75th Anniversary Feature: NASCAR’s Past And Present Intersect On Chicago’s Lakefront

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

Long before the street course event in Chicago became a reality on the Cup Series schedule, NASCAR raced at a venue south of the 12-turn layout developed for Sunday’s Grant Park 220 (5:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).  

And, no, we’re not talking about the 1.5-mile track about an hour’s drive to the southwest—Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.

As NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary, the idea is not to ignore the contributions that Chicagoland gave to the sport. 

After all, Kevin Harvick, who is retiring from NASCAR Cup Series competition at the end of the season, was the winner of the inaugural race in Joliet in 2001, and he backed that up with another win in 2002. 

The last time the Cup Series raced at Chicagoland, in 2019, Alex Bowman was the winner in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, breaking a string of four straight Toyota victories. 

Long before Chicagoland existed, however, and long before the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series ran two races at Chicago Motor Speedway in Cicero in 2000 and 2001, NASCAR raced at a venue much closer to the current street course—just a few blocks to the south, in fact.

Fifteen years before the NFL Chicago Bears made Soldier Field their permanent home, the NASCAR Cup Series raced for the only time on a half-mile paved oval inside the stadium, which legendary promoter Andy Granatelli had transformed into a mecca for motorsports.

Driving a Ford for owner Pete DePaolo, NASCAR Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts won the 1956 event, beating Jim Paschal to the checkered flag. Ralph Moody ran third in another DePaolo car, with the three Dodges of owner Carl Kiekhaefer—driven by Speedy Thompson, Frank Mundy and Buck Baker—finishing fourth through sixth, respectively.

Though that race was the Cup Series’ only foray into Soldier Field, the historic stadium did host three races in the NASCAR Convertible Series. In 1956, Chicago native Tom Pistone won the first of those three events by three car lengths over Curtis Turner. 

Driving for DePaolo later that year, Turner won a battle of NASCAR Hall of Famers when he outran Joe Weatherly on the half-mile oval. In 1957, another Hall of Famer, Glen Wood, collected $600 when he claimed the third of his five Convertible Series victories, beating Possum Jones to the finish line.

The move to the street course near the banks of Lake Michigan represents an intersection between past and present. As drivers speed down South Lakeshore Drive and turn onto East Roosevelt Road though Turn 4, they might catch a glimpse of Soldier Field before heading north onto South Columbus Ave., past the finish line for the Chicago Marathon.

The Grant Park 220 will be NASCAR’s first-ever race on a street course, and reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano welcomes NASCAR’s embrace of a new vision for the sport. 

“It’s not been 15 years of the same tracks over and over,” Logano said. “It’s something fresh. Whether it’s the car or schedule changing, a lot of the stuff has changed. It’s always important for us to keep in mind what got us here or what’s the roots.  

“I think we’ve done a good job, but (we’re) also evolving with the times. Our sport has always evolved and changed. We need to continue, and I think we’ve seen a lot of success for our sport—going to venues that we’ve never been to before.” 

And who knows? With stadium racing proved out by the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, perhaps NASCAR will complete the circle with a return to the historic Soldier Field venue at some point in the future.

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