Originally created 07/12/01

NASCAR makes debut in city of sports loyalists



JOLIET, Ill. - It's not Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Dick Butkus and the Bears or Slamin' Sammy Sosa and the Cubs.

But a town that embraces its sports teams and turns mortal accomplishments into myths is about to get a dose of something as shocking as grits, country ham and crowder peas on Michigan Avenue.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series is bringing its slow drawls and fast cars to Chicago for the first time this weekend. Da-Fords, Da-Pontiacs, Da-Chevys and Da-Dodges.

Can the city with big shoulders carry yet another main event?

"It think this market will embrace it," said Joie Chitwood III, general manager of the new Chicagoland Speedway.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series will make its debut in the Chicago area Sunday with the Tropicana 400. Although NASCAR conducted a Grand National event at Solider Field in 1956, it has taken nearly 50 years for the sport to step out of its own back yard with a long-term commitment. And what it has found is a nation ready to embrace it.

"In some ways, this kind of completes the circle as far as markets are concerned for NASCAR Winston Cup racing," said driver Kyle Petty, who has seen the sport expand across the country since he joined the series as a full-time driver in 1981.

"We're close to New York City with Pocono (Pa.) and Watkins Glen; we're right there in Los Angeles with California; and now we're adding Chicago. That's a big, big market. That's a lot of people we haven't touched in any way except through television races, and now they have a chance to see it in person and without driving 300 miles or more to see it."

Kansas City will climb on board in September.

Chicago seems like a can't-miss proposition. There are 75,000 seats, and most were sold out months ago. In fact, about 80 percent of the grandstands will be filled with fans who bought into the Track Pack - a ticket to this weekend's Winston Cup and Busch Series races, as well as main events by the Indy Racing League and the ARCA Series in September. By purchasing the Track Pack, fans were guaranteed a seat for the race that mattered to most, the Tropicana 400.

Drivers are excited about the 1 1/2 -mile, D-shaped oval; sponsors are giddy about spending money in a new, untapped market; and the sport is certain to continue its record-setting trend in attendance and television ratings.

"The adrenaline is flying," driver Ricky Rudd said. "It's a new race track and a strange environment. You know, a lot of these race tracks I could drive blind-folded in my sleep because I've been around them so many times."

Unlike most raceways already on the circuit, Chicagoland seems to have stepped away, although slightly, from the standard D-shaped layout that now consumes the schedule. While the track is a tri-oval that resembles such speedways as those at Daytona Beach, Fla., and Talladega, Ala., Chicagoland offers a twist. The backstretch is arched, making the entire trip a left-handed turn that never ends.

"The front straightaway is round like Las Vegas," said driver Matt Kenseth. "But the back straightaway is hard to explain. It's kind of weird-looking, but you get used to it after a few laps."

The drivers who have tested at Chicagoland like it.

"I love the place," driver Jeremy Mayfield said. "It's one of my favorite places to race. It's fast, smooth and has a ton of grip."

Chicagoland is one of two new race tracks in the area. Car owner Chip Ganassi is a partner at the Chicago Motor Speedway at Cicero. That facility will hold a CART and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race next month, but it's clear neither is the plum that the Winston Cup Series represents.

Bill France Jr., who owns and operates both NASCAR and the International Speedway Corp., joined with Tony George of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the $130 million it took to build the Chicagoland Speedway. No tax dollars were used in the project, so it wasn't a surprise when France gave himself the only Winston Cup Series date.

"It's a phenomenon unlike this country has seen since the Frisbee," Ganassi said.

A handful of drivers have tested at Chicago, but for most, today's practice laps will be the first time they've seen the place. It's such a change from the routine of the other 35 weeks on the circuit, NASCAR added a full day of practice before sending the cars out for qualifying Friday.

"I can't find anything I don't like about it," said Jeff Gordon, one of the drivers who has run several hot laps at Chicagoland.

Television ratings prove NASCAR is wildly popular with race fans all over the country. The first 17 races of the season have been greeted with record ratings compared to broadcasts of the past. In fact, Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway drew a 5.8 national share, making it the most-watched race during prime time in television history.

Petty said he likes to see the way his sport is spreading its wealth.

"Once you figure Kansas City coming into the mix in September, and then look a what tracks have been added in the past, just about every market in the country has something," he said. "New Hampshire is in New England, Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit is coverage by Michigan (International Speedway), Indianapolis covers a lot of the Midwest. All that's left is the Northwest and maybe Denver.

"I've said it before: You're either moving ahead, or you're falling behind. You can't sit still. You have to keep building on what you have, and NASCAR has done that with these new speedways. We need these new markets. Bring the races in, and the interest really grows. This is another opportunity for more fans to discover our sport."

The series knows Chicago could be the toughest sell on the schedule. Fans there are ardent about their teams and their heroes. Can Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. take their place with Ernie Banks, Mike Ditka and Michael Jordan?

"It seems like people in this market like to take things and call them their own," Chitwood said. "That's what makes this area great."

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.