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NASCAR's new frontiers never end

This week, Chicago becomes the latest big market to experience NASCAR firsthand for the first time.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 14, 2001


Look out, Chicago: NASCAR, the erstwhile regional pastime of the South, is set to conquer the Windy City.

photo
[AP photo]
Cars prepare to go through inspection at Chicagoland Speedway, the fifth track in five years to host its first Winston Cup race.
NASCAR's manifest destiny across America takes another bold step this weekend at state-of-the-art Chicagoland Speedway. The Busch Grand National series debuts today at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, while the Winston Cup circuit competes Sunday in the inaugural Tropicana 400.

NASCAR's latest expansion locale (it is Winston Cup's fifth new track in the past five years) might be the most exciting of the new crop for two reasons, both of which are culled from the core of NASCAR's success: speed and sponsors.

Chicagoland could be the fastest track on the circuit.

"We were running 197 miles per hour," said Winston Cup driver Stacy Compton, who tested at the track in early June. "It's going to be really fast."

Chicago, America's third-largest city with a population of nearly 3-million and a metropolitan area of almost 9-million, is an unexplored financial wellspring that has NASCAR bigwigs drooling.

"The biggest thing is the market area. It's a new opportunity to play out the sport in front of a major sports market," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "There is exposure for the car sponsors and to different sponsors. Chicago is a very key market area to be able to activate their involvement in the sport."

Joe Nemecheck is a driver who could benefit from Chicago exposure. His No. 33 car is looking for a sponsor for next year.

"Whether they are at the track or not, I'd say virtually all of the upper management of (Chicago-based) companies -- unless they are in Europe on vacation or something -- are going to be very aware of this race," car owner Andy Petree said. "Besides the fact that it hits a ton of people in a major area, a lot of the stuff from Chicago goes national as well. That makes it important."

Chicagoland Speedway, in suburban Joliet, Ill., is the latest entry in the new era of NASCAR tracks, joining California, Texas, Las Vegas and Homestead. (Kansas Speedway debuts Sept. 30.) All of the new tracks are 1.5 miles except California, which is 2 miles. Chicagoland has drawn comparisons to Texas and Las Vegas.

"It drives a lot like Vegas," Compton said, "but about 30 mph faster."

Mark Martin tested at Chicagoland for two days in June.

"It is going to be a very fast race," Martin said. "The track is so fast with the hard tire compound and the new asphalt.

"It is different from any track on the schedule, but if I had to compare I'd say it is more similar to Texas."

Today's race is wedged between races at two of the most controversial tracks on the Winston Cup circuit, Daytona International Speedway (site of Saturday's Pepsi 400) and New Hampshire International Speedway.

In February, Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500. Last year, drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty died at New Hampshire.

NASCAR's safety standards have been under siege since those tragedies, and safety is at the forefront this weekend. Some new tracks have had problems, foremost among them Texas. Craftsman Trucks driver Tony Roper died after an October crash there, and the track, which NASCAR drivers have said is too slick, is being resurfaced this summer.

Chicagoland has 18-degree banking in the turns, 11 in the tri-oval and 5 in the backstretch. Perhaps its most unique feature is the backstretch, which has a slight bow in it; there is no straight portion on the entire track.

"It's got a little bend in every straightaway, and it's narrow. I was surprised how narrow it was when we first went up there," Compton said. "The track is probably so smooth and so nice, you can get in trouble pretty easy.

"I think you're going to probably see some stuff get torn up the first couple races until everybody gets used to it. But it ought to make for some good racing."

Bobby Labonte anticipates things getting hairy heading into the corners.

"The roads getting out of there are going to be kind of tight," Labonte said. "It's just different getting into Turn 1 because it's not like Las Vegas and it's not like Kentucky (Speedway, a BGN track) and it's not like Charlotte or anything else.

"As fast as it's going to be, it will probably lend toward more single-file racing."

Atlanta Motor Speedway is generally regarded as the fastest NASCAR track, with Geoff Bodine's record qualifying time of 197.478 in 1997 being the best at a non-restrictor plate venue. Texas, where Terry Labonte holds the top qualifying time of 192.137 (2000), has been the fastest of the new tracks.

"It ought to be a good race. It's a nice track and the facilities are really nice," Compton said. "But it's going to be pretty fast.

"It's going to be very fast."

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