more than 50 million visitors annually.
Major events such as the NFL Draft and the Lollapalooza summer music festival, which is held annually in Grant Park, bring not only visitors but potentially millions of dollars in economic impact to the city.
Giese said NASCAR conducted a preliminary financial study that shows the Chicago Street Race Weekend could generate more than $100 million in annual economic impact for the city.
NASCAR is likewise looking to create economic benefit from the event, particularly after the startup costs from the initial build-out are absorbed. Giese said NASCAR is already exploring where to store the yet-to-be-constructed facilities in the Chicago area for reuse in subsequent summers.
But the primary goal of the Chicago street race is to promote NASCAR and broaden its fan base, Giese said. She cited the Busch Light Clash, which moved from Daytona to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February, with 70% of attendees new to the sport.
“This follows on the heels of that and takes it one step further,” Giese said. “We want to continue to take our sport to new markets and introduce it to new fans. This presents a perfect opportunity to do that.”
Giese said NASCAR will look to community engagement to cultivate a new urban following beyond its traditional fan base, with outreach to the Boys & Girls Clubs, Chicago Public Schools and the Park District.
While Giese said the Chicago event is aimed at bringing new fans into the NASCAR fold, it isn’t clear if the street course will be able to accommodate the die-hards in RVs who regularly camp out in infields at the permanent speedways during race weeks.
This is not the first NASCAR race to be held in Chicago, nor the first time the city aspired to turn Lake Shore Drive into a racecourse. Soldier Field hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race in July 1956. A quarter century later, then-Mayor Jane Byrne floated the idea of holding a Formula One race on Lake Shore Drive in the summer of 1981, but it proved to be a nonstarter.
The Chicago area has been home to the NASCAR circuit in recent years, with Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet hosting races beginning in 2001. But the 21-year-old track has been idled since NASCAR’s merger, and Giese said it won’t reopen for racing until after the three- to five-year deal with Chicago runs its course.
“Right now our focus is on making Chicago a success,” Giese said.
Tickets for the Chicago Street Race Weekend are expected to go on sale this fall.
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