Chicago Street Race Q&A: Track head Julie Giese on the event’s ups and downs

Late last week, after NASCAR finished tearing down the last remnants of its Chicago Street Race, track president Julie Giese walked the course one more time.

“There’s nothing left,” she said. “It’s back to Grant Park and getting ready for Lollapalooza.”

But even though all the traces of NASCAR’s grandstands, barriers and fencing have been removed, the sanctioning body still has a presence in Chicago. Giese lives there year-round and NASCAR has offices downtown — which is where Giese spoke to The Athletic via Zoom this week to share her reflections on everything that went down with the street race.

From dealing with the weather to her optimism for a return in 2024, here are Giese’s thoughts on it all. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Now that it’s over, how are you feeling about how everything went and how it all unfolded?

When I look back on it, it was — despite the weather — an incredibly spectacular event. Not only for our industry, but for the city of Chicago. I since have had the chance to watch the broadcast and see a lot of the coverage and catch up on social media and all the things post-event, and it truly was a remarkable weekend despite everything. You think about record rainfalls in the city of Chicago and being able to still get the race in on Sunday night. And to see all the fans returning and just the energy in the place. Those last 10 laps were so fun, and you could truly see that on the broadcast. You could feel that coming through as you’re watching it. So it’s fun to see looking back at it what it felt like in the moment; you felt that watching the broadcast. So I thought NBC did a tremendous job covering it.

From your perspective, how did you ride the emotions of the weekend? It started off really well, and just out of nowhere it seemingly took a sudden detour with the weather. By the next morning, it looked like it might be a weather disaster, but then somehow the race got in and it was a big success. So how did you manage your way through that whole thing?

We can’t control the weather; what we can control is how we manage it and how prepared we are and how we work forward from it. So for me, there’s nothing I could do about the weather, and I’ve been in this business a long enough time to know that. So it was just making sure we were doing the best we can to get through the events, whether it’s letting fans know what’s going on or just checking in with the team and the staff and being as connected as possible with the city of Chicago and their team.

It was the first time we were doing this, but a lot of those things are things we all have learned how to work through and make the best of (from past events). It’s very rewarding at the end of it to see what the TV ratings were (NBC got its largest audience for a NASCAR race since 2017) and what the sentiment was around the race.

I went home to Wisconsin this past weekend for just a long two days to see family, and I had people who had never watched a race before but it watched it and were just like, “This was amazing. It was spectacular. The city was beautiful. I can’t believe you were racing there.” We still are hearing that here in the city of Chicago. I had lunch yesterday at a place and the waitress was talking about it. She was like, “I am so mad I didn’t go. I can’t wait (for next year). I missed out and I’m going.” So you just work through it and you take it one step at a time.

What happened on that Saturday afternoon and evening (when the Xfinity race was suddenly postponed and the park was evacuated)? We heard so many different things like it was the city that did this and people were confused they had to leave and couldn’t get back in. Can you share what actually happened with all of that?

On that one, it was us working in conjunction with the city of Chicago. Obviously, the safety of our fans and everyone in attendance was the priority. And you know, we are racing in a city park, and that’s very different from the permanent facilities we have. That (weather) process is a little different. So it was just working in conjunction with them on what that process is. At the end of the day, it was making sure everyone who was there was safe. That was what really drove the decisions.

Was there something with the communication that was being presented to fans and the industry that was lost in translation? Why did there seem to be confusion from your perspective on what was happening?

Again, it goes back to knowing this is a very different event than anything we have put on and the fact we’re not doing it on a permanent facility. Looking back to my time at Phoenix Raceway, where it’s our venue … we are in downtown Chicago, in a place that hosts festivals and large-scale events and has a process knowing that when there is a need to seek shelter, there are parking garages and things like that. There’s not grandstands and concourses and cars nearby that guests have the ability to seek shelter in. So it really just goes back to knowing this was a new event for us and a new event for everyone. And it’s probably why it felt a little different.

Again, we learned a lot throughout the entire weekend. And at the end of the day, it was just making sure everyone’s safety was that top priority.

