New Zealand's Shane van Gisbergen won the NASCAR Cup Series Chicago Street Race Sunday afternoon, winning in his first start in the series. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

Chicago Notes: Weather, Winners & A Unique Atmosphere

CHICAGO — NASCAR came to Chicago this past weekend.  

Chicago weather, at times described as “If you don’t like the weather, stick around a bit and it will change,” was front and center on Sunday as torrential rain pounded the Chicagoland area, temporally closing streets and highways, including watering down the 12-turn, 2.2-mile Chicago street course.  

An hour or so before the revised 4:04 p.m. CT start of the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220, it didn’t look favorable that the race would take place.

Earlier Sunday, the NASCAR Xfinity Series race The Loop 121 was scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. after it was stopped on Saturday after 25 laps because of lightning in the area.  

The starting time was revised again Sunday with NASCAR finally “pulling the plug” on the race and declaring race leader Cole Custer the winner. The fastest qualifier earlier in the day, Custer, the 25-year-old California racer driving his Stewart-Haas Racing HAAS Automation Ford, had led all 25 circuits Saturday before Mother Nature interfered.  

With an array of truck-drying and sweepers working diligently, drivers were finally called to their cars for the Cup Series race. Fast timer on Saturday, Denny Hamlin brought the field around in single file and the green flag waved just after 6 p.m. with cars on Goodyear rain tires.  

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Headed towards his car minutes before the race, Bubba Wallace signs an autograph for a fan. (Stan Kalwasinski photo)

Teams would transition to racing slicks on lap 25 as the dreary cloud cover slowly lifted a bit. Most of the day, the Chicago skyline was draped in rain, clouds and fog. 

NASCAR officials announced on lap 46, that the race would be shortened from 100 laps to 75, based on the amount of daylight remaining. Despite the crazy weather conditions, the crowds both days seemed to be enjoying themselves with officials noting that some 70 percent of ticket-buyers were first-time NASCAR race attendees.   

Running a strong race all day in wet and dry conditions, New Zealand driver Shane van Gisbergen claimed victory, scoring his first career NASCAR Cup Series win in only his first start.  

Historians scrambled to check the last time this fete was done, verifying that Johnny Rutherford won a qualifying race at Daytona in his first start in 1963. 

The 34-year-old van Gisbergen, a three-time Supercars champion, wheeled the Trackhouse Racing, Project 91, Enhance Health Chevrolet to the win.  

The winner seemingly became a fan favorite before the race, signing autographs and posing for a quick photo or two before finally getting behind the wheel. Many other drivers mingled with fans during the long wait Sunday.  

“Anything is possible,” van Gisbergen said after his victory.  “But the fans in Australia and New Zealand, the response this week and the coverage has been — I can’t explain it.  Like the response and even over here how welcoming everyone is, I can’t believe it.  Dream come true.”  

Around The Paddock

In July of last year, then-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, NASCAR officials, Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace and other dignitaries announced plans for the Chicago NASCAR Street Race.  

A three-year contract was signed. It would be the first street race in Cup Series history. Some locals cheered the idea, while others moaned about it.

Too many street closures, inconveniences for local residents and the city of Chicago not getting “its fair share” were among the negatives. Some aldermen howled a bit — but that’s Chicago politics anyways. The final product was an amazing effort by NASCAR, Chicago officials and various contractors and workers.  

• Newly-elected Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson addressed the drivers Sunday in the traditional pre-race meeting, while Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields served as grand marshal.

• NASCAR was serious about the noise as all cars were equipped with mufflers. Personnel from NASCAR’s Research and Development Department were on hand over the weekend monitoring decibel readings as the cars roared around the temporary circuit.

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The Chicago White Sox-sponsored No. 77 of Ty Dillon. (Stan Kalwasinski photo)

• Various local business and sports interests graced the quarter panels of many of the cars in competition over the weekend. McDonald’s was of course on the No. 23 car driven by Bubba Wallace with McDonald’s signage predominately displayed at various points of the track.  

The Chicago White Sox baseball team and Beggars Pizza sponsored the No. 77 of Ty Dillon. The Jewel food store logo was seen on a car or two. 

Volkswagen of Oak Lawn was on the rear fenders of the Spencer Pumpelly-driven, Bobby Dotter-owned SS GreenLight Racing Chevy No. 07 in the Xfinity Series.

Dotter, who grew up in racing watching his dad, Bob, race stock cars in the Chicago area for many years, owns a two-car team.  

Bobby Dotter eventually became a driver himself as a youngster, going on to success in local, ASA, NASCAR and other stock car racing. Dotter was a 17-year-old sensation at Blue Island’s Raceway Park in 1977, won the late model championship at Indiana’s Illiana Motor Speedway in 1981 and even captured a late model crown at the old Henry’s Speedway near Boswell, Ind. 

• Jim Pohlman Jr. and Jordan Caskey are others with local area backgrounds that are involved in NASCAR racing today.  

Pohlman, a member of the Oak Lawn-based Pohlman racing family, is the crew chief of the JR Motorsports BRANDT Chevrolet No. 7 driven by Illinois native Justin Allgaier.  

Allgaier was the first car on the Chicago course Saturday for the opening of practice.  

A native of West Chicago, Caskey is a mechanic on the Hendrick Motorsports Cup Series No. 5 entry driven by Kyle Larson. In past years, Caskey has been a feature winner in open-wheel midget racing action of the Illini Racing Series.     

• It was interesting to see famous street names in downtown Chicago taken over the by the event.  

Michigan Ave., Lake Shore Drive, Columbus Drive, Roosevelt Road, along with Jackson, Monroe and others, became part of the race course and fan-experience area.  

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The incredible transformation began in early June and is scheduled to be undone by mid-July. Temporary “No Parking Tow Zone” signs seemed to be posted everywhere.  

• Some concerns heard before the weekend included 100-year-old or so window panes would fall out of buildings once the engine roared, priceless paintings would fall off the walls of the Art Institute, car alarms would go off in various parking garages and the otters at the Shedd Aquarium would have panic attacks from the unthinkable noise. Not sure how it all turned out.  

• Like Shane van Gisbergen did Sunday, Fireball Roberts raced on a wet surface the last time NASCAR’s premier division, Grand National as the series was known then, raced in Chicago.  

It was 67 years ago, 1956, and the place was Soldier Field. On Saturday night, July 21, 1956, Roberts drove a factory-backed 1956 Ford to victory in a 100-mile/200-lap NASCAR race at the mammoth stadium on Chicago’s lakefront — a few city blocks southeast of where Sunday’s course reached.  

A story from back in the day stated, “Fireball Roberts dodged water puddles left by intermittent rain to win the 100-mile Grand National event at Soldier Field in Chicago.”