TicketManager | Inside the Sports Event of the Year: NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race

Inside the Sports Event of the Year: NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race

 

Julie sat down with podcast host Jim Andrews to discuss the many lessons learned from the 2023 Chicago Street Race—the first ever street course for NASCAR—including how to make an event part of the community, handling historic weather issues and developing a sponsorship strategy that makes sense for the property and partners. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim: First of all, thank you for taking the time, because we are just about a month before race weekend, so I know this is a busy time for you! But before we talk about this year’s event, I’d be remiss not to mention the success of Year One, which in the face of a lot of firsts, a lot of unknowns, a lot of skepticism–even some opposition—and some unkind weather, turned out to be a resounding success, so much so that the Chicago Street Race was just named Sports Event of the Year at the SBJ Sports Business Awards. What are your biggest takeaways from everything that happened last year?

Julie: The biggest takeaway from a NASCAR perspective is that we were able to prove that we can run in non-traditional locations. We started that a few years ago with the Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, a very unexpected, non-traditional location.

Being able to do a street race, in downtown Chicago around Grant Park in a very iconic location no less, really reiterated that we can take our sport to new markets and introduce it to new audiences, as well as drive tourism, awareness and a positive narrative for the city.

So that’s a big takeaway, plus you talked about the rain, which definitely made it very memorable. But despite all that, we were able to get the race in. Thank goodness we had the wet-weather package and were able to get the cars started. It made for a really great race. Competition on track is a priority for us. We want it to be competitive. We want our drivers to feel like there are passing zones and everyone has the chance to take the checkered flag and bring home the trophy. The race definitely delivered on that.

Jim: What will you carry over from 2023 and what will be new this time around, whether operationally or from a marketing/sales perspective?

Julie: Because the competition was so great, we did not change the course. We have left it the 2.2-mile, 12-turn course around Grant Park. Some of the things you will see changed this year include a shorter build and load-out schedule. That was something we committed to from day one. We understand we are racing in and around downtown. We have neighbors right next door. We have tourists and residents that use the park on a daily basis. We want to make sure it is accessible for as long as possible and that we return it to the neighbors as quickly as possible following the event.

We were able to take six days off of our build schedule. And we expect we will continue to learn more this year. That is something that we are very committed to: minimizing disruptions and being good neighbors.

Some of the other things you will see based on feedback we received last year include youth pricing—being able to bring the entire family and make it as affordable as possible. On Saturday, kids 12 and under can attend free, or you can bring a child for the entire weekend for $45. We will have some really great programming for the kiddos to keep them busy while they are here.

We also wanted this event to be similar to all the amazing street festivals you see in and around Chicago in the summer. So we are incorporating local vendors, local food providers and Chicago entertainment. In addition to our four music headliners, we have the Chicago House Music showcase in honor of the 40th anniversary of Chicago house music this year.

We have really tried to listen and incorporate the feedback we received to make the event even better.

Jim: I’m thinking about Frankie Knuckles, the creator of house music, and whether he would have ever envisioned being part of a NASCAR race! But the Chicago connection and making this feel like a Chicago event is so important to attracting people to the race. And that leads me to my next question: What has been the ticket sales strategy, given this is a new event in a market that is not in the heart of NASCAR country and has a lot of competition for the sports and entertainment dollar?

Julie: We wanted this to be a racing and entertainment experience. The race is our hallmark and the focus of the event weekend. We have a race on Saturday and a race on Sunday. Ultimately, you are going to a race experience, but given the location we are in and talking about what summer is all about in Chicago with the festival feel, we wanted to lean into that and incorporate some of those components. So you will have a very well-rounded entertainment experience when you are there with concerts as well as a lot of activations and displays. Our drivers will be participating in a number of different Q&As. We will have them on the main stage just prior to The Chainsmokers on Saturday night.

Our strategy is to provide something for everybody from an entertainment perspective and also how they consume the race. So we have a broad mix of product offerings from a general admission ticket allowing you to walk around the footprint and see the race from different vantage points to reserved seating, where you still have the ability to walk around but you have a dedicated seat you can watch the race from.

There is also a demand for hospitality and the all-inclusive experiences. We have a few different hospitality experiences with reserved seats and a club right behind. We also have our ultra-premium Skyline Club, which features suites as well as single-admission Founders Club hospitality where we will have our restaurant partners from RPM Italian and all of the Lettuce Entertain You venues serving food.

For us, again, it’s about making sure we have something for everybody, knowing we are in a unique market. NASCAR will be new to a lot of our attendees. Last year, 85 percent of our attendees were at their first NASCAR race.

Jim: I assume that the Chicago race’s location in the heart of a major city has been attractive to businesses for the opportunity to use the event for customer and client hospitality. Would that be correct? Does corporate entertainment play a key role for the race?

Julie: Absolutely. Client entertainment and corporate hospitality is definitely a primary focus for this event specifically. Chicago is a great place to bring clients. NASCAR is such a sponsor-driven sport. We have so many businesses that are involved, whether from a league, race team or individual driver perspective, in addition to the race itself.

Chicago is a great destination for those sponsors to bring clients and entertain them. Not only showing them what a NASCAR race is like, but also being able to take advantage of all of the amazing amenities of a big city because you are right downtown. You are staying at a hotel that is probably within walking distance to the course. There are all these amazing restaurants, cultural institutions and other attractions that allow corporate partners to round out that overall experience and show clients and prospects a very unique weekend different from our other races at fixed locations where you are driving to the track.

Jim: The event has some great sponsors in McDonald’s, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Xfinity, etc. I’m wondering whether finding an entitlement sponsor is a priority, because on the one hand, from a branding standpoint, referring to the event as the Chicago Street Race and the Grant Park 165 clearly communicates the most important elements of the race, while on the other, a title sponsorship would bring in revenue. Where is the focus when it comes to partnership sales?

Julie: This race for us is all about thinking differently and trying new things, and that holds true for the sponsorship model for the race. We were very deliberate in how we set up the sponsorship opportunities. As you mentioned, we are leading with Chicago and the Grant Park brand and the Loop brand for the Saturday race. That was intentional and something we wanted to put front and center because the place is so important to the race.

The league as well has shifted from a single sponsorship of a series to premier partners, so this was an opportunity for us to look at the race weekend with a very similar lens. Could we create these roles where essentially our founding partners Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, McDonald’s and Xfinity have rights to the entire weekend while we keep the race name authentic to the location?

We are not looking at event entitlement because of those founding partnerships. Those are the umbrella partnerships and the races are a part of the entire weekend. With some of NASCAR’s other events, the race each day has its own personality with different entitlements and brands that are part of it, but we wanted this to be a fully encompassing weekend experience with both races, the music and all of the different Chicago elements throughout.

Jim: The idea of temporary venues, while not something new for motorsports, is gaining a lot of traction across sports for reasons of sustainability, feasibility, etc. You came from running a permanent facility, the Phoenix Raceway, and obviously there are many differences in operations and marketing between the two, but was there anything in particular that was unexpected as you moved from running a permanent to a temporary facility?

Julie: It’s more so the location that we are racing in here being a city park. We can’t just go put a tent up or build something to see if it works, like we can at a private, permanent facility we own. With a pop up, everything you do is in partnership with the location.

You have to work through that process, what it will look like, and how you can complement all of the other programs and not disrupt and be a detriment. We have been very focused on being a complement. So when it comes to something like the build schedule, would our operations team love a lot more time to get everything built and loaded out? Absolutely. But we are going to continue to push and figure out how to do it in the absolute shortest window possible.

That’s the biggest difference: How those timelines work for a public area versus a private fixed course like I had at Phoenix Raceway.