So with the concert aspect of it, you had some fans who were saying they were coming for the concert and then the concerts didn’t happen (three of the four acts were canceled). How have you handled that feedback or outreach from fans?

We’ve had a lot of really good conversations, and I’d say most of our fans have understood. Who would have thought there would be record rainfall and getting nine inches in the city on Sunday? Those are just things you can’t control.

A lot of our fans have been super understanding and they know this was a potential. Not that we ever hoped that it would happen, but it happens with any outdoor event where (there’s a chance) you’re not able to do all of it. For us, it’s just continuing to learn from it and where we can improve on next year. It’s still going to be an outdoor event, and it’s just working through those different things with the fans, but everyone I’ve had the chance to talk with has been very understanding. It’s an outdoor facility and we got record rainfall.

Of the four concerts planned for the weekend, weather cancelled all but The Black Crowes’ show. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

On Sunday morning, it wasn’t looking very good for awhile. There was tons of water on the track and pit road. But once it stopped, everything drained like it was supposed to. What were the conversations like for you that morning about whether the race could get in?

When you look at the weather leading into that morning, it looked like it should move out and give way to be able to finish the Xfinity race and then be dry and clear for the Cup race. Again, we can’t control how that storm moves, and so when it just continued to rain, it was just trying to be as responsive as possible.

The city of Chicago and their water department, they’re used to doing these types of things like clearing the track. They do that with the streets, right? So having them and being in just constant communication, working collaboratively with them and being able to use their knowledge and experience to be able to clear and get water off the track was incredibly helpful. They were tremendous partners.

And they were tremendous partners throughout the entire weekend and leading up to it, but just as we all worked together to get the track ready to go and be able to race, it was good to see all those things come together.

The mayor did end up coming to the race and was part of your events and spoke at the drivers’ meeting and things like that. Are you feeling optimistic the feedback you got is pointing toward a return for next year? (NASCAR has a contract, but the city can terminate it.)

I’ve said from Day 1 this is a three-year agreement with the city. It was really great to have the mayor at the event with us and working very closely with his administration leading into the weekend on the different community events.

Here’s a bad pun for you: We’re not going to take our foot off the gas on the neighborhood outreach and the community outreach. That’s why I’m here in Chicago. That’s why we’ve got a team here in Chicago. And that’s something we’ve not only heard from the mayor’s office, but the Sports Commission and Choose Chicago (tourism bureau) and everyone we’ve talked to, is how important that is to be a good partner. That’s one of the things NASCAR does best, so I’m feeling good about what’s ahead.

The racing exceeded expectations, but you never got the opportunity this year to really show what the music festival part of the weekend was going to be all about. If you have a clean weekend weather-wise next year, how much bigger do you think you can make this?

The biggest takeaway for me was the excitement and the energy from the fans and from our industry on Sunday, like when those cars started up and we were going racing and then the fans who were filing back in. And those last 10 laps, I watched them from victory lane and you were in this great stadium environment where you had the Paddock Club and all these fans behind you on pit road and then you had like all the suites and the grandstands on the other side. Every time the cars went by, they all had their hands in the air and they were cheering. You saw it on the broadcast throughout the entire course and the general admission areas.

So that enthusiasm, being able to continue and capture that across the entire weekend, that was our vision going into this weekend. It was a music and racing festival; we got one of the concerts in (the Black Crowes) and there’s a tremendous amount of potential we learned in Year 1 on what Year 2 will be. I talked about the server I spoke with yesterday; she can’t wait, and I’m hearing that from so many people.

Is there anything else you think is important for readers to know or understand?

Just the vibe in the city the entire week. You knew NASCAR was in town, people were excited that NASCAR was in town. This is a big market and it was really fun because it felt like no matter where I was in the city, people were talking about it and there was this really positive energy and vibe, and that’s continued. There’s still a buzz as I go places. People tuned in and they watched. Look at the Chicago viewership numbers of our race weekend (it drew a 9.3 rating in the city); just absolutely tremendous. So to me, that was not only just this positive experience in and around Grant Park, but it truly was across the entire city.

(Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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