Entering the inaugural race on the Chicago street course, NASCAR’s hope was that, if all went well, it would serve as a proof that it could successfully stage a race on a temporary circuit laid out inside a metropolitan downtown.
Some were skeptical whether NASCAR could actually pull this off, considering bulky stock cars racing on a tight course isn’t a surefire combination to create a memorable event. Many anticipated the race would devolve into a chaotic mess filled with multiple cautions and little actual racing, thereby casting NASCAR in a negative light before a national television audience.
But with the exception of Mother Nature rudely interjecting herself with heavy rain and nearly postponing the race to Monday, once the green flag waved on Sunday, things went off rather smoothly. The race was both compelling and competitive, offering plenty of entertainment to hardcore fans and anyone who only watched on a casual basis.
“Obviously, we’re going to have a very deep dive postmortem after this event,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and racing strategy. “… Of course, there were a lot of things that went according to plan; there were some things that didn’t go according to plan, obviously, with the weather. We’re going to have a lot of takeaways from this weekend, which I think will be really good, but what I’ve seen so far, certainly from the fans and from a lot of folks in the industry, has been positive.”
As NASCAR intended, Chicago delivered. The good vibes following Sunday’s race were reinforced when the television ratings came out Monday showing Chicago was the second-most watched race of the season, behind only the Daytona 500, and the most watched on NBC since 2017.
It’s no wonder then that, in the days since, a popular question has been asked across the industry: What city could NASCAR next expand into over the next decade? Especially now that it’s shown it can construct a high-quality temporary circuit in a major city and navigate the political hurdles that come with it.
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There are plenty of untapped markets within the United States that present intriguing possibilities. NASCAR has made no secret of its desire to have a race somewhere in New York City, the Pacific Northwest — preferably Seattle — and Denver. None of these markets have hosted a Cup race in the modern era (1972-present), and each of them checks many of the same boxes that Chicago did last summer, when city leaders signed a three-year contract with NASCAR that runs through 2025.
Expansion into any one of New York City, Seattle and Denver also would follow NASCAR’s blueprint of targeting popular tourist destinations to stage races. Since 2021, Nashville, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; and St. Louis have joined Chicago with new races added.
But while NASCAR continues to seek avenues to expand domestically, it is widely expected that NASCAR’s next big move will be international. The most often mentioned locales are in Brazil, Canada, Europe, Mexico and the Middle East.
In part due to a schedule that offers greater variety, a competitive on-track product — especially compared to the more globally popular Formula One — and a Next Gen car considered more identifiable to other forms of motorsports, NASCAR’s international profile has risen considerably in recent years. Since the beginning of the 2022 Cup season, foreign-born drivers Shane van Gisbergen and Daniel Suárez have won Cup races, while last month the Next Gen competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans to much fanfare as part of NASCAR’s Garage 56 program.
No wonder then NASCAR is seriously evaluating its options to hold a race outside the U.S., be it a points race or an exhibition event like the Clash held at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“What’s great about this is NASCAR has huge interest globally, right now,” NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell said. “We saw it in Garage 56. (Kennedy) and I had a number of meetings with a number of different countries and a number of different continents wanting races. Good problem to have for us, but we want to do what’s right for our fans, take the product to where we think it’s going to resonate.”
Whereas adding a race in Brazil, Europe, Mexico or the Middle East is not considered feasible until 2025 at the earliest, a race in Canada could happen as soon as next year, according to people familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly.
The site targeted is the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the famed Montreal street circuit that hosted the second-tier Xfinity Series from 2007 through 2012 and site of F1’s annual Canadian Grand Prix.
While talks between NASCAR and track organizers are ongoing, there is no certainty it will conclude with the Cup Series returning to Canada for its first points race beyond the U.S. border since 1958. Still, there’s optimism that a deal could be reached — be it for 2024 or sometime in the foreseeable future.
“(Montreal) was a great race, great crowd, awesome town — everything about that race was a lot of fun,” said driver Michael McDowell, who raced there four times. “I don’t know if you call it a street race, but it’s kind of on its island there in a park, but it’s a proper racetrack with a decent amount of run-off and some tricky areas. I always enjoyed it. And I think our Next Gen cars would put on a great race there, especially with the long straightaways and really aggressive brake zones. It would be a lot of fun.
“As far as whether or not that’s happening, I haven’t been in any of those conversations. I hear the same rumors that you all hear. But I hope so. It would be a cool event, for sure.”
If it’s not Montreal that’s the catalyst for NASCAR’s international expansion, then it will almost assuredly be someplace else. The demand is evident, the timing makes sense.
The logistics of scheduling a race outside North America are fraught with challenges, but it’s not a deal-breaker. It may take some shifting on the calendar, but the upside is too great to not push forward with the idea.
“I think we’re all confident at NASCAR that we could take the Cup Series anywhere we want,” O’Donnell said. “And I know the race we put on (in Chicago) would sell and would be embraced globally for sure.”
(Photo of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve during this year’s Formula One race: Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images)