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March 24, 2021

‘Everything on the table’ with future schedules as Chicago street course takes to iRacing

The 2022 NASCAR schedule has yet to be released, but the pending appearance of a Chicago street circuit for the iRacing platform — developed in conjunction with NASCAR officials — begs the question whether virtual reality might one day become reality.

After all, this year’s schedule pushed the boundaries of the conventional NASCAR calendar, with a boom in new road courses and the Cup Series’ approaching return to dirt-track racing set for Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Oval tracks remain the meat and potatoes of the schedule, but is racing on temporary street circuits the next part of the meal?

“It’s a great question, and as we look at future schedules, certainly have everything on the table,” says Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president, strategic initiatives. “I think you look at 2021, we’ve talked about it a lot. It’s the most bold and dynamic schedule we’ve seen in over 50 years, and a testament to the industry for being able to pull that off and come together. A lot of exciting things in ’21. I think as we look toward 2022, really our goals and expectations are the same.

“We want to continue to innovate, we want to continue to protect those prestigious events like the Daytona 500 and the Coke 600, but also be able to go to new markets and shake things up. So I think a really unique opportunity to work with iRacing on this, to be able to test something out.”

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iRacing announced Wednesday that the streets of the downtown Chicago Loop will be the setting for one of the computer racing simulation’s newest tracks. The layout is scheduled for release later this spring, and NASCAR officials have set a June 2 date there for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.

NASCAR’s real-world experience with street-course racing is minimal. The Winston West Series (now ARCA Menards Series West) briefly competed on temporary street circuits in Washington from 1986-88, holding two races each in Spokane and Tacoma. In that same time period, competition officials explored developing a smaller, nimbler vehicle called the L-R car — short for “Left-Right” — which would allow stock cars to adapt to the tighter street layouts. A handful of prototypes were built, but never competed in NASCAR. Also, NASCAR’s Canada-based Pinty’s Series has history of competing on street circuits, including the long-running Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières.

NASCAR today is in a further-along stage of vehicle development, with the Next Gen car scheduled for its Cup Series debut in 2022. While ovals remain the schedule’s primary focus, Kennedy says the Next Gen model’s versatility is a plus when exploring potential new venues.

2021march24 Iracing Chicago Main

“I think the Next Gen car gives you the opportunity to not only test out different types of courses, but also to be able to use that same car at those different courses,” Kennedy says. “Instead of having a specific car that’s built for a superspeedway, you might be able to take that car to an intermediate track or maybe even a short track. I think it maybe opens the doors for different types of venues, but also allows teams to be able to use those cars interchangeably, too.”

IndyCar, IMSA and other sport-car tours have raced on street circuits for years. So when IndyCar series owner and NASCAR team owner Roger Penske was asked earlier this week about the possibility of more NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheaders on future schedules, the street-course topic naturally came up.

RELATED: eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series to race on Chicago streets

Five of the 14 tracks on IndyCar’s 2021 schedule are temporary street circuits; downtown Nashville joins that rotation this year with an August debut. In terms of NASCAR’s potential for one of those venues, Penske called it “interesting” and drew parallels to the Australian V8 Supercars series, which competes on permanent and temporary road-course circuits.

“That could certainly be an opportunity and something we should take a look at,” Penske said in a Monday video conference. “I think we need a year or maybe two years to get our hands around these (Next Gen) cars and know how agile they are and what are the costs? Does it need more brakes, etcetera, which you need. If you’re running on a street course, you don’t have the long straightaways to cool the brakes, so there’s a lot of things that become different … but those are things we can adapt to, I think, very quickly as teams.”

Most Cup Series drivers will get their first taste of a temporary street course in a virtual world, with the iRacing Pro Invitational Series’ race date in June at Chicago. As for a real-world street-circuit application, Bubba Wallace says he’s ready for the challenge if and when that arrives.

“Yeah, I think that was talks from last year of them moving forward with that. Obviously didn’t happen this year, but I’m game for whatever,” Wallace said. “Just watch out.”